On a dock in Queens, David Byrne’s musical bike gang was gearing as much as go.
“Are we prepared?” Byrne known as.
It was a Saturday in late August, and the gang — three percussionists, a guitarist, a bassist and me, together with a daredevil photographer and lighting assistant — had been sitting astride bicycles as Byrne, our fearless two-wheeled chief, outlined the plan.
He wore a brimmed, pith-style helmet and a tour information’s relaxed confidence: He’d accomplished this route earlier than, from Astoria to Flushing. The vacation spot was the Queens Night time Market, a paradise of worldwide meals stalls on the web site of the 1964 World’s Truthful. He’d already been speaking up a ceviche stand and the all-women samba drumline he’d seen the final time he’d pedaled by.
The market, in its range, “is absolutely extraordinary,” he stated — the sort of endeavor that looks like an antidote to our present social divisiveness. “In that context, you actually go, ‘OK, this isn’t unimaginable, we will do that.’” It’s a message of community-as-uplift that Byrne, the previous Speaking Heads frontman, has been huge on lately, along with his hit theatrical live performance “American Utopia,” a largely joyous pilgrimage by his music. Even the act of utmost climate that in the end derailed our journey didn’t curb his capacity to seek out revelation regionally.
Byrne is, in fact, a faithful bike owner: He’s written a e book about it, and even designed bike racks; final week, he took an e-bike to the Met Gala (so he wouldn’t get sweaty!) and checked his helmet on the door. Within the Earlier than Occasions, I might generally clock the rate and verve of my nightlife by how continuously I intersected with him dashing to some occasion alongside the Williamsburg waterfront bike path. He was simple to identify, usually wearing in some way still-pristine white — as he was on this night, stepping off the East River ferry in white pants, a blue guayabera shirt and brown fisherman sandals. His complete crew, castmates from “American Utopia,” had been onboard, too.
On the dock, he gave a couple of normal directions — hold a left on the huge brick constructing, “go down for, like, a pair miles; ought to I say when our subsequent flip is? Sixty-first, we make a proper” — after which we peeled off. In interchanging pairs or unfold out, our expedition took up half a metropolis block. “Using in New York is — hoo-hoo!” trilled Angie Swan, the guitarist, who had moved right here from Milwaukee to work with Byrne and was now dodging by a crowded bike lane.
It was the weekend earlier than rehearsals started for the Broadway return of “American Utopia.” However the solid had already been convening all through the pandemic for these miles-long, leisurely (or not) bike rides round city, led by Byrne, who’s 69 and has the stamina of an athlete and the curiosity of a cultural omnivore. Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island: He traversed town a few instances every week at the very least, trailing bandmates alongside him.
“That sort of pioneering spirit that he has in music is similar as he has in his bike rides,” Jacquelene Acevedo, a percussionist and Toronto transplant who lives in Manhattan, stated as we pedaled alongside, passing beneath the rumbling prepare and only-in-Queens intersections just like the nook of thirty first Avenue and thirty first Road. She stated she acquired to know town on these socially distanced rides. “We’d go on these adventures,” she stated. “It’s nice. You come again six hours later, exhausted, like, ‘The place did I am going?’”
That Saturday, we pulsed by Jackson Heights towards Corona — two neighborhoods, Byrne noticed later, that had been hit exhausting, early on, by the coronavirus — and noticed town’s rhythms change. We spun by households barbecuing on pedestrian blocks and dinged our bells alongside to the streetside cumbia and reggaeton. It was, in a phrase, superb.
We’d’ve blown a couple of stoplights, too, and brought on some double-takes as Cole Wilson, the photographer, and his assistant, Bryan Banducci, cycled forward of the group however peered backward to get their shot. Byrne was at all times within the lead; as quickly as site visitors disappeared, he eliminated his helmet, revealing his signature silver coif.
By the point we landed in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the solar was setting. Byrne led us to his ceviche spot. Moments later, the skies opened up: Tropical Storm Henri, arriving far sooner than the forecast predicted. We had been shortly drenched. So, so drenched.
An evening that was meant to be a dreamy celebration of this multicultural metropolis and its serendipitous connections, skilled from atop a motorbike seat, wound up in a (very) soggy group subway journey house. However even that grew to become a second for Byrnian marvel, due to a subway preacher and her acolytes, and an sudden little bit of ecstatic dance — the civic and the divine aboard the 7 prepare. Byrne clocked all of it, surrounded by his bikemates.
This group of musicians had toured with “American Utopia” when it was a extra conventional rock live performance a couple of years in the past, and their matching bikes — a folding mannequin made by Tern — got here alongside then, too. The bikes had their very own compartment on the tour bus: “Even once we went abroad, the bikes would come,” stated Tim Keiper, a drummer. They’d generally journey 25 miles earlier than soundcheck, added Daniel Freedman, one other drummer. (There are greater than 4 dozen percussion devices within the present.) “David would discover the cool factor,” Freedman stated, “and be like, there’s a restaurant or a museum or one thing weird, humorous — ‘Cumming, Iowa! We’ve acquired to go!’”
For Byrne, the rides stored him “sane on the highway,” he advised me later, “and impressed and stimulated.”
It additionally gave his solid and crew a connection that was uncommon amongst performers. The unique run of “American Utopia” resulted in February 2020, simply earlier than the coronavirus shut down town’s dwell efficiency areas. Throughout lockdown, Annie-B Parson, the present’s choreographer, noticed the “American Utopia” crew much more than anyone else, she stated. The solid’s emotional closeness onstage? “It’s not acted.”
“Bike driving is a pleasant metaphor,” she added, “as a result of there’s a kinship. There’s a gaggle shifting collectively, however everyone’s in their very own area. However there’s a unison. It’s a dance, for positive.”
Days after drying out from the Queens journey, the group gathered for rehearsals. “American Utopia” is now taking part in on the St. James Theater, a much bigger Broadway venue than its earlier house, the Hudson. Parson, a downtown choreographer recognized for her consideration to type and multimedia element, was thrilled to study that the stage is a rectangle, as she’d initially envisioned for the piece. “To me, a sq. form is a heat form that faces in, as a result of there’s symmetry on the edges,” she defined. “An oblong form implies infinity, as a result of it reaches out on the edges. They’re each stunning. This present, and David, to me, I affiliate with a rectangle.”
So Parson polished the choreography, a lot of which is finished by the musicians whereas they’re taking part in. (Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba, standouts onstage and in Spike Lee’s filmed model of the present, are the principle dancers.) In a single rehearsal, Parson directed Byrne to amplify a second by turning to face his castmates, giving an additional beat of connection there — the pandemic had underscored a theme of the present, “that we’re not atomized entities,” Byrne stated. “Being along with different individuals is such a giant a part of what we’re as people.”
As a collaborator, Byrne leads with reward. Watching his percussion circle, he danced alongside along with his very core. “I really like the primary half the place you modify up the groove, nevertheless it nonetheless retains all of the momentum,” he advised them.
In Byrne’s current eclectic profession, “American Utopia,” which is able to obtain a particular Tony Award at this Sunday’s ceremony, has taken up a much bigger chunk than different tasks. It might be as a result of it makes him happier. “It’s a really shifting present to do,” he stated, “and loads of enjoyable” — not least as a result of audiences shimmy with abandon a couple of songs in.
And it pulls from the panoply of Byrne’s pursuits. There’s neuroscience, civic historical past, and Brazilian, African and Latin instrumentation. The visible and motion references span the world: the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer; ’70s Japanese motion pictures; a Thai king’s coronation; and, after our Queens odyssey, a scene from the 7 prepare, when a lady pulled out a mic and an amp, plugged in and commenced proselytizing.
Byrne, unrecognized beneath his masks, stood close to her, holding his bike. Throughout the way in which, her companion out of the blue started doing impassioned hand motions that had been paying homage to some “American Utopia” strikes, waving and snapping her wrists round her face. “Annie-B ought to see this!” Byrne stated, virtually to himself. Somebody taped a snippet, and he despatched it off to her to take a look at.
“There aren’t any phrases to explain how adventurous David is,” Parson stated. “He at all times finds essentially the most profound approach to work together with a spot along with his bicycle, and he at all times invitations others, graciously, to affix in.”