David Byrne choreographs searing Asheville show with his progressive music, political activism


By Caleb Calhoun

She stood in the back row with her fist raised to the sky, tears streaming down her face.

She was in solidarity. She was in reality. She was hearing the words from the stage, the words about Eric Garner, the words about Johnnie Rush, and she, being a person of color, was understanding something that, no matter how much I wanted to, I never would.

David Byrne was singing, with his 11-piece band, on a double encore, and he was using his privilege to make a statement. He was using his privilege to tell the truth. What else would you expect from someone who has been using his position to expose injustice for more than 40 years.

I’m standing there beside her, trying to look cool. Trying to dance to something that, truth be told, I know I will never fully understand.

That isn’t how tonight started. It may have been the way it ended. But there was so much in between.

It all starts with just David Byrne, on stage at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, by himself, with a model of a brain. He is telling us how it works. For those of us on our first time, we have no idea how well he really understands it.

As he begins to sing the chain link curtains, probably 50 feet across in the back and 25 feet coming forward on either side, begin to rise. How do you create a stage for one of the most amazing rockers of all time? This is how. Every sight, every sound, calculated. The musicians behind the curtain swaying, part of the scene.

The stage is rising around him, matching his energy, and then one, and then another of his backup singers join him on stage. Both of them in all gray, both of them so interesting looking (a ginger male and a beautiful woman of color with a dreadlocked mohawk), both of them walking into a choreographed dance.

Truth is, I have never seen anything like this, right from the start. The choreography, the lighting, the sounds being made from the stage. It’s almost unbelievable. I’m supposed to be a writer. We are two songs in and I am already out of words.

“Holy fucking shit,” I text my publisher. “Can that be the entire review,” I ask him.

“No,” he tells me, as you would expect. And as much as this music makes me want to forget the real reason I am here, I have to stay plugged in.

After the first song, Byrne brings the entire band out, an 11-piece hobo group of backups, all of them mobile. Six drummers, a keyboardist, a bass player, two backup singers and a guitarist, Not that they are married to their instruments; they will spend the entire evening evolving from one instrument to the next, all of it under heavy choreography.

I can’t help but notice the dancing is, clearly intentionally, a few steps off as the band forms around him early on. Byrne moves and the two backup singers and dancers reflect him like a funhouse mirror, a step behind and a little off-kilter.

As they head into the fourth song, they take a break from the new David Byrne and head back to older music. After a phenomenal “Wheel Within The Wheel,” they head through a short set of classics before ending up at a “This Must Be The Place” that everyone in the building was hoping for but no one actually expected.

I’m up in the balcony at this point with my best friends and their 2-month-old daughter. For a moment I think she may be the coolest person at this show. Then I head back to my seat and meet Davon. He is standing on the back of the chair in front of him and singing along to every freaking word. Nine years young and he knows things I’m still learning.

After a set straight out of Stop Making Sense, they head back in to the new album with Right Thing. Byrne is moving around on stage like the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Barefoot and sweating like a madman, he is being pursued by his own band. What an intergenerational, interplanetary game of cat and mouse this is.

As he heads into “Dog’s Mind,” I can’t help but smile knowing I have court tomorrow morning on a fucking weed charge. Byrne doesn’t care. In fact, he is making it very clear how he feels about the modern American justice system. The lights are flickering on and off as he, unbelievably well researched, tells Asheville which local candidates they should have voted for on in this year’s primary election.

He’s partnering with HeadCount and somehow more hip to local politics than I am. This isn’t just a show. This isn’t just about having a good time. This man is here to inspire change, and even as a superstar, he’s done his research.

I’m honestly a little taken aback. The combination of political activism, progressive music, and precise choreography is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. All of them in their gray suits, his with three pockets on each side, singing the happiest songs about the destruction of a nation. It’s almost unnerving.

As they push through the back end of the set list the lighting changes, no longer illuminating the members on stage but silhouetting them on the 50-foot high chainlink curtain behind them.

As they finish the set and leave the stage I have to say I’ve never heard a louder crowd on a Tuesday night in my life. Byrne and his band deserve every decibel. They head into a two song encore that ends with a fiery version of “Burning Down the House” before they leave the stage for another few minutes of crowd music.

When they return, Byrne’s bare feet and blue eyes tell us we are looking at something special. As the second encore, they speak a song they wrote in 2015 but have updated monthly to stay current. I’m standing beside my friend, and although I’m crying myself, I feel entitled and privileged to even be here.

Byrne has taken us to another level, to somewhere, some planet that he has created where race only matters as a matter a of fact, not reality. He has taken his privilege and flipped it on it’s side, tears streaming down the faces of all of those around me, he has plunged the knife so deeply into us while we weren’t looking.

We never saw it coming.

Caleb Calhoun studied writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and music at a plethora of clubs and bars across the southeast. He is the author and publisher of Rosman City Blues and currently resides outside of Asheville with his dog and best friend, Dr. Gonzo. You can reach him at Caleb.calhoun@gmail.com and/or Facebook.com/GonzoNC.


Shara Crosby May 11, 2018 - 11:37 am

Lol a review about how politically progressive this show was and yet you not only fail to mention the queer black woman who actually wrote the song (Janelle Monáe) but credit the white man who got her blessing to perform it, the title of the song (Hell You Talmbout), who Eric Garner and Johnnie Rush even are (two black men who were victims of police brutality, Johnnie being our own community member), and how almost every white person around you may have cried but fell silent at the invocation to “Say Their Names”.

Stop centering white people.

These aren’t minor corrections, they’re the entire point of his performance.

Music Lover May 10, 2018 - 7:38 am

Really good review!

ashevillain May 9, 2018 - 3:03 pm

Just a couple minor things about this review …

– The song you have titled as ‘Wheel Within The Wheel’ is actually titled ‘Slippery People’.

– David Byrne did not personally suggest any local candidates to vote for. He advised that voters can go to the Head Count table and get a list from Head Count of their suggested candidates.

– The final encore song was not written by David Byrne. The title is ‘Hell You Talmbout’ and it was written/performed originally by Janelle Monae.

Ajane May 11, 2018 - 11:04 am

YAS! I had the same experience above as you. Thank you for clearing up those facts for folks that did not attend. I appreciated David Byrne naming that it was a song he and his band were covering by Janelle Monáe and that he was granted permission before performing it.

TJ Jones May 9, 2018 - 1:53 pm

Great review of a life-changing show! Vadin is only 8 BTW 🙂

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