Last night, an eclectic roster of artists paid tribute to the music of David Byrne and Talking Heads at New York’s esteemed Carnegie Hall, the 11th (and easily most left-field) event raising money for various organizations that promote music education for underprivileged youth. Twenty artists — Top 10 hitmakers and Internet-famous indie icons, festival draws and fringe dwellers — all tried their hands at one song from Byrne’s nearly 40-year-deep catalog, for a two-and-a-half hour program. On hand: Cee Lo Green, Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top, the Roots, Santigold, O.A.R., Glen Hansard, Thievery Corporation, Steve Earle, Bebel Giberto, Esperanza Spalding and many more.
In 1975, Byrne’s career started more than 50 blocks downtown, his art-fidget band Talking Heads opening for the Ramones in a disused biker bar, playing “punk rock” before anyone had released a full-length. In 2015 he led a marching band through Carnegie Hall (more on that later). Long story short, it’s been a strange journey and although Byrne has had a fruitful career — composing operas, writing worldbeat-infused solo records, running the solid Luaka Bop label, penning books, being an urban bicycling enthusiast — the 11 year period between the first Talking Heads single (1977’s “Love → Building on Fire”) and their final album (1988’s underappreciated Naked) remains his strongest, and most artists stuck firmly to that era.
Though the performances were varied, the audience reacted strongest to unapologetic bouts of energy — possibly due to the punk connection, possibly just because it all seemed so unique and rare at the stuffier-than-CBGB’s Carnegie. Alexis Krauss of distorto-crunch duo Sleigh Bells got the first standing ovation of the night — she sang “Life During Wartime” in a husky Peggy Lee tone with the house band, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, chugging along behind her. While it was a rare treat to hear Krauss’ rock-solid voice without the oppressive crunch of Sleigh Bells production, the audience may have really been reacting to her sugar-high energy, as she couldn’t help but bound, leap, run in place and drop to her knees.
A pregnant Amanda Palmer (noting that nothing can “throw a pregnant woman into an existential blender like David Byrne lyrics”) threw a bit of a sideshow, doing a Laurie Anderson-style reading of “Once in a Lifetime” (“This is not my beautiful womb”) and bringing out a dancer in one of those big Stop Making Sense-era suits. But her manic charisma was unique and infectious, demanding (and receiving) audience participation and even getting Glen Hansard and Krauss to join in the free-for-all. For his take on “Girlfriend Is Better,” Hansard harnessed energy in a different way: belting the lyrics in a booming voice and clapping on the chorus, all over little more than Hohner, bass and violin. It earned the second standing ovation of the night.
None of the guests, however, were better received than Brooklyn vintage soul singer Sharon Jones, whose version of “Psycho Killer” re-introduced many of the pyrotechnic rock moves that Talking Heads consciously stripped away — doing amazing things with her voice, bending and contorting the melody, holding long notes and turning the creepy lyrics from a chilly B-movie into a giddy big-screen slasher. If there’s not a Record Store Day 7-inch of her version by this time next year, someone messed up somewhere.
Jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding transformed the intro of “Road to Nowhere” into something minor-keyed and bluesed-out and added funky breaks for the chorus. Clad in a dress like a two-sided cape, with an ornament like a Tribble under her right shoulder, it became clear that if she decided to make art-rock a full-time passion, she could give St. Vincent or Dirty Projectors some serious competition. Introduced as the “Hardcore Troubadour,” country outlaw outlier Steve Earle (with help from Gibbons), got a riotous welcome even before he played a note of Byrne’s “A Million Miles Away” — when he did it looked like he was about to strum his mandolin off his strap. The Cee Lo Green version of “Take Me to the River” was a solid midpoint between the Talking Heads version and the Al Green original, and he clearly had a blast.
Other notable moments: Gibbons, in sunglasses and hat, even in Carnegie Hall, turned “Houses in Motion” into a Tom Waits-ian story-song while plunking away on one chord then breaking into two Texas blues-fried solos. For “I Zimbra,” Cibo Matto came armed with what could likely be the first Tenori-On at Carnegie Hall while Nils Cline deftly recreated a more steady-handed version of its squicks and squawks. The punk Afrobeat band Antibalas did a faithful version of the Afrobeat-punk of “Crosseyed and Painless,” though the vamping at the end was more Nigeria than New York. Forro in the Dark’s Tropicália-gone-Blink-182 take on Byrne’s 1992 solo song “Girls on My Mind,” complete with four percussionists going haywire, got a dapper couple in row H to dance by themselves. The Roots are always nothing less than brilliant in these situations, and for “Born Under Punches,” they brought avant-funkateer Donn T for an update of Byrne’s stiff moves (a mix of vogue and the robot) and Talking Heads’ multi-layered grooves of Remain in Light era. ?uestlove’s right hand hard-swung on the hi-hat with a propulsion the gifted Chris Frantz never approached — easily the heaviest groove of the night.
At the end of the night, Byrne himself marched down the left aisle with the 21-piece Brooklyn United Marching Band to perform “God’s Love” — his mic was the only thing that needed amplification. After 21 songs celebrated a legacy that helped introduce underground rock into mainstream culture and made pop music acceptable to the punks, he let Brooklyn United send everyone off with their version of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” — the most popular song in America and one that hearkens back to the late-Seventies/early-Eighties era of funk and hip-hop that Talking Heads were mutating as scruffy art-school students.