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.

Live (Sorta): Mark Emanation Duo @ Caffe Lena 5/6/2020

This story first appeared in Nippertown, my first story there in months, and I’m pleased to be back, again. Let me explain. The late, great Greg Haymes (“Sergeant Blotto” in Albany rock-comedy band Blotto) and his partner in life and creativity Sara Ayers published Nippertown for a decade until Greg passed last year. I wrote and photographed stories there when they didn’t fit the Gazette style or format and felt proud doing so: It was the hippest, best-curated view of music and other arts in the Albany area. It retains that mantle since Sara handed the keys to publisher Jim Gilbert late last year. A big shout-out to Jim for opening this door.

I miss the stairs, and much else about Caffe Lena – but we don’t have to miss the music entirely. 

Blues great Mississippi John Hurt was playing there, first time I climbed those stairs; and blues were on the menu when I went up the virtual stairs Wednesday as the Mark Emanation duo (with guitarist Tom Dolan) played to three cameras in a house empty but for host Sarah Craig, stage tech Ian Hamelin and camera-video/broadcast sound tech Joel Moss.

The venerable (60 years) Saratoga Springs coffeehouse presents live music nearly every night in its Stay Home Sessions, both live streams and archived shows; plus instructional sessions.

Accessing Wednesday’s show was easy via Youtube at www.caffelena.org, Choosing what virtual show to watch via Mac from my Schenectady home-office desk, less so. Shows streaming Wednesday included the peripatetic Erin Harkes from hereabouts, also Nashvillians I’ve met while visiting my brother Jim Hoke there: Joe Pisapia at my cellist-nephew Austin Hoke’s poker-dinner parties, John England leading the hardest-hitting hard country band on the neon-splashed lower Broadway bar strip from Roberts Western Wear. But I digress.

The blues seemed right for me Wednesday, though, in memory of both Mississippi John Hurt from my first Caffe visit and Emanation’s long association with Ernie Williams, whose ghost climbed the stairs with him and Dolan.

Emanation, hereafter MA, started by placing himself in the Caffe’s history, citing past shows there including benefits that burnish the bluesman’s long reputation with Williams, Folding Sky, current crew Soul Sky and almost uncounted others.

MA and TD have made music together since their early teens in Watervliet schools; and it showed Wednesday. At their best, they flowed smooth and easy. Handoffs and endings sometimes felt ragged, though, yet that seemed OK in these days when practicing seems problematic. They know what their best stuff is, so after warming up on two songs with more generic than specific messages, they hit an early peak by getting sadly real in “Watervliet Waltz.” Here they mourned change as loss, noting globalism as a zero-sum game our Rust-Belt towns are losing. 

The production was sharp, MA’s vocals and both guitars coming through clear. Three cameras caught the action (though both played seated), pivoting on the beat to catch TD’s solo in “What Am I Gonna Do,” then right back to MA for his break, for example. MA aimed his voice south in songs set there including the plaintive post-Katrina “Rain Keep Fallin’ Down,” pleading “Can we make it” in words that seem sadly apt today. Mourning marked the next number, too: “He Don’t Live Here Any More,” dedicated to departed fellow bluesman Tom Healey; but in this number and others with local settings, MA sang in a distinctly northeastern, Springsteen-echoing, Rust-Belt howl.

The mood shifted to anger in CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” intro’ed with MA’s recollection of protests announced in placards inserted in newspapers he delivered as an 8thgrader appalled by the Kent State National Guard murders. They nailed it, and held their mood of modulated outrage through “I Remember Bobby Sands” about the Irish hunger-strike hero. While TD riffed most of the hot solos – his break in “”Frozen” might have melted a glacier – MA’s coda in “Ohio” and fiery lead in “”Sands” sparkled just as bright. So did his slide solo driving the stoic shuffle “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Working Day.”

Late in the show, they riffled back through the Ernie Williams songbook, MA explaining how he and his band mates transmuted Williams’ road-trip stories and recollections into songs they’d write for their elder-leader to sing. MA’s humility in noting they’d had to grow into those songs spotlighted in powerful poignancy how the blues flow from generation to generation. 

Their best songs followed me down the Caffe’s virtual stairs as they wound down, reaped the applause from their audience of three; so did CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” written in a time as troubled as our own. I remembered, too, how Graham Nash told me in an interview how proud he was of “Ohio” – although it followed and eclipsed his own idyllic “Teach Your Children Well.” Nash recalled “Ohio” pushed “Teach” off the singles chart, but suggested it deserved to, that its message was that important. 

We don’t know what important angry, compassionate or even funny messages our  singers will sing about these times. But we can expect to hear many of them at the top of the stairs of Caffe Lena.

Live chat and a virtual tip jar to support the performers and the Caffe are available during streams.