Review: David Byrne’s American Utopia

When in New York, see a Broadway show right? That’s what I wanted to do, but I never got the chance to do it the other times I visited New York. There were a bunch of shows I was interested in: Book of Mormon, Mean Girls: The Musical, and Hamilton. My parents decided to treat me and my husband to tickets to a show but all of those were a tad expensive.

I’m a fan of the makeup YouTuber and drag queen, Kimberly Clark (played by Chris Giarmo), who, in a sea of consumerist “buy buy buy” haul videos, started a series called Anti-Haul, aka “What I’m not gonna buy”. What makes the videos special is how they’re socially conscious and he ties in politics and social justice. Why do we wear makeup? What does our excessive consumption do to the planet? What marketing tricks are used? It really makes you think and start hating capitalism a bit more.

I didn’t get into these videos until he went on hiatus. Why did they go on hiatus? Because they were cast to be a backup singer and dancer for David Byrne’s American Utopia. When he returned to YouTube after months of touring, he talked all about his experience with the show, what it was like, and what it was about and I really wished I could go. I googled American Utopia and lo and behold, the show has a limited engagement residency at the Hudson Theatre. Brilliant! This must be the place. So I told my dad “that’s it, that’s the show I want to see”.

I love musicals. I love lots of things, but not as much as I love classic rock. I was born too late to see the Talking Heads, but born right in time for American Utopia. Let’s do it.

What is American Utopia?

So what is American Utopia? It’s not just a concert, it’s an experience with a concept. The setlist is a mix of songs from David Byrne’s album of the same title, some Talking Heads songs, and two covers: “Toe Jam” by Brighton Port Authority and “Hell You Talmbout” by Janelle Monae. In the latter, he tells a story about how he spoke to Janelle Monae about covering this song for the show and he thought it might be awkward singing a song about police brutality as a white man, but Janelle Monae told him that the song is for everyone.

Walking into the theatre, you have an idea of what you’re in for, a thought provoking show with good music. On a lot of souvenirs is a brain, so I presume we’re going to be thinking about the mind.

For the American citizens, there’s a group called HeadCount who can register you to vote instantly. So it’s going to have some political themes.

While David Byrne doesn’t endorse a particular candidate, it‘s pretty clear he’s not a fan of the far right politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. During the show, he talks about the importance of voting and how many people (particularly young people) eschew it.

To make this point, he said that in local elections, only about 20% of adults registered to vote actually show up to vote, and put a spotlight on that percentage of the audience to make the point of how small a group that is. It’s in local elections. He also made the point that we should love one another and that in the melting pot that is America, we are all immigrants. His band is multicultural with multiple foreign born members, his music takes influence from genres all over the world, and David Byrne himself is an immigrant, born in Scotland and raised in the US. Because of all of that and his amazing music, he’s Diversity of Classic Rock approved!

Don’t worry, there are plenty of Talking Heads hits so you can sing along. If you feel like dancing to the funky sounds, you have full permission to do so, just be considerate and don’t dance in the aisles, in case the show is Burning Down The House.

The show is circular, beginning with the song “Here” with David Byrne holding a model of a brain and minimalist sounds in and ending with the fan favourite “Road to Nowhere”. Here and nowhere. In between, he comments about how babies’ brains have more neurons and connections than adult brains and how we lose them as we age because we don’t need all of them and why we pay more attention to fellow humans rather than random objects. The last one really stuck with me and was something I could relate to being on the autism spectrum because I am not the most social person and I prefer to spend time with animals. Tina Weymouth once said that David Byrne likely has Aspergers. In the interview linked, he says that what he struggled with most was social cues and what is acceptable and how to function like a normal person when interacting with others.

Me too, David Byrne, me too. I’m prone to clamming up and not having any idea what to do and if I know what to say or do, I’m extremely anxious and after interacting with people I overanalyse things like a neurotic Woody Allen character.

“Road To Nowhere” definitely sums up the end of this decade, with the so many countries in the world moving so far right and the doom we are facing with climate change. I see the repeating of history and I think that’s what this show is getting at. Politically, when punk and new wave were popular, Carter lost big time to Reagan. What came in the 80s was such good music to protest that. We saw that too in the late 60s and early 70s with Nixon elected and a mix of optimistic songs to cheer people up and protest songs. Will we see that again with the 20s with Boris Johnson in power and the possibility of another term of Donald Trump as president?

Overall, the show is incredible from the music to the huge sound of the backing band that fills the room to the choreography and lighting. While you don’t always see all the musicians playing, the point is made that there are no backing tracks with David Byrne introducing all the musicians on the stage giving them credit for their hard work and. All the sounds you hear are live and these musicians are super talented.

My favourite songs in the show were: “This Must Be The Place”, “I Zimbra”, “Slippery People”, “Once in a Lifetime”, “Born Under Punches”, “Burning Down the House”, “Hell You Talmbout”, “One Fine Day”, and Road To Nowhere”.

You really don’t need a screen in the background. The lighting and blocking get the message across and looks really cool with illuminated squares and effects like a TV. Definitely is in the top 3 concerts I’ve been to, along with Roger Waters The Wall and Paul McCartney. Diversity of Classic Rock approved for sure!

If you can’t make it to Broadway, you can stream the cast recording on Spotify:

Loved this post and want to see more great posts like this and show your appreciation for The Diversity of Classic Rock? Chip in some money on Patreon (monthly donation) or PayPal (one-time donation). Or buy my merch or my photography prints on RedBubble

Or donate your writing or art talents to my blog, contact me here if you’re interested in collaborating. All of this is totally optional, but extremely helpful. 

All Diversity of Classic Rock content will remain free, but Patrons get some nice perks, like early access to blog posts, birthday cards, Skype calls with me, and exclusive behind the scenes posts. Every dollar helps. 

If you cannot afford to donate to The Diversity of Classic Rock, there are many free ways to support the blog: clicking that follow button on my website, turning off your AdBlock; following me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram; liking posts, sharing posts; leaving nice comments; or sending your music for review. You can also download the Brave Browser using my referral link (I get a small commission) and earn tokens that you can donate to your favourite creators (including me!). Thank you!