By Dan Aquilante
WHEN you think of a musician playing a solo gig at Carnegie Hall, you think about artistic achievement and contemporary relevance – and David Byrne cemented both of those qualities in his triumphant concert at the venerable hall Tuesday.
The show retooled the songs from his youth with Talking Heads, setting them in contrast to his most recent compositions from his “Grown Backwards” album.
The concert’s sound strolled the no-man’s land between electric and acoustic with a backing band that was like a super-deluxe paint-box for Byrne’s melodic sketches.
Between a string ensemble, a talking-drum percussionist and a rock ‘n’ roll bassist and drummer, no musical style was out of this band’s reach.
The ex-Head ventured into the exotic world-beat melodies which have intrigued him for more than a decade with the same deft attack with which he rendered his classic “Life During Wartime” during the second encore bow.
He even took a chance with a Puccini aria.
“Un di Felice, Eterea,” which he sang in Italian, was interesting for its odd-man-out quality, but it was the evening’s weakest song.
Yet even then, Byrne was able to project power and intensity with his head thrown back, face wet with sweat, bellowing like the tubbiest tenor at the Met.
Where his sweeping, quirky voice was much more effective was in the pop-bop set to classical strings called “Tiny Apocalypse.”
On this song, like so many of the tunes in a program that orbited around “Grown Backwards,” musical worlds collided.
The instrumentation and arrangement of “The Other Side of This Life” totally illustrated how large Byrne’s musical vocabulary is.
The song pressed notes plinked out on the wooden bars of a marimba while the violins were sawed at with quick staccato bow strokes. With Byrne’s old-fashioned smooth croon guiding the tune to its conclusion, the ultimate combination was familiar yet out of the ordinary.
The sold-out house responded to the new and old songs with open-mindedness, yet as you’d expect, there was more heat generated with the dusty Talking Heads songs.
Byrne is a surprisingly physical performer as his sweat-stained brown jumpsuit attested.
On the wide Carnegie stage, the thin man swiveled his hips like a well-oiled robot and did laps running backwards.
At times, while in total control of his voice, he seemed like a marionette getting its strings pulled. It was slightly spastic, but the tangled-in-a-net dance lent this musical affair the air of performance art.
This was the kind of concert that fit the grandeur of the hall, and it garnered the most coveted of all Carnegie prizes for Byrne – a standing ovation that was nearly 10 minutes long.