Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER
David Byrne — Talking Heads architect and post-New Wave elder statesman of all things arch, artsy and oblique — is the Marcel Duchamp of 20th Century rock n’ roll, transmuting the artifacts of the mundane and the quotidian into magical charms to ward off the confusion, dread and ennui of modern life. He is, in other words, an antidote for our current season in Hell, and his arrival at the Mann last night backed by what is, for lack of a better description, The Greatest Marching Band on Earth, to deliver humane tidings of comfort and joy in the guise of high concept performance art, came not a moment too soon. For the past six months he has been touring the globe in support of his latest album, the archly titled American Utopia, and putting on what I can safely say without fear of exaggeration is, as of this writing, the Greatest Show on Earth. That is not hyperbole, if anything that is an understatement.
In terms of the setlist, the show is an ecstatic blend of modernized takes on Talking Heads quirk-pop classics and the oblique strategies and heartfelt ironies of his post-Heads solo work and collaborations with the likes of Brian Eno, Fatboy Slim and St. Vincent. Which, on paper, sounds fairly pro-forma for an artist of Byrne’s stature and vast back catalog of cutting edge work, but to see it in person, it is nothing short of jaw-dropping — a post-post-modernist miracle of human ingenuity, precision and grace. I call it MOMA-rock: A rapturous marriage of modern dance, minimalist grandeur, shit-hot musicianship, and gorgeous gale-force chorales that sing the body electric — all performed without wires, fixed instruments, pre-recorded backing tracks or shoes. All of it cooked up by the beautiful mind of David Byrne, who, at the onset of his autumn years, with his thick shock of pure white hair, has evolved into a glorious amalgam of Mark Twain and David Lynch — simultaneously folksy and wise and kind and still barefoot in the head after all these years, displaying the tireless vitality and artistic potency of a man a third of his age.
His ongoing project, Reasons To Be Cheerful, is a multi-platform collection of stories and anecdotes shared from around the world of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, namely the kind of things that the governments, institutions and corporations that both run and ruin our lives are unwilling or unable to do: making this awful world a slightly better place than they found it, doing small-scale local-level difference-making good deeds, acts of charity and civic engagement in the areas of culture, health, science, education, economics, transportation and climate/energy. The project could just as well be called Reasons Not To Give Up On The Human Race Just Yet. While we are tallying up reasons to be cheerful, I am happy to report that, some 43 years after the inception of the Talking Heads, David Byrne still contains multitudes. Long may he weird. –JONATHAN VALANIA