Twice In A Lifetime: “American Utopia” At Hudson Theatre Isn’t As Good As It Was
I caught David Byrne’s “American Utopia” Tour in September 2018 and this is what I said: “No mid set lull, nothing, nonstop dance, sound, and movement” (here) It was my fifth best set of that year. Indeed, it was so good I decided not to risk the memory of the show by watching it on Broadway. My worry, that it simply couldn’t live up to that earlier show, kept me from going. It has happened before, everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Travis Scott, where a show has been so great and then… the same show is not so great.
The alchemy, the problem, tends to be from both the artist and the audience member.
For instance, the first time I saw Travis Scott’s “Astroworld,” November 2018, he had just got married, his wife and his daughter were there, he’d sold out MSG, the audience were primed, he was over the moon, and the entire evening sparkle with his wife joining him on the indoor rollercoaster at the end. The next time I saw Travis, he’d been on the road for an additional six months, his wife had caught him cheating, and he was simply not igniting. I should have quit while I was ahead.
So I held off on “American Utopia”. Until I didn’t. The reviews were huge, and I knew they would be, and the idea that Byrne had added something that I hadn’t seen haunted me. So on Friday, January 25th, I went to see it. And I was vaguely disappointed and while I can see one reason why, I didn’t find Byrne’s Mr. Rogers cheerful the complex made simple performance winning, the speak got in the way of the flow, and when you have choreographed twelve musicians to move with their instruments, let them move. During the performance I thought it might have been the fault of the selection but if anything the addition of “Don’t Worry About The Government” and “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” within the first five songs made for a stronger start, and holding “Slippery People” from fourth song in the set to seventh song in the set gave it extra force and the performance was better than on Speaking In Tongues and earned Byrne a standing O.
But “Once In A Lifetime” wasn’t good enough and had me thinking of Stop Making Sense, the antecedent for the show, Things that hadn’t occurred to me before, occured to me now. Stop Making Sense had the slow build of one Talking Head after another joining David on the stage, and the thing is WE KNOW THEM ALL, Tina and Chris and Jerry were not Byrne’s sidepeople, they were ALREADY STARS, when they joined him it was like an extra dimension of wow kept getting added.
Next, sorry to note that try as he might, Byrne solo isn’t great: “Everybody’s Coming to My House” is maybe his best song in a decade, and it isn’t great. The St. Vincent stuff isn’t great. It is a testament to Byrne’s powers of stage persuasion and cracker band that I didn’t notice it the first time I caught the show.
More, he stumbled over words and seemed not in 100% control, maybe he was having a bad night, it happens, but it wasn’t as steadily brilliant a performance. After awhile I began to doubt my earliest opinion and seriously doubt the hosannahs thrown at him, and really, I get it, we are all immigrants, sweet but useless thoughts abound.
On the end, it was my fault, not Byrnes. I should have quit while I was ahead. If something is going to be the best self, it needs to be the best self. It was at Forest Hills and at Hudson Theatre… not so much.