Not many performers would begin their show with an ode to the human brain, complete with a plastic model. But then, not many performers are as known for their eccentricity, or their unusual suits, as David Byrne. And so began his show at The Anthem on Saturday evening, with Byrne sitting at a folding table on an otherwise starkly empty stage, holding a plastic brain and looking more than anything like a professor giving a lecture. The song, “Here,” which ends his latest album American Utopia, even starts like one – “Here is a region of abundant details / Here is a region that is seldom used / Here is a region that continues living / Even when the other sections are removed.”
Byrne wasn’t alone on stage for long, though, and the science lecture tone disappeared with the arrival of his band. While Byrne hasn’t been at all reticent about sharing his production notes, making long posts to the internet about his plans for the tour and how it would come together on the stage, witnessing it was something entirely different than reading about it. Rather than the standard rock show format which relegates the performers and their instruments to particular portions of the stage, Byrne has devised a show in which the stage is empty and all of the musicians are mobile, carrying their instruments wherever they go. The result turned Byrne and his eleven-piece band (a guitarist, a bassist, a keyboardist, six drummers, and two backing singers) into a constantly moving spectacle that was part marching band, part dance troupe, and part rock ensemble.
It couldn’t have been easy playing Byrne’s often complicated, polyrhythmic songs while moving about the stage in formation, but the band did it seemingly with ease. While the setlist centered around tracks from American Utopia, Byrne included a number of tracks from many of his previous projects, including “Lazy” from 2004’s Grown Backwards, “Like Humans Do” from 2001’s Look Into the Eyeball, “I Should Watch TV” from his 2012 collaboration with St. Vincent, Love This Giant, and his 2008 collaboration with Fatboy Slim’s Brighton Port Authority project, “Toe Jam.” And then of course there were the Talking Heads songs, which Byrne sprinkled liberally throughout the set. From “I Zimbra” (Fear of Music, 1979), to “Once in a Lifetime,” “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” and “The Great Curve” (Remain in Light, 1980), to “Slippery People,” “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” and “Burning Down the House” (Speaking In Tongues, 1983), to “Blind” (Naked, 1988), he took plenty of opportunity to revisit his past. It may not have been quite the Talking Heads reunion that many fans long for, but it was a very close second.
One of the most powerful moments of the show, though, came in a cover song at the end. Forming a drum line at the front of the stage, the band performed a cover (about which, Byrne noted, “sadly, it’s still relevant today”) of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” her protest song about African-Americans who have been killed by police and by racial violence.
If you missed David Byrne this time, he returns to the area at Merriweather Post Pavilion on July 28th.
Opening the show was English singer Benjamin Clementine, performing a set drawn largely from his latest album, I Tell a Fly, released last year. His performance was excellent, but the Mercury Prize-winning pianist may have been a bit too quiet and a bit too avant-garde for the Saturday night Anthem audience, as he paused partway through the set to complain about members of the crowd talking over him. If nothing else got the audience’s attention, the several minutes that he and his guitarist spent marching through the outer aisles of the seated venue, unamplified and loudly chanting “Porto Bello” repeatedly (drawn out from his song “By the Ports of Europe”) almost certainly got noticed. The overall effect was a bit puzzling, but definitely got the evening off to an interesting start.