Review: The Music of David Byrne and Talking Heads, Carnegie Hall, March 23, 2015
Yes, that’s David Byrne and a drumline onstage at Carnegie Hall, playing “Uptown Funk”. From last night’s Michael Dorf tribute, which this year honored “The Music of David Byrne and Talking Heads.” I believe at one point it may have just been Talking Heads and changed to the “The Music of…” which didn’t require enormous amounts of insight to interpret as an attempt to get Byrne’s participation in the evening.
But I get ahead of myself.
This one was sold out, sold out hard, legit fans hitting you for ‘one ticket’ as you came up Seventh Avenue alongside the venue. I was in the front row of the dress circle for this one, prices having gone up with the years, and also a barometer of how much I wanted to see this vs. how close I needed to be. (It was a little vertiginous up there, to be honest, in the front of the dress circle almost all the way up at the stage; I wouldn’t buy seats in that section again.)
As with all the Dorf tribute nights, there are hits and misses, bigger hits and larger, totally-off-the-bullseye misses. That is part of the serendipity of the event, and people who have done this for a while go into it with that attitude, and I think enjoy the show a lot more than the people who are there for either X band or for picture-perfect renditions of Their Favorite Songs. (Example being the row behind me, a dude who had done this before with his friends, who had never been, and were mostly bemused and fidgety all night.)
I liked this evening a lot but I was also far less emotionally invested in this year’s show than I have been at any of the other ones. I am a fan of this music but it was not an obsession. I think I saw Talking Heads two or three times at most, the first time being at Wollman Rink in Central Park right after they got back from Heatwave and had the expanded lineup. I remember sitting online in the Park and hearing the expanded version of “Take Me To The River” and my head just about exploding.
I was also less personally interested in the artists who were in the lineup; that doesn’t mean they weren’t strong or valid, and I was glad to see a diverse lineup that didn’t depend on the usual suspects (although there were plenty of those), but there was no one particular person who I thought “Gosh I can’t wait to see them.” This also meant I was less infuriated by the Carnegie ushers usual stance on allowing dancing. (That said, I really felt for the people who were dancing in their seats or jumping up behind the ushers’ backs to boogie for 10 seconds before sitting down.)
The other trend I noticed this time, larger than usual, is how artists react to being on that stage in that house. Some are reverent, awed, respectful; others are awkward and cannot handle the space and flail around. And then there are those — Alexis Krauss was the first one in the evening — who handle the stage with utter aplomb. I tip my cap to her “Life During Wartime” which was bold and energetic. I remember the days where singing “This ain’t no Mudd Club/or CBGBs” was like the password to the secret society.
[On that note, the trend of going onstage barefoot at Carnegie has got to stop; it is not charming, it is ignorant and disrespectful.]
Antibalas was the house band and they were fantastic. Loose, versatile, and the sax player who was leading the band was fucking awesome. He was on point and he was also hella into it, singing with gusto every time there was a chance. I salute you. They killed with Crosseyed & Painless.
Billy Gibbons was the biggest surprise. I couldn’t have possibly even begun to guess what song he was going to perform and “Houses In Motion” would definitely not have been on the list. He was the most talkative (and seemingly the most comfortable on the stage, although I get the feeling that Billy Gibbons is the type of guy who’s comfortable anywhere he goes, and i mean that in the best way possible). He also tipped the audience off that David Byrne was there.
Cibo Matto were a perfect fit for “I Zimbra” if a little stiff. (That maybe goes to my note above about people’s comfort level on the stage. But I wouldn’t have used the word ‘stiff’ for anyone at the Prince tribute, for example, but would have applied it to multiple performances here).
Glen Hansard has really won me over with the years and I loved what he did with “Girlfriend Is Better,” wild fiddle solo and all. I thought “gosh I do not need that old timey deedle deedle deedle” but it was fresh and energetic and I clapped hard.
I see Joseph Arthur all the time because I am a fan of artists who admire him and give him an opening slot. I have also really warmed up to him, and liked his arrangement of “This Must Be The Place” worked well, he didn’t overdo the loops or effects, and he didn’t make a big fucking paint mess on the stage (yes, he still painted). Hilariously he couldn’t have an easel so someone held the canvas and bobbed it to and fro like a Muppet during the song.
Esperanza Spalding’s “Road To Nowhere” was driving and elegant. My program notes say “Phenomenal”.
Santigold is not my kind of jam but she was fabulous. Her version “Burning Down The House” was absolutely truth in advertising.
The WHOOPS and yelps accompanied the first site of Questlove’s afro walking onto the stage and “Born Under Punches” was crisp and complicated. I hope it sounded better downstairs because upstairs it was a murky mess. this was not their fault; they played it more than just fine. The singer’s name was DonnT (I think?) and she had this Bowie-esque mime thing going that was wonderful.
CeeLo Green did a fine version of “Take Me To The River” BUT THAT SONG WAS NOT WRITTEN BY DAVID BYRNE. I am not thrilled by him, though, to be honest. The crowd loved it, though.
Sharon Jones absolutely brought down the house with “Psychokiller”. It was one of those moments where you don’t know it’s going to be amazing until the artist is there and the energy goes up and before she even opened her mouth to sing the first note you could just TELL it was going to blow the roof off the joint. It was also far enough along in the evening that we could get up out of our seats and tell the ushers to go to hell, but she stalked that stage like a panther and sang the hell out of the song. I wish she had had the closing slot; she certainly deserved to be billed over CeeLo in New York City.
We had about three seconds to breathe before the marching band headed down the aisles, headed by none other than the guest of honor. If he was going to show up, he was going to bring us his latest project, even if every single person in that audience would have rather seen him sing “Take Me To The River” over CeeLo Green. I pondered on the artists who show no interest in the art they created that allow them to explore and be experimental now (looking at you, Robert Plant; Alex Chilton also fell in that category in the 80s). There is a crabby part of me that thinks, Goddamnit, you’re all still alive, suck it up and do one tour so the people who put you where you are right now can hear you sing and play those songs again, I also respect that he doesn’t. But I am glad he graced the evening with his energy and presence, and am glad that the organizers avoided the traditional train wreck of the attempted all-star encore number, where we learn which of the performers participating actually know the honoree’s catalog, to mixed and generally awful effect (read previous years as noted below).
Another tremendously interesting and well-performed evening for Mr. Dorf, and a fine example of why I eagerly look forward to the announcement of these shows every year. (C’mon, Bowie next. Please???)
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