Byrne brings theatrical show to Cleveland

“Hamilton” had some competition Tuesday for the best theatrical experience in Cleveland.

David Byrne brought his American Utopia tour to Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica that night, and it was a show that makes me want to talk about it as a theater critic instead of a concertgoer.

If it was on Broadway, Tony nominations for Best Set Design and Best Lighting Design would be no-brainers. There were no ramps, no drum riser — no drum kit for that matter. It was a bare, flat stage with beaded “walls” on three sides, creating a blank canvas where the mood and atmosphere could shift with each song.

At times, the overhead white lights bounced off Byrne’s silver / white hair, giving him an ethereal glow like a benevolent alien in a sci-fi film. At one point during “Once in a Lifetime,” Byrne arched his back and went limp, like the spotlight was from a hovering mothership about to lift him skyward.

That open space also created opportunities for an intricately choreographed production. With the drummers and the keyboard player wearing rigs like a marching band percussion section, none of the 11 suit-clad, barefoot singers and musicians backing Byrne were stationary.

Musicians would appear and disappear through the beaded walls, oftentimes with different percussion pieces to create those rhythms. There was a flow to everything that happened on stage that complemented the music. Everyone on stage had to keep the beat, hit their note and hit their mark, and they did so flawlessly. Byrne made a point of assuring the audience that all of the music they were hearing was coming from those performers on stage.

Of course, the most impressive thing about Tuesday show was the “score.” Byrne has created a setlist that touches on all elements of his career, mixing Talking Heads songs with tracks from his 2018 release “American Utopia” and songs from different facets of his solo career, like “I Should Watch TV” from his collaboration with St. Vincent and “Dancing Together” from “Here Lies Love,” a musical about former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos written with Fatboy Slim.

Talking Heads favorites like “Slippery People,” “This Must Be the Place,” “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House” got the biggest reaction from the near sold-out crowd, but Byrne and crew had no trouble holding the audience’s attention even with the less-familiar work.

Representatives from Head Count were on site registering voters, and Byrne encouraged the younger generation to vote, saying, “If you want to have a future, kids, get to the polls.”

He called it a nonpartisan message, but the show’s finale was more pointed. The band covered Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a rhythmic chant listing African-Americans who have been killed by police or racial violence. Byrne and crew added names not originally included in the song, including 12-year-old Clevelander Tamir Rice.

I was lucky enough to see Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues tour at Millett Hall in 1983 when I was a senior at Miami University in Oxford. It was one of the smaller venues and only colleges on the tour.

There was a rumor that the only reason the show came to Miami is that the son of the band’s manager / agent / label executive was a student there and on the concert board. I don’t know if it’s true, but it seemed more than plausible at the time.

That’s the tour that was filmed by Jonathan Demme for 1984’s “Stop Making Sense,” which is on nearly everyone’s shortlist of the greatest rock concert documentaries ever made.

I remember the Oxford show being an incredible concert, but that memory has been massaged by watching the film and listening to the live album more times than I can count.

I’m not saying Tuesday’s concert was better than those shows 35 years ago. But without question, 43 years after Talking Heads played its first gig in New York, Byrne still has the ability to amaze, defy expectations and reinvent the concert experience.

Andy Gray is the entertainment writer for the Tribune Chronicle. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com

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