In St. Petersburg, David Byrne’s deconstructed band brandishes its bold, musical reckoning at Mahaffey Theater

It’s never been more fun to feel so exposed.

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click to enlarge David Byrne plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on September 30, 2018 - Tracy May
Tracy May
David Byrne plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on September 30, 2018

There’s been a long-running movement in the culinary world where chefs and bartenders deconstruct dishes or drinks and plate them in sometimes perplexing arrangements. To critics, it’s a goddamn travesty to see something basic like tiramisu be presented as “cappuccino, cocoa, cream, crumb cake” or watch ingredients from negronis and Manhattans pulled apart from each other and then reimagined in their own bewildering ways. What diners have learned from the approach, however, is how to appreciate each singular part and realize how complex some of life’s most simple pleasures really are.

David Byrne and Tune-Yards at St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater

In a way, David Byrne attempted to do that onstage on Sunday in front of a very sold-out Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. For nearly two hours, the 66-year-old art-pop icon and his 11-piece, un-tethered band worked through 20 songs that most definitely pleased longtime fans (breaking out a polyrhythmic “I Zimbra” and an electric re-imagining of “Slippery People” certainly appeased Talking Heads right off the bat) while also making — and winning — the argument than Byrne is truly one of the most important artists in the history of rock.

A David Byrne bicycle ride through St. Petersburg

Still, the gray-haired wundermann felt the need to explain himself. Before a run through Remain In The Light highlight “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” Byrne told the crowd about all the journalists who’ve reached out to his publicist during the course of this seemingly-never ending tour to ask if the band — all barefoot and dressed like Byrne in over-sized gray suits — is truly playing all of that sound booming out of the PA. Spoiler: it is, no backing tracks whatsoever.

To prove it, Byrne introduced each member and had them layer parts on top of each other one-by-one. Byrne didn’t have to mention it, but taking a look at all those hands working through the tune not only made Byrne’s sound engineer an instant idol, but pulled the veil back on a nearly 30-year-old song that, in itself, sheds a lot of light on the public’s current obsession with American politics. It was like explaining the pledge, turn and prestige all at once — it didn’t make the set any less magical, either.

In fact, it turned the spotlight even brighter, and as Byrne bathed in it (along with the shadows of the single bulb onstage for “Bullet” — one of many songs from his new solo album American Utopia) plus the other international sounds the band put together (electric acid-jazz piano on “Heart Attack,” synthesized accordion on Bright Port Authority track “Toe Jam” or the many djembe solos), it was easy to think back to a time in the early 80s when Byrne was under attack by critics who said that his sound was another form of cultural appropriation by a white man who lives under a different set of circumstances than the makers of the foreign sounds he loved do.

Byrne has never been one to shy away from that critique. In fact, he’s turned it into a conversation, and that spirit of accepting and acknowledging appropriation was laid out forcefully during an opening set from Tune-Yards where frontwoman Merrill Garbus unleashed the cathartic, freight train-esque force of her band’s schizo, big-beat-driven anthem “Colonizer” where she sings this verse:

I use my white woman's voice to interpret my travels with African men
I turn on my white woman's voice to contextualize acts of my white women friends
I cry my white woman tears carving grooves in my cheeks to display what I meant
I smell the blood in my voice
I smell the blood in my voice
Especially the blood in my voice
Especially the blood in my voice

It was powerful stuff, and Tune-Yards’ direct, artfully blunt, purposeful and riveting set was a good foil for the way Byrne and his band would mix serious subject matter (the satirical “Doing The Right Thing,” the scathing hopelessness of The Great Curve where Byrne ripped solos on cream-colored Stratocaster while his guitarists did the same) in with seemingly innocent runs through hits like “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” and “Once In A Lifetime.” Those cuts obviously bury much deeper meaning in their addictive, earworm-y musical themes, but if fans didn’t get them, then Byrne, Garbus and band let them enjoy something more pointed by finishing the second encore with a run through Janelle Monae’s biting 2015 protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout.” Closing a show by chanting the names of deceased victims of police brutality was bold, especially in a red state approaching the process and consequences of a November 6 midterm, but how else was the gig supposed to end?

For more than 100-minutes, Byrne and band, worked through an aerobic, body-defying set that was exercise for the audience, too. Byrne has made a decades-long career out of challenging himself and listeners with nearly every release.

Yes, Byrne deconstructed it visually on Sunday, but in stripping back the parts, he did what he’s always done and told us more about ourselves than we could ever figure out on our own. Life is so good for so many right now, but most of us are smart enough to know that so many live life as an exception to that. There is — put simply — a lot of suffering, and a lot to be scared about, in the world. If it takes a catchy song to shake us out of our naivete, then so be it. Beauty is not what we’re after anyway, and sometimes you’ve got to break it all down to figure it out.

See setlists and listen to a playlist of songs from the show below. Check out more of Tracy’s pictures by visiting


ABC 123
Water Fountain
Coast to Coast
Heart Attack

David Byrne
I Zimbra (Talking Heads)
Slippery People (Talking Heads)
I Should Watch TV (St. Vincent)
Dog’s Mind
Everybody's Coming To My House
This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) (Talking Heads)
Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads)
Doing the Right Thing
Toe Jam (Brighton Port Authority)
Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (Talking Heads)
I Dance Like This
Every Day is a Miracle
Like Humans Do
Blind (Talking Heads)
Burning Down the House (Talking Heads)

Dancing Together
The Great Curve (Talking Heads)

Hell You Talmbout (Janelle Monáe) (w/Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus)

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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