It’s no understatement to call David Byrne’s American Utopia Tour the year’s most thrilling concert-going experience. Aesthetically sparse yet musically and visually rich, the show is performed by Byrne and a band of eleven, six on percussive instruments alone, all in a state of perpetual motion. It’s a mesmerizing two hours that includes a full range of Byrne’s repertoire, including a few notable callouts from his days as the frontman for the Talking Heads, including “Once in a Lifetime” and “This Must Be the Place.”
“David approached me with an idea that the [concert] was going to occur in a box, and this box would be made of chain,” recalls choreographer Annie-B Parson, a longtime collaborator of Byrne’s. “The performers would all be unplugged — wireless. He wanted everyone to be mobile so they could dance and move.” The final grace note: all would be barefoot, sporting grey suits.
Although outfitted with heavy marching band harnesses, the evening only deploys an actual marching band motif once, during a stunning rendition of “Burning Down the House.” It’s the one number choreographed by the tour’s dance captain, Chris Giarmo, who was his high school’s Color Guard Captain.
“To me, the concert really feels like a dance theater piece,” says Giarmo, who has performed in Parson’s troupe Big Dance Theater for years. “A lot of the musicians have never had their bodies actually be part of the performance.”
“The show is very demanding on the musicians,” says Parson. “It’s asking something of them that’s actually the opposite of what they’ve been trained. Which is: when you’re on stage, there’s certain modes of being as a musician. There’s the classical sense where you’re very still, very refined. In the rock sense, you’re really cool, and loose, and kind of messy, and schlubby. They feel very comfortable being a certain way, and I’m asking them not to do that anymore for two hours. It’s asking a lot of them. And they are truly amazing.”
Giarmo is one of two backup singers, and his appearance on stage — bright orange locks, nail polish, an abundance of glitter eye makeup — visually sets him apart from the rest of his bandmates.
“I thought it was important to represent my queerness on stage,” says the 35-year-old. “I didn’t want to be mistaken for another straight white guy.” The impact of his appearance didn’t hit home until after a concert in Brazil.
“I got an Instagram message from an audience member — young gay guy, twentysomething. He said, ‘It was so moving to see a queer person on stage with my music idol, and to know there is a place for us in this industry.’ That was so inspiring. For queer people that are constantly seeking representation and trying to find our place in the world, to see someone at this level of performance unabashedly owning their queerness, was inspiring to him. That was it for me — I was like, ‘Alright, I’m going to go all out. I’m piling on the makeup! I’m getting glitter!”
David Byrne’s American Utopia Tour marches into Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, on Saturday, July 28. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $60 to $130 and worth every penny. Visit merriweathermusic.com.