David Byrne

American Utopia on Broadway [Original Cast Recording]

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American Utopia on Broadway [Original Cast Recording] Review

by Mark Deming

David Byrne may be the most cerebral rock musician of his generation, but unlike most of the artists who follow close behind him, he's someone who understands the physicality of performance and the notion of giving it up for an audience; smart and arty as he may be, he understands the age-old concept of giving the audience a show, and he happens to be very good at it. Byrne's 2018 album American Utopia fared well with critics, but what really caught the attention of his audience was the tour he mounted in support, in which he performed with a small army of dancers and musicians who were in constant, carefully choreographed movement that changed it from a concert into something truly spectacular. The tour eventually led to a run on Broadway, and American Utopia on Broadway [Original Cast Recording] documents how the show sounded to the patrons who saw it on the Great White Way. Listening to this performance without seeing it puts the material at a certain disadvantage, but this is a significantly more satisfying and pleasurable experience than the American Utopia album was. Where the surfaces of the studio album were often cool and dryly ironic, the sweat and fire of a live show is apparent throughout, and Byrne's ensemble is capable of cutting his brand of funk with confidence and élan. For the show, Byrne also filled out the program with a rich variety of songs from his days with Talking Heads and his solo career, and they enhance the effect of the American Utopia numbers, as well as reminding us that the LP's view of the State of the Union in the Trump era was ultimately one more chapter in a story he's been pondering for decades now. And if American Utopia was thoughtful and whip smart, the Broadway show is thoughtful, whip smart, and fun -- an entertainment that doesn't compromise its intellect for its unique brand of showmanship and vice versa. Just as Stop Making Sense was more than just another live album from just another rock band, American Utopia on Broadway does more than document Byrne's 2018-2019 tour, it stands as a grand and powerful statement of its own from an artist who is as relevant now as he was in his salad days.

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