On a quay in Queens, David Byrne’s musical biker gang was getting ready to leave.
“Are we ready?” Byrne called.
It was a late August Saturday, and the gang – three percussionists, a guitarist, a bassist and I, along with a daredevil photographer and a lighting assistant – sat astride bikes as Byrne , our fearless leader on two wheels, laid out the plan.
He wore a soft-rimmed helmet and the relaxed confidence of a tour guide: he had done this route before, from Astoria to Flushing. The destination was the Queens Night Market, a world food stall paradise on the site of the 1964 World’s Fair. He had previously spoken of a ceviche stall and the all-female samba drums he had seen there. last time he had cycled.
The market, in its diversity, “is truly extraordinary,” he said – the kind of effort that seems to be an antidote to our current social division. “In that context, you’re really like, ‘OK, it’s not impossible, we can do it. hit the theatrical concert “American Utopia”, a pilgrimage mainly joyful through its music. Even the extreme weather conditions that ultimately derailed our ride did not limit its ability to find disclosures locally.
Byrne is, of course, a dedicated cyclist: he wrote a book about it and even designed bike racks; last week he took an electric bike to the Met Gala (so he wouldn’t sweat!) and checked his helmet at the door. In Before Times, I could sometimes measure the speed and verve of my nightlife by how often I passed him while speeding up for an event along the Williamsburg Waterfront Bike Path. He was easy to spot, often dressed in still pristine white – as he was that night, stepping off the East River ferry in white pants, a blue guayabera shirt, and brown fisherman’s sandals. All her crew, comrades from “American Utopia”, were also on board.
On the wharf, he gave some general instructions – lean left at the big brick building, “Come down for, like, a few miles; should I say when is our next turn? Sixty-first, we make a right ”- then we took off. In pairs exchanged or dispersed, our expedition occupied half a block. “Driving in New York is – hoo-hoo! trills Angie Swan, the guitarist, who had moved here from Milwaukee to work with Byrne and was now dodging a crowded bike path.
It was the weekend before rehearsals for the return to Broadway of “American Utopia” began. But the cast had already gathered throughout the pandemic for these leisurely (or not) kilometer-long bike rides around town led by Byrne, who is 69 years old and has the endurance of an athlete and the curiosity of a cultural omnivore. Queens, Bronx, Staten Island: he crossed town at least twice a week, dragging his group mates to his side.
“That kind of pioneering spirit he has in music is the same he has in his bike rides,” said Jacquelene Acevedo, percussionist and Toronto transplant worker who lives in Manhattan, as we cycle, passing under the rumble train and only- intersections in Queens like the corner of 31st Avenue and 31st Street. She said she got to know the city on these socially remote rides. “We would go on these adventures,” she said. “That’s good. You come back six hours later, exhausted, like, ‘Where have I been?’
That Saturday, we drove through Jackson Heights towards Corona – two neighborhoods, Byrne later observed, that had been hit hard, early on, by the coronavirus – and saw the rhythms of the city change. We walked through families barbecuing on pedestrian blocks and rang our bells along cumbia and reggaeton by the side of the street. It was, in a word, glorious.
We also maybe blew up a few red lights and caused a few double takes as Cole Wilson the photographer and his assistant Bryan Banducci rode past the group but looked back to take their picture. Byrne was still in the lead; As soon as the traffic was gone, he took off his helmet, revealing his signature silver headdress.
As we landed at Flushing Meadows Corona Park the sun was setting. Byrne led us to his ceviche spot. A few moments later, the skies opened: Tropical Storm Henri, arrived much earlier than expected. We were quickly soaked. So, so soaked.
One night that was to be a dream celebration of this multicultural city and its fortuitous connections, experienced on top of a bicycle seat, ended in a (very) soggy group ride on the metro. But even that turned into a moment for Byrnian’s wonder, thanks to a subway preacher and his cronies, and an unexpected bit of ecstatic dancing – the civic and the divine aboard Train 7. Byrne timed everything, surrounded by his cycling companions.
This group of musicians had toured with “American Utopia” at a more traditional rock concert a few years ago, and their matching bikes – a foldable model made by Tern – also arrived. The bikes had their own compartment on the tour bus: “Even when we went overseas, the bikes came,” said Tim Keiper, a drummer. They would sometimes run 25 miles before the soundcheck, added Daniel Freedman, another drummer. (There are over four dozen percussion instruments in the show.) “David would find what’s cool,” Freedman said, “and be like, there’s a restaurant or a museum or something weird, funny – “Cumming, Iowa! We have to go! “
For Byrne, the rides kept him “healthy on the road,” he later told me, “and inspired and energized.”
It also gave his cast and crew a rare connection among performers. The original airing of “American Utopia” ended in February 2020, just before the coronavirus closed theaters in the city. During the lockdown, Annie-B Parson, the show’s choreographer, saw the “American Utopia” team a lot more than anyone, she said. The emotional proximity of the actors on stage? “It is not played.”
“Riding a bike is a great metaphor,” she added, “because there is a kinship. There is a group that moves together, but each is in their own space. But there is a unison. It’s a dance, that’s for sure.
A few days after drying off from the Queens ride, the band reunited for rehearsals. “American Utopia” is now playing at the St. James Theater, a Broadway venue larger than its former home, the Hudson. Parson, a downtown choreographer known for her attention to form and multimedia detail, was delighted to learn that the stage is a rectangle, as she had originally envisioned for the play. “For me, a square shape is a warm face-up shape, because there is symmetry on the sides,” she explained. “A rectangular shape implies infinity, because it extends to the sides. They are both beautiful. This show, and David, for me, I associate it with a rectangle.
Parson therefore polished the choreography, much of which is performed by the musicians as they perform. (Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba, who stand out on stage and in Spike Lee’s filmed version of the show, are the lead dancers.) During a rehearsal, Parson asked Byrne to amplify a moment by turning to her cast mates, which gave her an added rhythm of connection. – the pandemic had underlined a theme of the show, “that we are not atomized entities”, said Byrne. “Being with other people is such a big part of who we are as individuals.”
As a collaborator, Byrne leads with praise. Watching his percussion circle, he danced with his very heart. “I love the first half where you change the pace, but it always keeps all the momentum,” he told them.
In Byrne’s recent eclectic career, “American Utopia”, which will receive a special Tony Award at this Sunday’s ceremony, has taken on a larger share than the other projects. Maybe that’s because it makes him happier. “It’s a very emotional show to do,” he said, “and a lot of fun” – not least because the audience gets moved by dropping a few songs.
And he draws from the panoply of Byrne’s interests. There are neurosciences, civic history and Brazilian, African and Latin instrumentation. Visual and movement references span the world: Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer; Japanese films from the 1970s; the coronation of a Thai king; and, after our odyssey in Queens, a scene from Train 7, when a woman pulled out a mic and amp, plugged it in and started proselytizing.
Byrne, unrecognized under his mask, stood beside her, holding her bicycle. Opposite, his companion suddenly began to make passionate hand movements reminiscent of certain “American utopian” movements, waving and snapping his wrists around his face. “Annie-B should see this!” Byrne said, almost to himself. Someone recorded a snippet and sent it in for review.
“There are no words to describe how adventurous David is,” Parson said. “He always finds the deepest way to interact with a place on his bike, and he always invites others, graciously, to join us.”