Gig review: David Byrne at First Direct Arena, Leeds

David Byrne playing at First Direct Arena, Leed. Picture: Anthony Longstaff
David Byrne playing at First Direct Arena, Leed. Picture: Anthony Longstaff
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David Byrne’s booking agent recently suggested the 66-year-old musician is having a “Leonard Cohen moment” in terms of career longevity.

His brilliant and endlessly inventive current live show, corresponding with his latest solo album American Utopia, certainly indicates an artist at the peak of his creative powers as he enters his fifth decade in music.

David Byrne playing at First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Anthony Longstaff

David Byrne playing at First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Anthony Longstaff

The standard band set-up, with amplifiers, leads, drum risers and monitors, is cast aside from the off. Instead the audience is presented with something far more theatrical, with Byrne initially alone on a bare stage, crooning the lyrics to Here while seated at a desk studying a model of a human brain. As the song proceeds he’s joined by two backing singers-cum-dancers, similarly clad in grey suits and shirts and, like Byrne, barefoot.

By Lazy, his 2002 club hit with British electronic duo X-Press 2, and I Zimbra, from Talking Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music, the band has swollen to 12 people all shoeless and dressed in grey. They emerge gradually through shimmering curtains, all dancing and singing along as they play.

The Talking Heads theme continues with Slippery People, all rubbery Afro-funk, before I Should Watch TV, from Love This Giant, Byrne’s 2012 collaboration with St Vincent, sees the singer addressing the band sideways on in one a series of sequences expertly choreographed by Annie-B Parson.

For the hymnal Dog’s Mind they stand in line across the stage under simple red lighting. It’s met at the end by a seemingly awed hush, causing Byrne to muse: “Dead silence for a minute...but maybe that’s the appropriate reaction to that song.”

David Byrne with backing singers Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo at First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Anthony Longstaff

David Byrne with backing singers Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo at First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Anthony Longstaff

Elaborating on American Utopia’s desire for a better society, the singer talks about how he’s been encouraging more younger people in the US to register to vote before launching into an exuberant version of Everybody’s Coming To My House.

It glides into an elegant This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) then a stunning rendition of Once in a Lifetime, with Byrne and the band in full motion.

They then retreat behind the curtains, leaving a single drummer centre stage to accompany Byrne during Doing The Right Thing.

By Toe Jam, originally a 2008 collaboration with the DJ Fatboy Slim, there’s a carnival atmosphere in the air that continues through Born Under Punches.

I Dance Like This starts with the band initially prostrate on the floor before leaping into life for the industrial clamour of the chorus. The song ends in a blaze of strobe lights and a silent ballet.

During the elegiac Bullet Byrne holds a lamp stand as the band process around him, then slowly vanish into the curtains one by one.

The mood turns joyful again Every Day is a Miracle and Like Humans Do. A powerful version of Blind sees the band under lit, with Byrne casting a giant shadow on the backdrop. Set closer Burning Down The House is phenomenal, bringing the Arena to its feet in a standing ovation.

But they’re not done there. Two encores follow, with the whole band in full voice for Road To Nowhere and The Great Curve. They’re joined by dapper support act Benjamin Clementine for a thunderously percussive reading of Janelle Monet’s Hell You Talmbout, written for the Women’s March on Washington. “This song is about how we all can change and that includes me,” Byrne says.

It’s a powerful moment in a set crammed full of highlights. With this American Utopia tour, David Byrne and his exceptional cast of collaborators are surely redefining the possibilities of what an arena concert can be. And we are all the better for that.