About a half hour before XPNFest’s night one headlining sets began, things did not look promising. Wiggins Park had just been evacuated due to an approaching thunderstorm, ticketholders were jammed in the lobbies keeping dry from the downpour. Where was this night going to take us?
With David Byrne and Sylvan Esso as our guides, it transcended the soggy situation. Though markedly different in look, sound and style, both performances brought innovation and inspiration to the BB&T Pavilion stage; they brought big beats and danceable rhythms, they brought maximally minimal approaches to live music, they brought songs that move your body and make you think about the world around you, feeling the gravity of life in 2018 but dancing our way towards a positive future. And as the crowd felt that energy, the air around us seemed to change, calming down midway through Sylvan Esso’s set and clearing up completely for Byrne’s extravagant headliner.
Though Durham electronic rock act Sylvan Esso keeps things straightforward personnel-wise — Nick Sanborn on samplers and electronic gadgets pumping out rhythms and textures, Amelia Meath on vocals and air kicks and pure energy — the duo is more than enough to fill spaces this big. Opening on the meditative pulse of “Sound,” the band warmed it up gradually song by song, jogging and jumping on “Signal” from last year’s What Now, hitting a full sprint on the effervescent “Kick Jump Twist.”
If the crowd under the shed were damp and tentative at first, they loosened up as the performance went on; not only a singular singer and nimble dancer, Meath essentially acts as her own hype woman, working the crowd with as much fervor as she centers the show. “This is our new song,” she said to introduce “PARAD(w/m)E.” “It’s about the end of the world.” Maybe the doomy dark clouds earlier might have made that an appropriate anthem for the evening, but Sylvan Esso’s outlook was that if you are facing down trouble, the best way to face it is on your feet, moving as fast as you can — and that’s what the #XPNFest audience did as “Hey Mami” dropped into “H.S.K.T.” into the roof-raising anthem “Radio.”
As for the great Mr. Byrne…just wow. As I write, the set was 15 hours ago and I’m still kind of processing what I saw from the former Talking Heads frontman.
For one thing, the much-discussed staging of the show — a large rectangle empty of amplifiers and typical production clutter, grey walls of strung beads (that look not unlike a much larger scale version of the Johnny Brenda’s walls), and a dozen musicians clad in grey and performing barefoot — absolutely lived up to the hype. The blank canvas approach allowed them to use theatrical lighting to frame the open space in all sorts of imaginative ways. It was a classroom, as Bryne sat at a desk, gesturing to a model of a human brain on the pulsing opener “Here” from this year’s American Utopia; it was a dark living room as he stared into a purple glow resembling a screen on “I Should Watch TV” from his St. Vincent collaboration, Love This Giant; it was a hall of shadows on a rendition of “Blind” by Talking Heads.
Beyond the visual spectacle, and the generally cerebral nature of Byrne’s music, there were also practical, down-to-earth words of wisdom from him. Introducing the jamming “Everybody’s Coming To My House” from Utopia, he shouted out the voter registration nonprofit Head Count, which they’ve partnered with on tour. “Voting is so important, particularly in local elections,” he said. “We Americans have a bad record with that, but we have to vote every time we can.”
The biggest Heads hits were represented — “Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place)” was a joyous singalong, contrasted by the more existential “Once In A Lifetime” (which the crowd nonetheless got down to). He dug up the song “Toe Jam” that he collaborated on with Fatboy Slim’s Norman Cook in The Brighton Port Authority back in 2008. “He made a music video for it,” Byrne explained before launching into the oddball funk tune. “I can’t take any credit for it, but it’s very funny.”
He also addressed the skeptics who thought “we have playback, we have backing tracks, and we’re just miming” just before his band introductions. “The music you hear coming off this stage, every bit of it, is being played by these incredible musicians,” he said, before shouting out percussionists Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Aaron Johnston, Tim Keiper, Mauro Refosco, Davi Vieira, porta-keyboardist Karl Mansfield, guitarist Angie Swan, and bassist Bobby Wooten.
A rousing “Burning Down The House” was the pop high point, with everybody singing and dancing along, but the set closed even more powerfully with a cover of Janelle Monae’s 2015 protest song “Hell You Talmout,” a memorial to black and brown Americans who have been killed by law enforcement and in other racially motivated encounters. “I saw her perform this at the Women’s March,” Byrne said. “She wrote it in 2015. And it is sadly as relevant now as it was then. We have updated it, and will continue to do so.”
A charging drumline pounded across five minutes as Byrne and his bandmates shouted the names of Freddie Grey, Aiyana Jones, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin — more names that I could keep tally of, which is a sad thing on numerous levels — followed by the full crew joining on the response “SAY HIS NAME! SAY HER NAME!” The mood in the crowd was tense (and some tone-deaf dudebros behind me started an Eagles chant at one point, because that’s totally the appropriate response here) but as the song rocketed to a conclusion, the crowd applauded fervently, giving me some hope that we are inching towards a better world.
Below, check out a gallery of photos, both setlists, and fan videos of Byrne.
Sylvan Esso Setlist
Kick Jump Twist
David Byrne Setlist
I Should Watch TV
Everybody’s Coming to My House
This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)
Once in a Lifetime
I Dance Like This
Every Day Is a Miracle
Like Humans Do
The Great Curve
Burning Down the House
Hell You Talmbout
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