Thursday, June 07, 2018

These Slippery People Help Us Understand: With Brilliant Stage Fluidity, David Byrne Creates a 'Once in a Lifetime' Concert Experience -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

David Byrne
w/ opening act Benjamin Clementine
June 3, 2018 (also played 6/1 & 2)
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

Think about any rock concert you've ever been to.

Forgetting the music for a moment, what do you see?

Amplifiers and speakers, a drum kit, microphone stands, perhaps some keyboards and/or a piano, a singer at centerstage, guitarist(s) and bassist on either side, maybe a video backdrop, or screens alongside the stage, a clearly apparent lighting rig, possibly some lasers, several roadies, lots of wires.

Onstage in support of his American Utopia album, David Byrne--famously the former lead singer and principal songwriter of Talking Heads--is surrounded by none of these.

That's right, none of these.

His concert Sunday night at the glorious Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, the third in three nights that he played there, happened to be the 750th rock concert I've attended in my life, save perhaps for a few that never made it into my concert database.

And I have never once seen anything quite like it in my lifetime.

I won't quite anoint it the greatest concert I've ever seen, but it was one of those works so brilliantly innovative that you gasp at its genius.

...while singing along to some of the smartest rock songs ever written.

For although Byrne's bare stage production with musicians constantly in motion--some gradually added to the mix, reminiscent of the Talking Heads show captured in Stop Making Sense, director Jonathan Demme's astonishing 1984 concert film--is extraordinarily clever, it could conceivably grow tiresome without the kind of music he continues to make.

This possibility, of high concept failing to engage, was illustrated by the night's opening act, a black British singer named Benjamin Clementine, who was unfamiliar to me.

Opening act Benjamin Clementine
For the first 10 minutes of his set, he methodically circled the darkened stage ringing a bicycle-type bell.

I try to cut any performer considerable slack, especially one hand-picked by David Byrne. But oh my darling did Clementine seem pretentious and boring.

Eventually, he sat at a piano--later accompanied by a guitarist--and while his songs weren't easily accessible, he was clearly a fine singer and talented musician. But between tunes, he returned to bell ringing.

Perhaps I'm to be faulted as a philistine, but what bothered me about Clementine's set wasn't that it was so peculiar--if nothing else, it should prove memorable--but that I sensed that he easily could have been positively sensational had he taken a somewhat more traditional approach.

Admittedly, the avant garde isn't something I easily embrace. On the same Auditorium stage a few months prior, I had trouble appreciating the Joffrey Ballet's modernist and surrealistic Midsummer Night's Dream.  

So it wasn't just the unique approach that made Byrne's concert so spectacular, it's that the ingenuity was in service to songs that fit the concept--and which I largely loved.

Around 8:45pm, without any preceding fanfare, Byrne began his performance sitting barefoot at a card table in the middle of an otherwise barren stage, holding a (presumably fake) brain as he sang American Utopia's final track, "Here."

I won't spell out the exact chronology of the singer being joined onstage by his bandmates, but eventually there were 10 other musicians--including several drummers essentially equaling the power and range of a drum kit--who also proved to be stellar dancers and backing vocalists. (Referencing the incredulity of a friend of his, Byrne assured the crowd that absolutely everything was being played live.)

The band-in-motion conceit--with Byrne eventually finding an electric guitar but never any shoes--proved delectable on 2004's "Lazy" and Talking Heads' "I Zimbra," but really made for a delightful visual pun on the Heads' "Slippery People."

Satisfying Heads-heads with 8 classics--including superb takes on "Once in a Lifetime," "Burning Down the House" and "The Great Curve"--while showing the strength of American Utopia (with 7 songs from it), Byrne also looped in songs from his collaborations with St. Vincent ("I Should Watch TV") and Fatboy Slim ("Toe Jam").

Without it ever being too overt--nothing represented 1989's Rei Momo--several tunes had undercurrents of Byrne's groundbreaking forays into world music.

And while several of the new songs are intentionally upbeat--"Everybody's Coming to My House," "Every Day is a Miracle," "I Dance Like This," "Dancing Together"--the poignant "Bullet" represented the damage one can cause.

Even more gripping was the closing cover of Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout" with Byrne and his bandmates chanting the names of African-Americans controversially killed by the police, and asking the crowd to echo them.

Not only in its groundbreakingly innovative--yet deceptively simple, which is often how genius defines itself--structure, but in the music and messaging, this was a mesmerizing tour de force across 100 blissful minutes.

Though I would still love for him to reunite the Talking Heads--it seems clear he would do justice to the band's proud history--this was the next best thing, and in some regards even better.

Still making sense in ways few others can conceive, David truly Byrned down the house with matchless imagination.

Here's a brief snippet I shot of "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," just to provide a better sense of this unique performance. No infringement intended.

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