American Utopia – Rocking Irony, Accusation and Hope

The David Byrne/Spike Lee film “American Utopia” (HBO) offers a brilliant, highly caffeinated jolt of hope when we really need one.

Lee mostly gets it right visually; and Byrne has changed up the production only slightly since its Palace Theatre presentation in September 2018 awed me with its choreographed and detailed, perfectionist precision, righteous polemical power and joyous musical punch.

However, the world has become distinctly more dire since then, so Byrne’s message has grown more necessary and vital. Just as sound, lyrics aside, Byrne and his constantly moving 11-piece band offer compelling arguments for immigrant assimilation, for vital multiculturalism, the defeat of racism and exploitation and the focused power of close cooperation. 

It’s a band of moving parts, barefoot members in matching gray suits, as if the Big Suit Byrne wears in “Stop Making Sense” has diffused into a hive-mind organism that breathes and moves as one.

Layer on lyrics of strong, if sometimes oblique, persuasion, and the thing packs an irresistible message.

To explain how sweet-hard this hit me, let me cite the home-video back-story at our place that perfectly prepared me for it. 

First came an Aaron Sorkin double-header:

The reconstituted cast of “The West Wing” (NBC 1999-2006) performs on a nearly bare stage the “Hartsfield’s Landing” episode. It shows a frightening collision between the crucial necessity of intelligent governance (imagine!) and the possibilities for further disaster or positive change that electoral politics present in our own terrifying fork-in-the-road time. This reunion event benefited “When We All Vote” and urged that we do.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” recalls events in an America as divided as now. Though things seemed somehow less frightening then – a time of federal dirty tricks against progressives – its echoes in our own time feel heartbreaking.

Similarly, the non-Sorkin “A Family Thing” (scripted in part by Billy Bob Thornton) argues for racial harmony across agonizing, generations-deep hard secrets of kinship and acceptance.

Looking back further, and more directly at the stage, I recalled the intelligence and buzz of Talking Heads shows at UAlbany’s Page Hall, Albany’s Palace Theatre and Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where Byrne also led his horn-powered 10 Car Pile-Up; then Byrne band shows at The Egg. After the SPAC Big Suit show, I got to speak with Byrne backstage where he answered every question I asked, in paragraphs, but with an at first disconcerting delay.. He paused so long that I thought at first he hadn’t heard me or had simply spaced out. No, this was a very deliberate thoughtfulness that felt, finally, like the deepest sort of courtesy.

So, I was really ready for the David and Spike show to lift me up.

It did.

Like Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” film of the Big Suit tour (whose fantastic SPAC show was delayed by a would-be jumper on the Dolly Parton Northway bridge over the Mohawk) the new “American Utopia” production gangs up gradually on the viewer/listener. 

The band grows from stark, cryptic, quiet small-scale musings. Byrne sits alone at a table and speaks, then rises to speak some more. Like Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull, he muses on a pink model of a brain, as music seeps into the shimmery silver three-walled space around him. It’s serene as a library at first, then alive with sound and motion, evolving in shrewdly paced stages. Singers and players congregate around him, always in motion since their instruments – the drum set is split among five mobile percussionists – connect wirelessly to unseen amps. The effect is of fluid grace, a moving gang of growing sound. Early on, Lee places the camera overhead in the lighting grid as bodies below go all geometric in an ever-shifting human landscape and the music itself swells. Later, Byrne remarks to both crowd and camera that looking at humans is more interesting than looking at a bag of potato chips or, by extension, any product.

David Byrne, and brain, and the first inklings of the band growing behind him at Albany’s Palace Theatre in September 2018. Michael Hochanadel photo

Tunes jukebox together from both the newish, fairly straight-ahead rock album that gives the production its name and from the electric funk of the augmented mid-80s Big Suit era Talking Heads. When a song from this bygone, boomer-fond era emerges, the crowd goes happily bonkers.

In a show with a previous band at The Egg the evening after Barack Obama was elected president, Byrne told us, “Now everything changes.” More would and should have changed; but Byrne’s current  hope for change in “American Utopia” is hard-won, but real – and not naive at all. It is comprehensive and quietly fierce. (Check out his Reasons to be Cheerful: https://reasonstobecheerful.world/.)

The Palace Theatre crowd at David Byrne’s “American Utopia” production at Albany’s Palace Theatre. Michael Hochanadel photo

In its honed confidence, its slick packaging, its nonstop action, the music packs unarguable urgency, culminating in Janelle Monae’s angry-compassionate “Hell You Talmbout” (Byrne asked her permission) that climaxes in a litany of mourning slain Black people. This perfectly follows “Burning Down the House,” thematically and musically. After each victim’s face appears projected behind the band, Byrne and band command “Say his (or her) name!” 

Yes, say their names. And hail the names of David Byrne and Spike Lee for expressing the vivid mixture of daily dismay and battered hope that anyone with a functioning brain and moral sense must feel in these troubled and troubling days.

Thanks, gentlemen; and the men and women you assembled on the stage to dazzle us on our screens.

The Boss – 46 Years Ago

Check out http://www.nippertown.com – it’s ALWAYS a good idea.

And see my post on Bruce Springsteen’s area debut at the Union College Memorial Chapel.

LIVE (Retro): Bruce Springsteen @ Union College Memorial Chapel, 10/19/1974

Jon Landau’s famous quote – “I’ve seen the future of rock and roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen” – mostly gets it right. But that Schenectady show was as much about where Springsteen was coming from as where he was going.

From the Record Shelf: Alone Together

Dave Mason’s “Alone Together” (1970) leapt off the shelf at me, and not just because it’s on marble vinyl and Mason autographed it when he played downtown Albany’s Alive at Five summer freebie concert series. Maybe because I think it’s his best.

Mason recorded “Alone Together” after touring with Delaney & Bonnie, an influence as clear as the earlier (mid-1960s) smash impact of Chicago blues on the Rolling Stones, Cream and other British bands. In fact, it’s a perfect echo that Eric Clapton personifies, as a member of blues power trio Cream, a touring member of Delaney & Bonnie and Tulsa shuffle enthusiast himself. 

“Alone Together” hit early in Mason’s up-and-down solo career, usually with solid but unremarkable bands. Meanwhile, he periodically stepped into a brighter spotlight with top-shelf collaborators, then just as quickly stepped back out.

The mercurial Mason joined and left Traffic three times, recorded on “Electric Ladyland” with Jimi Hendrix, then toured with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, all in the 1960s. In the early 70s, he recorded with George Harrison, who’d also toured with Delaney & Bonnie, as did Eric Clapton. A few years later, Mason became second guitarist in Derek & the Dominoes with Clapton but quit after recording a few songs and playing a single live gig before Duane Allman replaced him. After making solo albums and leading his own bands in the 1980s, he joined and left Fleetwood Mac in the mid-1990s, then quit a tour with Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band after rehearsals.

Mason’s 15 studio albums, six live sets, 12 compilations, plus several Traffic albums, include a full-album project with Cass Elliott, a song with Phoebe Snow and dozens of other sessions, most in the 1970s.

Dave Mason played the Union College Memorial Chapel in Schenectady, NY, in October 1972; six years after Jimi Hendrix played the same stage. Michael Hochanadel photo

The “Alone Together” album credits (using original spellings and with selected credits added) list Leon Russell (Delaney & Bonnie’s bandleader), Delaney & Bonnie themselves, Jim Capaldi (Mason’s bandmate in Traffic), John Simon (The Band’s producer), Jim Keltner (every great LA pop-rock record of the 70s, the Traveling Wilburys, Little Village), Jim Gordon (maybe as many top sessions as Keltner, Derek & the Dominoes), Chris Ethridge (the International Submarine Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers), Carl Radle (Delaney & Bonnie, Derek & the Dominoes, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the Concert for Bengladesh), Larry Knectel (soon to found Bread), John Barbata (Jefferson Starship), Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear (both members of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends), Don Preston (Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention), Mike DeTemple, Jack Storti, Lou Cooper, Mike Coolidge, and Bob Norwood.

Eric Clapton isn’t in these credits or on the album, confusing listeners who thought Slowhand had played the guitar solos; no, it’s Mason. 

Mason produced “Alone Together” with Tommy LiPuma, and recorded in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound and Elektra Recording Studio with engineers Bruce Botnick and Doug Botnick; mix engineer was Al Schmitt.

“Alone Together” seems to zig-zag stylistically among Tulsa -time rockers (the Delaney & Bonnie/Leon Russell influence), bluesy pop (ala Clapton), quiet troubadour tunes and psychedelic guitar (Hendrix). Song by song, and most could have been hit singles, it traces a troubled emotional through-line in perhaps a single relationship. 

“Only You Know and I Know” – The album opens with this cautionary tale as mid-tempo Tulsa shuffle. A kicking bass line sets up laced guitars including a discrete interstitial acoustic, then an electric guitar solos with repeating triplets into a chorus with fine harmonies. As coda, an even better electric guitar solo revs up all the cool stuff from the first.

“Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving” – Lush acoustics beckon us into a dark night of the soul where dreams are hammered low and the troubles we try to leave behind crawl into the suitcase anyway.

“Waitin’ On You” – Tulsa time again, with beautifully-balanced keys and guitars; then harmonies carry us toward hope that is not easily won. There’s a cheerful, spunky break, then a chorus pledges to build happiness, if possible…

“Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” – Another chiming keys and guitars tag-team, but also another roller-coaster accusation, in a stately build. Then a wah-wah electric guitar injects a mournful feel as the drums shift things up. Guitar and vocal join in a fatalism that edges into guarded optimism that the despairing opening returns to ice up again – beautiful pain.

SIDE 2

“World in Changes” – A crisp, meshed-acoustics intro, with organ edging into a fat-back groove. The vocal declares love a two-way street, like an announcement of something new. Then a powerful, surging organ solo pushes an upshift, cueing a falsetto vocal with exuberant whoops.

“Sad and Deep as You” – Slower, contemplative and just as emotionally complex and soft-spoken without drums or bass, this layers a gentle vocal on a firm piano line, positing the eyes as metaphor, tool and weapon.

“Just a Song” – Another warning, this soft-rock cautionary tale cruises mellow, a mid-tempo stutter-step shuffle spiced with banjo. Sweet women’s voices repeat Mason’s phrases declaring consolation and independence and “oooh” beautifully in the seams.

“Look at You Look at Me” – What a great build! Organ and piano chug under a plaintive vocal, then guitars shimmer to pick up the beat, the piano catches up and the vocal opens like a heart. The chorus – “I’m feeling, up I’m feeling down…but now my feet are on the ground for everyone to see” – curls with riffs that carry into an “All Along the Watchtower”* groove. Mason plugs in and hits full flight under the unguarded vocal admitting “I need you every day.” Mason takes it back down to acoustic guitar and piano before the electric edges in, takes over and guides the band’s lift-off echoing both “Sad and Deep as You” and “Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving.” Mason’s beautiful tone and graceful phrasing carry such emotion you want the fade to keep going since it soars to a ghostly but serene voice at the end.

Dave Mason at the Union College Memorial Chapel, Schenectady, NY. Michael Hochanadel photo

If the early songs feel edgy, like rocky waters, “Alone Together” glides into shore in a satisfying, mature resolution, noisy and proud. But, what else lurks on that misty island, that emotional land-fall?

  • Mason is entitled to evoke “All Along the Watchtower.” He played acoustic 12-string guitar on Hendrix’s immortal Dylan cover the year before he made “Alone Together” and recorded it himself on “Dave Mason” (1974, reissued 1995). On “Alone Together,” he echoes the ecstatic acoustic guitar chug that helped push Hendrix’s version. Also, check the new composite tag-team Playing for Change cover, featuring numerous artists who’ve played here including Warren Haynes, Cyril and Ivan Neville, Bombino and Amanda Shaw. 

Graffiti

Some days, don’t we all wish to be bright and loud as graffiti?

Like blocky neon letters cartooning in gaudy scrawls

On train cars and buildings, bridges and posts

But only reaching SO high

And no taller than busy bold arms holding up stolen spray cans

Arms reaching to where “I’m here, see me” is