Jim White's home town in Florida has more churches than any other in America, which makes sense when you hear his songs. Signed to David Byrne's Luaka Bop label in the late 90s, his music bears more than a passing resemblance to the wide open spaces of Byrne's classic road movie True Stories. White is a master storyteller, and albums such as Wrong-Eyed Jesus boast a mix of Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits softened by John Martyn's Solid Air, a shimmering, ambient sound out of which tales of fate-driven Americana hiss like blasts of steam from a subway vent.
But playing solo amid a sea of instruments set up for Byrne he looks slightly uneasy. He leans into the microphone, making as little eye contact as possible. He's a gifted storyteller in song but without the backing musicians his music loses too much to stand alone. "I traveled 8,000 miles for this," he mourns quietly. "Have I got two songs left, or one?" It's just the one, and it's a shame, because he deserves more than a deserted stage and an audience impatient for the main act. One gets the sense, despite delivering gems like "Phone Booth in Heaven", and the sublime "If Jesus Drove a Camper Van", that he is not a convincing solo performer.
For David Byrne, one of rock's cooler dudes, one feels that whatever he dresses around his voice - his experiments have ranged from Brazilian beats to ambient electronica - there is a chilly core of New York intelligence that never thaws out. That voice will never quite escape itself, however far from the home the settings are.
Dressed neatly in impeccable Maoist brown - the whole band is colour-coded - Byrne cuts the same otherworldly figure he did on Stop Making Sense. Effortlessly clever pop songs such as "She Only Sleeps" from his new album are juxtaposed with his frail, emotive tenor on Verdi's "Un Di Felice", a surprisingly touching performance that segues perfectly into another new number, "The Man Who Loved Beer".
We have become used to Byrne's musical experimenting, but it's when he straps on his electric guitar and begins chopping out chords like lines of amphetamine that you miss the wired New York end of the spectrum. He performs with intensity and precision, but with the sense of conceptual exactness he brings to his music it's hard to get lost in it in the same way one senses he does. So when the strings leave the stage to Byrne for superlative readings of "Road to Nowhere" and "Once in a Lifetime", the Festival Hall's audience defy the ushers and dance at the front.
Byrne may sweat like the rest of us but he doesn't show it - it's like rocking out with Dr. Spock in a uniform that doesn't quite fit. The music is sublime and flawlessly delivered, all the words make too much sense, and his cracked tenor carries the evening through to "Lazy", where Byrne, alone on stage, seems as strange and captivating as he ever was.