By Fred Thomas
Longtime friends and collaborators Caetano Veloso and David Byrne joined forces for a special Carnegie Hall concert broadcast on National Public Radio in the spring of 2004. Eight years later, Live at Carnegie Hall is released, containing highlights from this stripped-down, primarily acoustic meeting of one of Tropicalia's biggest artists with one of the pillars of art rock. Sequenced in the order the concert was played, the disc begins with a solo set by Veloso ending with his cover of the Talking Heads' "The Revolution" to segue into Byrne's set. While not exactly a hushed affair, there's a quietly breezy feeling throughout the recording. Veloso's incredibly smooth voice is the definition of Brazilian pop: laid-back and welcoming at all times. Even singing the comparatively bouncy "O Leãozinho," his voice lilts gently around the song's rigid curves. Languid ballads like "Sampa" and "Coração Vagabundo" breathe with an effortless beauty and the stark yet satisfying instrumentation of Veloso's plucked nylon-string guitar and occasional accompaniment by cellist Jacques Morelenbaum. Also in the mix is percussionist Mauro Refosco providing understated rhythms for both artists' sets. The disc's second half finds Byrnen struggling against uprooting the low-lit vibe laid down by Veloso. While performing in a mode decidedly less turgid than normal, even his takes on mellower Talking Heads classics like "And She Was" or "Heaven" sound especially rock when compared to his concert-mates' staid performance. Rompers like "Life During Wartime" stick out, seeming a little lost; not quiet enough for spartan acoustic ambience and not loud enough for even a spirited unplugged reading. Byrne admitted in interviews he was "extremely nervous" about the concert and his jitters are evidenced by the occasional flubbed guitar chord or slightly rushed vocal delivery. Given his pedigree of quirk, these flaws read more endearing than ham-fisted, especially in the intimate context of an acoustic performance. The disc is pretty standard fare up until the final four or five tracks, where the two come together to duet on each other's songs. It's in these tracks that Live at Carnegie Hall really becomes transcendent. Long influenced and inspired by each other, Byrne and Veloso seem genuinely thrilled to be in each other's presence musically. Byrne's soft vocal augmentation on "Ilê Aiyê" seems reverent and humble and seconds later, Veloso's unfamiliar voice delivering lines about 7-11s and chocolate chip cookies on Byrne's lyrically goofy "(Nothing But) Flowers" is downright cute. While the two don't always match up exactly in terms of presentation, by the end, Byrne's nerdy rock and Veloso's airy sonnets prove highly complementary to each other, especially in tandem.