The former Talking Heads frontman stages his most elaborate show since Stop Making Sense, but does it live up to the hype? Shaun Ponsonby heads to Manchester to find out.  

When David Byrne announced his American Utopia tour, he claimed it would be his most elaborate stage show since Stop Making Sense.

This was a bold claim. Talking Heads’ concert film is rightfully considered one of the greatest of all time, matching music and theatre in a way that wouldn’t be matched for authenticity until Kate Bush’s Before The Dawn shows at the Hammersmith Apollo.

The defining element of what makes Stop Making Sense work is its apparent simplicity. There’s no reliance on special effects and fancy lighting. It’s all in the performance.

This is the element from Stop Making Sense that seems to be carried over into Byrne’s solo American Utopia tour. Except here he takes the concept one step further.

At the start of the show, the stage is bare. There are no instruments, no amplifiers. The only sign of life is a small table and a chair, where a replica of a human brain rests. As the show begins, Byrne is revealed at the table singing Here from the American Utopia album. He holds the brain aloft, evoking the iconic Hamlet pose.

Like Stop Making Sense, the band slowly make their way on stage. Except each has a hand held instrument. There is no drummer, instead over half a dozen percussionists, intricately recreating (or reworking) the drum beats from the studio recordings. Each band member was also involved in equally intricate choreography on stage.

To prove that the band weren’t playing over backing tracks, Byrne had them build Born Under Punches up from the bottom, introducing each band member as they came in with their part. He was also sure to introduce several Brazilian members of the band, underlining that “we couldn’t do the show without them” – a subtle moment of politics that made his point without beating you over the head with it and derailing the show.

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There has been much written about the tour, and it is easy for something so acclaimed to get swallowed up in the hype, but the truth is the reviews can’t even begin to bring this show to life.

Its simplicity allowed for visually striking moments, whether that was the entire company illuminated by a single light at the front of the stage during Blind, which allowed for a sequence of shadow theatre at the back of the stage, or when they gathered around  torches on an otherwise blacked out stage to harmonise the intro to Road To Nowhere.

Of course, the Talking Heads songs were received deliriously by the crowd, and he was playful with his back catalogue, not just musically and visually, but in how the songs were sequenced.

For example, Everybody’s Coming To My House ended on the line “And I’m never gonna go back home”. This was followed by This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody), which begins with the line “Home, that’s where I want to be”. Immediately after, he launches into Once In a Lifetime, in which Byrne famously shouts “This is not my beautiful house”. Surely this wasn’t a coincidence?

The theme of the show appeared to be one of joy despite the obstacles that are thrown before us. For the most part, he managed to make his points in subtle ways, but there were of course times when he needed to speak up. The most effective of these moments were the show’s final encore.  Each member of the band returned with percussion instruments to perform a song written by the wonderful Janelle Monae. Hell You Talmbout is a tribal piece that lists several African-Americans who have been killed through police brutality and racial violence. The chorus demands you “say his/her name” – the message is clear; they are not statistics, they are human beings. Say their name.  It was a powerful performance of a powerful piece.

Joining the band for this was Benjamin Clementine,  who also opened the show. In a lot of ways he was the perfect opener for David Byrne. He possesses many similar references musically, with African beats, blues, folk and poetry all mixing together gloriously.

That said, Manchester Arena was perhaps a little too big for him, and the full effect of his music didn’t carry in such cavernous surroundings. But we were convinced enough that when he returns to a more suitable venue, we will definitely be there to see him.

Pictures courtesy of Sakura