One sympathizes with the task saddled onto the good folks running the benefit concert/career-spanning tribute to New York institution David Byrne. That job must have been, to invoke the old saw, the rough equivalent of herding cats. Nineteen separate acts? Each to perform a single number? I mean, Jesus.
Yes, one sympathizes, and one can understand and let slide the consequent aura of general slap-dashedness. Witness, for example, the emcee’s efforts to tie the whole thing together, her disembodied locutions more than a little reminiscent of Troy McClure (You might remember this next singer-songwriter from such collaborations as…). And that was when she bothered to introduce the next-up at all! Or consider how, with a handful of exceptions, the stage-lighting stayed the same throughout, at a level about four turns of the dimmer-switch too far for a rock show, even during the abeyant silences between songs, when audience members were treated to the sight of big-name musicians wandering onstage, plugging distractedly in, flicking on amps, and, presumably, wondering where the hell the roadies were. You kinda got the sense that everyone signed on for this a long time ago, then forgot about it till maybe the weekend of. All of which is, to be fair, merely so much bitching. After all, evoking a small-town talent show ain’t half bad when the talent you’ve got includes the Roots, Glen Hansard, Sharon Jones, and CeeLo. Oh, and Steve Earle and one-half of Sleigh Bells and Billy Goddamn Gibbons from ZZ Top.
Besides, maybe the very talent-showish lack of production quality was meant to be some Byrnian meta-joke. (One can’t help but recall the injunction from the bonus interview on the VHS of Stop Making Sense, that a live show ought not try to.) Plus hey, the less this whole shebang cost to pull off, the more, I’m guessing, flowed into charitable coffers. Can’t argue with that, now, can we?
Still, no doubt a couple acts suffered from the ill-conception. Poor Cibo Matto, for starters: Their “I Zimbra” would’ve been a standout had it not begun the show proper, coming right on the heels of the Little Kids Rock preamble — a totally passable “Stay Up Late,” by the way — after which the lights maintained that weird mid-level intensity whereby choreographed moves look totally affected, and how on earth were Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda and Co. expected to replicate the groupthink-freakout of Fear of Music‘s leadoff track in those environs? Likewise for house-band Antibalas’ solo showpiece “Crosseyed and Painless.” As with “Zimbra,” you couldn’t help but wonder what the result would’ve been if the sequencing had been more thoughtful. Why not front-load with a couple of big Talking Heads hits, then get to this freaky-styley stuff?
Things got lifted in a hurry by way of Esperanza Spalding, whose “Road to Nowhere,” by contrast, suited the cut of the Carnegie jib just fine, the savvy reworking affording the gamine bassist-singer a platform to burnish her particular Jekyll-Hyde mix of smoky chanteuse vs. roistering funkster. Doesn’t hurt that the girl can crack her voice on pitch. Spalding’s was the first cover to draw real-deal enthused applause, and heralded a creamy early middle to the proceedings. Just a couple songs later came arguable best-in-show Alexis Krauss, who flexed a muscular vocal far afield of the sugar-shot come-hithers of the aforementioned Sleigh Bells — not to mention the fact she owned the ever-loving shit out of the Carnegie Hall proscenium. (Krauss, a pushup routine shy of Stefanian levels of onstage exertion, seemed to have ushered in her own personal dance craze, that of the fast-jog-in-place, which would go on to rule the day.)
With that, if you were keeping score, the ladies were taking the evening — a ruling momentarily confirmed by Pete Molinari, the diminutive English “folk-rock modernist” who first won the crowd over with some charmingly self-effacing banter and then completely lost it via his Dylanoid transposition of beloved “Heaven,” whose lyrics he (willfully?) elided and melody he ignored. (Dude, we already have to put up with Mumford. Do we really need another British American-roots exponent?) Molinari’s liberties were to be a recurrent misstep, particularly among the men. “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” too, got a prima facie wave of applause — that is, for being recognizable as “This Must Be the Place” — until Brooklyn expat Joseph Arthur undercooked the arrangement (though he at least had the good sense to leave the vocal line more or less intact) and, sadly, forgot and/or botched a couple of lyrics.
But now would you believe that, of all people, and playing to a New York audience, it could be Billy F. Gibbons — hirsute frontman of ZZ Top — who could kick things back into gear? Gibbons did it not once but twice, appearing first as second fiddle (er, second Les Paul, heh) to Earle and then rematerializing, looking impossibly young and lithe — ZZ Top were contemporaries of the fucking Beatles — for an appropriately scuzzy “Houses in Motion,” overbright kliegs be damned. Gibbons’s several false-harmonic guitar-squeals incited raucous applause, and deservedly so; ditto his Texan take on Byrne’s sprechgesang.
Of the night’s remaining players, only a smattering would reach such lofty heights, the rest representing a decidedly unpredictable crew. As to the former, there was Glen Hansard, of Once repute, who appeared initially, and unprepossessingly, as part of Amanda Palmer’s insane (and by all appearances ad hoc) ensemble, her “Once in a Lifetime” falling in some inauspicious middle between performance art piece and New Orleans brass-band dirge. But Hansard redeemed that with an utterly fantastic “Girlfriend Is Better,” all the more impressive for featuring the barest-bones band of the entire affair (two singers, one actual bassist, one Stevie Wonder–style low-register keyboard-skronker, one fiddler), though we shouldn’t kid ourselves: It was Hansard’s stentorian bellow that earns him pride of place among the best of this show’s best.
You’d’ve thought things would only keep cresting from there, but, surprisingly, the possibly overworked Roots managed to underwhelm, their Donn T–featuring “Born Under Punches” suffering from a clatteringly drum-reliant and seemingly under-considered arrangement, which are two things you normally can’t accuse the Roots of. Meanwhile, O.A.R. presented with exactly the opposite malady, having apparently rehearsed to the point of Glee-level soul-ablation (far less surprising, given that this is a band that made a career out of big-upping “revolution” and “Jah” to beachgoing frat boys). Better: Santigold (“Burning Down the House”) and Jones (“Psycho Killer”), with the latter scoring points for that rare free-vocal-improv that actually improved the take, though her French could use some work. Perhaps most shockingly of all, it was CeeLo, bruited to be a poor live performer, who turned in the show’s rockingest moment, a “Take Me to the River” that jibed perfectly with his penchant for skewed gospel (and with Antibalas’ facility for same), and which showed Mr. Green to be a sufficiently charismatic performer that he can get away with the contravention of sticking his hands in his (velour) pockets while singing. Yeesh.
From there, Carnegie Hall was a David Byrne Himself–sighting away from charity-event nirvana, and His Truly delivered, leading a goddamn marching band down the stage-right aisle for an encore that concluded, perplexingly, with an instrumental “Uptown Funk.” No matter. Byrne in the process proved himself still the best showman of all, tuxedoed and turkey-walking by, and then in front of, everyone, high-end yelping as well as any singer forty years his junior — which come to think of it is fitting, given the number of young bucks on hand here to pay tribute, warts and all, lugging and plugging into their own equipment, heedless of lighting schema and roadielessness and all that, because, well, tonight, and in this company, this must have been the place.
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