Still making Sense of it all: The restless art of David Byrne

After the release of the 1984 Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense, David Byrne would never be able to play another regular rock show.

Jonathan Demme’s document of Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues tour in 1983 is regarded by many as the finest concert film ever made, with frontman Byrne taking the new wave art-rock project to its limit, transcending every expectation of a guitar band gig – music theatre without the need for blockbuster pyro or smoke and mirrors.

The choreographed running on the spot during Life Before Wartime; Byrne dancing with a stand-up lamp for Naive Melody; Byrne machine-gunned by an 808 drum machine during Psycho Killer, and of course the giant office drone business suit, are some of the most enduring moments in pop music history.

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When reviews of Byrne’s latest tour start referring to Stop Making Sense, they can’t be taken lightly. Variety called it “the most exhilarating touring rock spectacle in years”, and other critics have been enthralled by the mix of interpretative dance, mime, spoken word and a 12-piece band moving in perfect synchronicity. The always subtle NME called it “perhaps the most ambitious and impressive live show of all time”, but Byrne himself said the American Utopia tour is “the most ambitious show I’ve done since the shows that were filmed for Stop Making Sense”.

There’s a lot to lose when referencing such an iconic moment in rock, but you just know Byrne isn’t waffling. His 2013 joint show with St Vincent at Electric Picnic has gone down as one of the defining joyous slots in the festival’s history, and his last solo show here, in 2009 at the National Concert Hall, was another beautifully-presented modern dance and art-rock hybrid. I even recall another transcendent night seeing Byrne play the Radisson Hotel in Galway in 2004, surely the greatest booking in the history of the Galway Arts Festival.

From a few hundred in the Radisson ballroom to selling out the 3Arena initially seems like a shock – especially from Byrne who hasn’t had an actual ‘hit’ since Lazy with X-Press 2 in 2002, and his last solo album in 2004, Grown Backwards, was a based mainly on string arrangements and featured opera arias.

Whether it’s the word-of-mouth bump from the NCH and Picnic shows and glowing reviews of his new album American Utopia, and of course the never-dimming legacy of Talking Heads, this should go some way to meeting the hype.

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On this tour he’s playing highlights from American Utopia – another triumph of absurdist observations, inventive arrangements by collaborators and biting social commentary. He’s also digging deep into Talking Heads and solo classics.

More casual fans can tick off new interpretations of Stop Making Sense cuts like Burning Down the House, Once In a Lifetime and Naive Melody – maybe the greatest love song of all time. But also expect the dadaist nerve-rock of I Zimbra, the experimental electronics of Born Under Punches and the hyper rhythms of The Great Curve and Road To Nowhere – the most joyous song about existential dread in the pop canon.

Earlier this year, Byrne appeared at a room in the Roundhouse in London without a band, to give a Powerpoint lecture called ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’, illustrating small, practical steps people worldwide are taking to make the world slightly better. Like in the Talking Heads song Life During Wartime, dancing euphorically while singing the lines, “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco”, Byrne has always offered an alternative, skewed view of the world and a sense of escapism, and as soon as he walks on stage on the 3Arena and that grey suit jolts a collective memory, you’ll be transported into his head.

  • David Byrne plays the 3Arena in Dublin tonight. Tickets here.

(Written for Irish Daily Star)