A first performance by American Utopia: Unplugged.
Photo: Shira Friedman
When the first wave of the coronavirus hit New York City in early 2020, it closed Broadway indefinitely. The doors would only partially reopen in the summer of 2021, not returning on a large scale until October. Well, this “return to normal” was short lived; by mid-December, the city and state had seen a record number of positive cases, fueled by the arrival of Omicron. Broadway was starting to sink again. The test sites had hours of waiting. Corn American Utopia, despite its many temporarily fallen brothers in the theater district, kept its lights on at the St. James, thanks to the creative ingenuity of its maestro, David Byrne, and musical director, Mauro Refosco: Working together from a distance and in person, the duo were able to reconfigure the show into an on-the-fly ‘unplugged’ and ‘unleashed’ version that could successfully utilize their now greatly reduced crew. “It was a bit chaotic”, Refosco remembers the early days of the team before being presented with this alternative idea. “One by one, the actors started to test positive. It got to the point where there were no more liners. Would they still be able to perform 17 songs, damn it, any songs, with half of the performers?
There followed a legitimately unique five-day list of American Utopia shows, from December 28 to January 2 – and marking perhaps the most exclusive performance series Byrne has done since Stop making sense. (But unlike Stop making sense, those “unplugged” shows weren’t even recorded for posterity.) The old songs were out; new songs were present. The dominant instrument was the drums. The surprise inclusion of “Life in the War” got people dancing in the aisles, to hell with the demands of the firefighters. That all of this happened, however, is what is most remarkable, given the the cast and crew were only six days early. To learn more about the feat, Refosco explained to Vulture the preparations for the week after pulling it off, while Byrne rested before the show reopened (reconnected) on January 5.
David came to see me and reminded me that we had played at Carnegie Hall one few years ago. It was very acoustic. It was just David playing guitar and singing, and I was playing some percussion with him. He said, “We did it once, and there were benefits, and we did it very well. Maybe we could do it again? I was like, Wow, that would be amazing. We could use some of the songs we already know from the show, and David has so many songs in his Talking Heads and Solo catalog. He was like, ‘Let’s do it. I’ll come up with a list and send it to you tonight. We started this communication for us to work both ways. He set up a Dropbox and added songs to create a set list. It was first a list of songs he was thinking of, then I started to map the songs with the staff we had and the instruments they could play.
So on the 23rd, David sent an email saying, “I’m working on the set list. I’ll send it tomorrow morning. I received it on the 24th at 3 a.m. sharp. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day working there. He also sent it to our guitarist and bass player. We started to work on the music alone during these two days. I did the Christmas thing with my kids and I also did the music on my own. Once I had an arrangement for the songs on Christmas Day I sent it to the drummers.
We all met in person at the theater. We had a list of songs we intended to do, but not the order in which to do them. So we went song by song so David could jog his memory on how to play them. He was going to play a lot more guitar; he basically played guitar for every song. He had to relearn certain things; it’s not like he’s playing these songs every day. The moment you take the stage, even if you don’t feel safe with the arrangement, it comes to you. He goes out. You have to trust yourself and the group that it’s going to be great. David was super happy. The idea of singing songs different from American Utopia set list got him excited. We had another song that we tried out and didn’t use in the end – “Buck Naked,” one of his songs from 1994. We realized it didn’t quite fit the set list.
We only had our core team in the theater with us. We had four drummers, a backing vocalist, a bassist, a guitarist and David. We focused on the music. There was a lot to learn and achieve in such a short time. Due to union regulations, rehearsals were really limited in time. We had three and a half hours in the afternoon, a dinner break, and then another three and a half in the evening. We had seven hours a day. David was in such a good mood. Patient zero, percussionist Gustavo Di Dalva, was due to return on the 28th, once his quarantine was over. So he was able to rehearse with us that day and play with us in the evening. Patient two, singer Tendayi Kuumba, was able to come back on the 31st. It was good that some people were able to come back during those days.
We weren’t absolutely 100 percent sure how the arrangements would be, but it just came from you. We had an afternoon rehearsal, and during that time we went through the beginning and the end of the songs. How are we going to finish this? Which instrument should have the last sound? We were more specific about the songs now. Once we did that, we went to our locker rooms and got ready. On our first night, some people still had music stands to have a few notes to remember things. We had at. It was just too much to remember at the time. There were a few bumps in the road. David forgot some words. One of the drummers forgot small breaks or parts. But I felt like I was making music. The public understood it. They were getting something special. After the show David was like, Indeed, it went very well! He doesn’t pump fists or anything like that. I kind of did that with the drummers, just to give off the best vibes.
We had notes for each other. We have kept the spirit of, We must do better. The stage is empty. We carry the instruments. We thought in terms of, During this song the drummers can take the stage, and, During this song the guitarists can take the stage. The possibilities were so great. Even until our last day, we were fine-tuning things. The only thing I insisted on was losing the desks. David did by the second show. The drummers too, they all trusted each other. They were all gone on Friday. It made us feel alive.
David mentioned that American Utopia is a reflection of what this country has been through in recent years. Corn American Utopia: unleashed was a reflection of the the week of what this country was going through. David could easily have said, “Oh, yeah, let’s stop our show for a few weeks and stay home. and watch Netflix. Instead, he said, ‘There is something else we can do. Let’s try this and try.’ That was the leadership boost we all got from him.
Bobby Wooten III.
And remember, Spike Lee’s version of American Utopia is currently available to stream on HBO Max.