September 2021 Artist of the Month: David Byrne



Directed by Spike Lee

HBO and Universal Pictures, 105 minutes, Not-rated


For September’s Artist of the Month, here’s something different, yet familiar. David Byrne has been a household name since his days as lead singer and guitarist for Talking Heads. In case you weren’t into post-punk music—yours truly went full folk and Celtic for much of the 1980s—Talking Heads was perhaps the most beloved of “new wave” bands. New wave groups took punk’s DYI approach to music, but didn’t totally reject commercial rock and pop. It mined them and created an arty hybrid.


Talking Heads recorded eight albums before disbanding in 1991. Byrne subsequently busied himself with solo albums, collaborative work with artists such as Brian Eno and St Vincent, and scores for everything from TV and film to dance and art installations. American Utopia was his 10th solo album and inspired a Broadway musical of the same name. In 2020, Byrne joined forces with director Spike Lee to film the show, which went into (very) limited theatrical release before being released on HBO. The limited release was probably designed not to harm the theatre box office, but the show has been a smash hit and opened a new season earlier this month. For those who don’t live in the Big Apple or don’t wish to sell body parts to buy Broadway tickets, Spike Lee’s film is the next best thing to seeing Byrne in concert.


Posters for the play generally render the word Utopia upside down. In many ways that’s appropriate. Although the Scottish-born Byrne has long been a US citizen and a devoted New Yorker, the play is simultaneously critical and optimistic. As he puts it, “We need to change. I need to change.” Appropriately, he utters this before launching into “Hell You Talmbout,” a Janelle Monáe song and litany of black people unjustly killed, such as Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin. If this sounds as if Byrne is getting political, it’s not that simple. The show opens with him holding a (rubber) brain and musing on connections, including brain pathways, the molecular structure of the universe, and those between people. Byrne wants to explore ways in which we can become more fully human. The tone is set by the second song, the Talking Head’s “I Know Sometimes a Man is Wrong/Don’t Worry about the Government.” Byrne wants us to save ourselves from everything from climate change and racism to arrogance, isolation, and being lazy (including intellectual and moral laziness.) 


The show, the film, and the music are jaw-dropping amazing. The play is not the same as the album. There are 21 songs plus a reprise of “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” the hit single from the American Utopia album, but only five songs come from that recording. The production makes you think, makes you anxious, makes you want to purify your social sins, and makes you boogie. It includes eight Talking Heads songs—including “Burn Down the House–and before the curtain drops, audience members are literally dancing in the aisles. All of the songs were penned by Byrne except the aforementioned Monáe composition and Fatboy Slim’s “Toe Jam.”


The production dazzles. Choreography was done by Brooklyn-based dancer and producer Annie-B Parson and is full of energy, verve, and nods to marching bands. Byrne loves marching bands, so his musicians are untethered. Thanks to wireless technology, even electric keyboards, bass, and electric guitar are free to roam. So too are the percussionists. All 12 cast members bang, scrape, or shake percussion instruments at some point, but half of them are primarily drummers. Lee’s overhead and back-of-stage camera work highlights both the simple (line marches) and the complex (weaves, zigzags). And let’s give a shout out to the principal dancers and backup singers, the lithe and stunning Tendayi Kuumba and the incredible Chris Giarmo. I don’t know why the bearded Giarmo is so heavily made up, but his pas de deux with Kuumba are so well-executed that they make Dancing with the Stars look like a junior high sock hop. Also heap praise on cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who makes us aware of the dynamic stage lighting that enhances American Utopia.


Byrne is, of course, front and center of the suited but barefooted ensemble. He is the draw and lead vocalist, but he’s also a fully engaged cast member. When he sings “I Dance Like This,” he indeed moves well for a 69-year-old, but he knows he’s no Kuumba or Giarmo. Our ears are on Byrne, but our eyes on the professional dancers, and the groove comes from Karl Mansfield’s portable keyboard, Bobby Wooten III’s bass, and Angie Swan’s electric guitars. Everyone sings. Byrne remains in fine voice, though there is a notable falloff in places, understandable for a soon-to-be septuagenarian.


Text Box: utopiaYou might not notice that last point and who could fault you? I return to the point that Byrne wants us to enjoy ourselves and to think. That continues through the coda, where he leads the entire bundled up crew for a post-show winter bike ride through the theatre district. Byrne’s both an avid cyclist and an advocate of a post-fossil fuels world. The only sour note is the pre-film “conversation” between Lee and Byrne. If only it had been. It was more a short-on-information mutual admiration/chuckle fest that stands in marked contrast to the show’s carefully constructed arc. It’s a good time to grab a bowl of snacks, sit back, and prepare to get connected. You will come away hopeful that our upside-down utopia can be righted.


Rob Weir


The Madness of Crowds, Louise Penny 's Latest


By Louise Penny

St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 432 pages.

★★★ ½




The Madness of Crowds is Louise Penny’s 17th Armand Gamache mystery. Is she running out of steam? Perhaps, though the new novel, set once again in her fictional village of Three Pines, is an improvement over last year’s All the Devils are Here. Longtime readers will find familiar characters such as bistro owners Olivier and Gabri, artist Clara Morrow, African-Canadian psychologist Myrna Landers, Gamache’s godfather Stephen Horowitz, and cranky poet Ruth Zardo and her pet duck Rosa. Needless to say, the Sûreté du Québec team of Gamache, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and Isabel Lacoste is aboard, as is Gamache’s family. His wife Reine-Marie plays a role, as does his daughter Annie, who is married to Jean-Guy.


The Madness of Crowds is another of a spate of Covid-inspired novels. The title derives from an old book (1841) that once graced my bookshelf: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. As that title suggests, Penny takes a look at the phenomena of misinformation and the mischief it brings. Mischief comes in the form of Abigail Robinson, a university statistics professor. Stats profs aren’t generally the sort who make waves, but Robinson is an overnight social media sensation because of her controversial data linked to Covid. As we know, Covid has been particularly deadly for the elderly, those with compromised immunity systems, and those with physical challenges. Robinson’s data suggests that the best thing society could do is let such individuals die–a Darwinian culling of the herd that would reduce Covid transmission. She ups the ante by implying a form of modern-day eugenics and raises more ire by coopting a message of hope lifted from 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich. She wrote during the Black Death and is credited with assuring Christians that all shall be well again, rendered in Quebec as ça va bien aller.  


It's easy to imagine why millions would be angered by an argument that it would be best to let loved ones die, kill off grandparents, euthanize the weak, and take steps to make sure that fetuses with birth defects such as Down syndrome children are aborted. Robinson insists she’s merely reporting what the data tell her, but half of Canada would like to lynch her. The problem is that the other half see her as a prophet and applaud her ideas. If you think such a plot device is farfetched, listen to what many otherwise “nice” people are saying about those who refuse to get Covid vaccinations. Robinson wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen in the Three Pines area, though, until she’s invited to give a lecture at the nearby Université de l’ Estrie (possibly obliquely patterned after the branch campus of Bishop’s University in Knowlton). When Gamache learns of the firestorm flaring around Robinson’s research, he asks an old friend, Chancellor Colette Roberge, to use her influence to stop the lecture lest it degenerate into violence. She declines on the grounds of protecting academic freedom and shocks Gamache by revealing she was the one who invited Robinson! Gamache cobbles together a Sûreté security detail but, sure enough, someone fires shots at the stage. Luckily no one was injured.


This is the opening act of what will eventually involve a murder, discussion of the 100th monkey theory of innovation, a trip to McGill University’s Osler Medical Library, skeletons lurking in various closets, and way stops involving the CIA and MKUltra. Not the most pleasant way to welcome in the New Year in Three Pines! Plus, it’s personal for Jean-Guy and Annie, whose daughter Idola is Down syndrome.  To the mix, add Haniya Daoud, a young Sudanese woman nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Myrna and Clara instantly regret their decision to host her as Haniya is an intensely dislikable and judgmental person who voices her views that Quebec is unlivable and its inhabitants are privileged idiots.


Once the murder occurs, Gamache and Isabelle must deal with too many suspects, not too few. Among the possibilities are Jean-Guy, the Tardif family, Daoud, Roberge, and Vincent Gilbert, the disgraced scientist/humanist that Penny readers recognize as the “asshole saint.” Nor can Gamache dismiss the possibility that everything, including the murder, was a plan to bring sympathy to Abigail Robinson’s burgeoning movement. The madness of crowds indeed.


The novel’s strength lies with questions it raises over popular delusions in the age of volatile news networks, the Internet, and impression management. Penny’s recent works have, however, suffered from drifting into histrionics, implausibility, and action thriller plots that aren’t Gamache’s métier. (He’s more of an Hercule Poirot type than a Bruce Willis action hero.) There is also a sense that Three Pines could use a few new actors, as the current regulars (sans Ruth) are growing stale. In the interest of full confession, though, I’ll admit that I’m such a fan that I ripped through the new book like a newly opened bag of Oreos.


Rob Weir


Museum of Russian Icons a Nice Surprise


Clinton, Massachusetts

Thursday-Sunday 11-5


I have a book on my shelf titled Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. It did me no good whatsoever for my visit to the Museum of Russian Icons (MoRI) located in the pleasant Worcester County town of Clinton (13,435). It wasn’t useful for the simple reason that Roman Catholicism dominates Western Christian art and most Eastern Europeans were Orthodox, not Catholic. (Protestants often tend to be leery of art, especially in Pilgrim/Puritan New England, where adornment was often associated with unholy worldliness—still another reason why they seldom get invited to parties!)


St. Basil

For those who don’t know, Eastern Orthodox Christians made a definitive split from Roman Catholics in 1054; they were the heirs to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), as well as the intellectual traditions of ancient Greece. There are some similarities in the art of the East and that of the West: Jesus figures prominently in each and both venerated the Virgin Mary, but things begin to disintegrate from there. Orthodox Christianity rejects the supremacy of the pope and its leadership is more decentralized -- Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, etc.­—rather than concentrated in a pontiff in Rome. 


A Russian St. Nicholas     


Orthodox Christians also favor icons—representations of people or sacred events—over other religious trappings. They often build impressive churches—Hagia Sophia in Constantinople/Istanbul is one example, Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square another—but its followers were generally more literate and did not need as many visual representations as Roman Catholics. Small icons often accompanied worshipers to church, though they were not viewed as sacred in and of themselves. As the MoRI Website puts it, they were seen as “windows” to the sacred realm but are “purely functional.” In like fashion, Orthodoxy has saints, but they are not intercessors between congregants and God. If you know how to recognize Catholic saints, that won’t do you much good with Orthodox holy men unless they are Apostles. For instance, they have several named St. Nicholas, but they are not the ones you’re accustomed to seeing.


Gordon Lankton photo, 1956

By now you might be wondering why there is a museum to Russian icons in Clinton, a small town that used to be known for its mills, especially those connected to the plastics industry. Like many (ahem!) unorthodox museums, it has much to do with the vision of a single individual: Gordon B. Lankton (1931-2021) who was an engineer in a Clinton plastics injection plant. Like many professionals, he had a pre-life before becoming financially successful. He went to Cornell, where he developed a deep interest in Russian culture. In 1956, he bought a motorcycle, put himself on a $5/day budget, and motored across Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa and Asia. He bought his first icon during a 1989 business trip to Russia and eventually collected more than a thousand of them before his death earlier this year. The MoRI is currently displaying a superb photo exhibit of Lankford’s 1956 sojourns. 


Cathedral Sized Icon

It turns out that Lankford also knew how to capture amazing images in the lens of his travel Leica. It is, though, the icons that are the museum’s raison d’être. Perhaps you imagine that two floors filled with religious art would be either boring or too much of a good thing. That was exactly my fear before I entered. I don’t intend any sacrilege when I say that a visit to the MoRI is trippy. There are small icons that can fit in the watch pocket of a pair of Levis, metal-encased ovals suitable for homes, and multi-paneled paintings on wood that once graced churches. 



Because icons are functional liturgical items, most are unsigned and all are stylized rather than works of imagination. At first glance they bear resemblance to Venetian religious painting and appear to be standardized. Actually, that’s more true of Western religious art. If you look closely you will notice that two icons produced during the same period vary, especially in small ways. They are, of course, imbued with symbolism. Be sure to start in the basement for a crash course in some of the basic symbols and a primer on how to “see” icons.


Not Made by Hands? *

The MoRI has been on my bucket list for years. Like all things that are roughly 90 minutes from one’s front door, actually go there was also on the dreaded “I can do that any old time” agenda of things that have an annoying tendency to never happen. Now that I’ve been there, return visits now top the bucket list. 


Confession: I had never heard of St. Nil!

By the way, a trip to Clinton also entails driving along the Wachusett Reservoir. The only larger fresh water body in Massachusetts is the Quabbin, though Wachusett is more open and it takes your breath away when it first comes into view.


Rob Weir


*The above Not Made by Hands image of Jesus is a Russian take on Western legends such as Veronica's Veil and the Shroud of Turin.