The largest of the ACL Festival stages was reduced to about half its size – to a three-sided room with chain-curtain walls. A small table and chair sat center stage. David Byrne quietly took his seat and hoisted a model of the human brain for all to see.
The cerebral beginning paved the way for the spiritual physicality that was to follow. Byrne’s band consisted of twelve barefoot musicians, each sharply dressed in a light grey suit. Tightly buttoned up and yet loose. The walls that constrained the box in which they performed swayed as bandmembers brushed against them proving that walls needn’t be restrictive, that chains needn’t bind you. The sparse, empty stage that contained no amplifiers, monitors, mic stands or equipment of any kind was overflowing with nonstop rhythms and musical intensity. And the strictly choreographed moves of the entire performance somehow remained fluid and organic, chaotic and yet structured.
Leading this fantastic spectacle was David Byrne, with his own delightfully gawky dance moves and gyrations. The set was heavy with smartly arranged Talking Heads classics mixed with a few Byrne solo compositions. An unexpected highlight was the jaunty “Toe Jam” by Brighton Port Authority – on which Byrne sang the original vocal.
The set wound down with a raucous crowd-pleasing version of “Burning Down the House.” And then, in a final act of juxtaposition, he closed the set with a protest song written by Janelle Monáe, who would be occupying the same stage 48 hours later. Devoid of any instruments sans voice and percussion, “Hell You Talmbout” brought the performance to a dramatic conclusion, reminding us that we still have a long way to go as a society. The song primarily consists of the chanted names of black Americans killed by law enforcement or racial violence, followed by “Say his name” or “Say her name.” It is not a song of anger or accusation. It is a song of tribute. It is a song of thought.
Music is power. The groove keeps going, but it’s not all fun and games.