Bicycle Diaries: Cruising With the ‘American Utopia’ Family

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On a dock in Queens, David Byrne’s musical bicycle gang was gearing up to go.

“Are we all set?” Byrne termed.

It was a Saturday in late August, and the gang — 3 percussionists, a guitarist, a bassist and me, along with a daredevil photographer and lighting assistant — have been sitting down astride bicycles as Byrne, our fearless two-wheeled chief, outlined the plan.

He wore a brimmed, pith-model helmet and a tour guide’s comfortable confidence: He’d done this route ahead of, from Astoria to Flushing. The place was the Queens Night time Market, a paradise of world meals stalls at the website of the 1964 World’s Honest. He’d already been conversing up a ceviche stand and the all-women samba drumline he’d seen the past time he’d pedaled as a result of.

The sector, in its range, “is actually extraordinary,” he explained — the sort of endeavor that looks like an antidote to our present-day social divisiveness. “In that context, you seriously go, ‘OK, this is not impossible, we can do this.’” It’s a concept of local community-as-uplift that Byrne, the former Chatting Heads frontman, has been major on lately, with his hit theatrical concert “American Utopia,” a mostly joyous pilgrimage by his tunes. Even the act of extreme weather conditions that in the end derailed our trip didn’t suppress his potential to find revelation domestically.

Byrne is, of system, a devoted cyclist: He’s prepared a e-book about it, and even created bike racks previous 7 days, he took an e-bike to the Achieved Gala (so he wouldn’t get sweaty!) and checked his helmet at the doorway. In the In advance of Occasions, I could from time to time clock the velocity and verve of my nightlife by how often I intersected with him dashing to some event alongside the Williamsburg waterfront bike route. He was straightforward to place, frequently dressed in somehow still-pristine white — as he was on this night, stepping off the East River ferry in white trousers, a blue guayabera shirt and brown fisherman sandals. His entire crew, castmates from “American Utopia,” had been onboard, as well.

On the dock, he gave a several typical guidelines — dangle a remaining at the large brick setting up, “go down for, like, a few miles really should I say when our future convert is? Sixty-initially, we make a right” — and then we peeled off. In interchanging pairs or distribute out, our expedition took up 50 percent a town block. “Riding in New York is — hoo-hoo!” trilled Angie Swan, the guitarist, who had moved listed here from Milwaukee to operate with Byrne and was now dodging through a crowded bicycle lane.

It was the weekend prior to rehearsals commenced for the Broadway return of “American Utopia.” But the forged had already been convening all through the pandemic for these miles-long, leisurely (or not) bicycle rides all over city, led by Byrne, who is 69 and has the endurance of an athlete and the curiosity of a cultural omnivore. Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island: He traversed the town a couple of times a week at least, trailing bandmates together with him.

“That form of groundbreaking spirit that he has in music is the same as he has in his bike rides,” Jacquelene Acevedo, a percussionist and Toronto transplant who lives in Brooklyn, stated as we pedaled together, passing beneath the rumbling practice and only-in-Queens intersections like the corner of 31st Avenue and 31st Avenue. She mentioned she acquired to know the city on these socially distanced rides. “We would go on these adventures,” she claimed. “It’s fantastic. You occur back again 6 hrs afterwards, fatigued, like, ‘Where did I go?’”

That Saturday, we pulsed by way of Jackson Heights toward Corona — two neighborhoods, Byrne observed later on, that had been strike hard, early on, by the coronavirus — and noticed the city’s rhythms adjust. We spun by way of households barbecuing on pedestrian blocks and dinged our bells together to the streetside cumbia and reggaeton. It was, in a word, glorious.


Sept. 15, 2021, 10:43 a.m. ET

We might’ve blown a couple of stoplights, also, and prompted some double-usually takes as Cole Wilson, the photographer, and his assistant, Bryan Banducci, cycled in advance of the team but peered backward to get their shot. Byrne was often in the direct as soon as website traffic disappeared, he removed his helmet, revealing his signature silver coif.

By the time we landed in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the sun was location. Byrne led us to his ceviche place. Times later on, the skies opened up: Tropical Storm Henri, arriving considerably before than the forecast predicted. We ended up rapidly drenched. So, so drenched.

A night time that was intended to be a dreamy celebration of this multicultural metropolis and its serendipitous connections, professional from atop a bike seat, wound up in a (really) soggy team subway experience dwelling. But even that turned a moment for Byrnian surprise, many thanks to a subway preacher and her acolytes, and an unanticipated little bit of ecstatic dance — the civic and the divine aboard the 7 train. Byrne clocked it all, surrounded by his bikemates.

This team of musicians had toured with “American Utopia” when it was a far more regular rock live performance a handful of years back, and their matching bikes — a folding product created by Tern — came together then, also. The bikes had their have compartment on the tour bus: “Even when we went abroad, the bikes would arrive,” mentioned Tim Keiper, a drummer. They would at times ride 25 miles ahead of soundcheck, extra Daniel Freedman, a further drummer. (There are far more than four dozen percussion devices in the clearly show.) “David would find the interesting issue,” Freedman explained, “and be like, there’s a cafe or a museum or one thing bizarre, amusing — ‘Cumming, Iowa! We have received to go!’”

For Byrne, the rides kept him “sane on the highway,” he explained to me later, “and motivated and stimulated.”

It also gave his forged and crew a connection that was exceptional among the performers. The unique run of “American Utopia” ended in February 2020, just in advance of the coronavirus shut down the city’s dwell effectiveness spaces. In the course of lockdown, Annie-B Parson, the show’s choreographer, observed the “American Utopia” crew a ton much more than anyone else, she explained. The cast’s emotional closeness onstage? “It’s not acted.”

“Bike driving is a good metaphor,” she included, “because there’s a kinship. There is a team relocating collectively, but everybody’s in their have space. But there is a unison. It’s a dance, for guaranteed.”

Times right after drying out from the Queens journey, the team gathered for rehearsals. “American Utopia” is now participating in at the St. James Theater, a greater Broadway location than its previous household, the Hudson. Parson, a downtown choreographer recognised for her focus to type and multimedia depth, was thrilled to find out that the phase is a rectangle, as she’d at first envisioned for the piece. “To me, a square condition is a heat form that faces in, because there is symmetry on the sides,” she defined. “A rectangular form implies infinity, for the reason that it reaches out on the sides. They are both gorgeous. This present, and David, to me, I affiliate with a rectangle.”

So Parson polished the choreography, a great deal of which is performed by the musicians while they are taking part in. (Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba, standouts onstage and in Spike Lee’s filmed version of the present, are the major dancers.) In one rehearsal, Parson directed Byrne to amplify a minute by turning to deal with his castmates, providing an more conquer of relationship there — the pandemic experienced underscored a concept of the present, “that we’re not atomized entities,” Byrne explained. “Being with each other with other people is this kind of a big component of what we are as people.”

As a collaborator, Byrne leads with praise. Seeing his percussion circle, he danced together with his pretty main. “I enjoy the very first fifty percent where by you alter up the groove, but it still retains all the momentum,” he advised them.

In Byrne’s modern eclectic career, “American Utopia,” which will receive a unique Tony Award at this Sunday’s ceremony, has taken up a more substantial chunk than other tasks. It may be because it would make him happier. “It’s a incredibly transferring exhibit to do,” he said, “and a great deal of fun” — not the very least for the reason that audiences shimmy with abandon a handful of songs in.

And it pulls from the panoply of Byrne’s pursuits. There’s neuroscience, civic record, and Brazilian, African and Latin instrumentation. The visual and movement references span the planet: the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer ’70s Japanese motion pictures a Thai king’s coronation and, soon after our Queens odyssey, a scene from the 7 train, when a girl pulled out a mic and an amp, plugged in and began proselytizing.

Byrne, unrecognized beneath his mask, stood around her, keeping his bike. Throughout the way, her companion suddenly started carrying out impassioned hand motions that ended up reminiscent of some “American Utopia” moves, waving and snapping her wrists about her experience. “Annie-B really should see this!” Byrne explained, almost to himself. Somebody taped a snippet, and he despatched it off to her to check out out.

“There are no words to describe how adventurous David is,” Parson reported. “He constantly finds the most profound way to interact with a area with his bicycle, and he often invites other individuals, graciously, to sign up for in.”