David Byrne, Dumbarton’s finest No Wave superstar, once opined that he “hated” World Music, that very genre he so cosily cuddled up to in the latter days of Talking Heads and via the releases on his own Luaka Bop recordings throughout the ’90s and noughties. While Byrne wasn’t being so careless as to criticise his own ever exploring muse, he was taking a pop at the notion of World Music as being some throwaway form of catch all term for anything non-Western, a needless welding together of musical styles and cultures.
Which brings us to Live At the Carnegie Hall, a live album recorded in 2004 featuring Byrne and Caetano Veloso (accompanied by cellist Jacques Morelenbaum and percussionist Mauro Refosco). The sheer reputation of these two heavyweights, traversing through the near-history of late 20th century popular music, from tropicalismo through punk rock, suggests this combination could be musically and lyrically potent, the ageing trailblazers casting off the years to pound Carnegie Hall into submission with the breathtaking brilliance of their dual musical alchemy.
But the structure of this performance is largely two fold rather than a unified effort – the first half is Veloso performing his songs with cello and percussion; side two is primarily Byrne with a selection of Talking Heads classics and solo offerings, the two artists only occasionally meeting halfway to collaborate. Opening with Veloso’s Desde Que o Samba é Samba, the sweetness of his vocal delivery amid the warm, languid cello tones provides an almost soothing introduction to the performance. Similarly, Manhatã gently glides through the senses, the listener gradually succumbing to the gentle seduction of Veloso’s empathetic tones. His cover of Byrne’s The Revolution, with the song’s writer on backing vocals, adds an almost tentative tension to the piece as the singers strain to sing in time.
Byrne’s solo spot is sparser than Veloso’s, with only sporadic percussion to add to his acoustic guitar. It seems almost churlish to say the Talking Heads songs suffer from the other band members’ absence but Byrne’s simple strumming and inability to reach the vocal keys he made his own some 20 years previously sees the songs reduced to mere simple rock workouts. And She Was and Everyone’s In Love With You (from 2001’s Look Into The Eyeball) fail to rise above mere busker’s renditions and, on the whole, Byrne’s urgent delivery has a considerably harsher and more troubled edge than Veloso’s sweet vignettes.
But it’s not all bad news for Byrne; one is gradually less inclined to imagine the awkward, oversize-suited figure fumbling and yelping on stage and more so a distinguished songwriter of merit as he moves from a wry re-telling of She Only Sleeps from the Grown Backwards album through a stirring Life During Wartime propelled by Refosco’s pounding percussive stabs, and on to a mightily crowd pleasing Road To Nowhere. For the encores, Veloso touches down with Terra, Byrne responds (un)fittingly with a soaring Heaven.
The Talking Heads and Byrne’s solo legacy on this side of the pond ensures that the majority of listeners will focus on Byrne’s acoustic renditions; unfortunately, apart from a few moments of inspiration, there’s simply nothing here to warrant the listener favouring these stripped down performances over the originals. However, any introduction to Caetano Veloso has to be welcomed – his songs beguile and bewitch in equal measure and perhaps it’s telling that this performance was originally part of a five-night residency undertaken by Veloso, with Byrne as special guest on the final night. Which brings us back to the difficulty of world music – this is not necessarily a needless welding of two disparate musical styles, more a lost opportunity for a magical fusion of two sonic diviners.