'The Music of David Byrne & Talking Heads': Concert Review

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This sterling edition of Michael Dorf's long-running benefit concert series was a night to remember

The former Talking Heads frontman makes a surprise appearance at this all-star tribute show encompassing songs from his wide-ranging career

The titles of several David Byrne songs could well form a mini-review of the 11th annual tribute concert produced by Michael Dorf presented Monday night at Carnegie Hall. This "Once in a Lifetime" event  well succeeded in its goal of "Burning Down the House." Featuring the honoree himself at the finale, The Music of David Byrne & Talking Heads was a typically sterling edition of this concert series benefiting music education for underprivileged youth. The show garnered some $100,000 for such worthy organizations as the Center for Arts Education, the Church Street School of Music and Little Kids Rock.

The fine results of such largesse were demonstrated by the lead-off performers, a group of youngsters from Little Kids Rock who performed an exuberant rendition of "Stay Up Late," it's female lead singer introducing it by announcing, "It's a school night, but we're gonna stay up late."

The two-and-a-half hour show featured the usual dizzyingly versatile array of artists performing both familiar and relatively obscure songs from Byrne's seminal group and solo career, as well as their hit cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River," here sung by CeeLo Green.

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Byrne's frequent use of worldbeat rhythms was expertly handled by the concert's house band, Brooklyn's Antibalas, whose large horn and rhythm sections gave the evening a propulsive quality that rarely lagged.

Although many of the performers stayed fairly true to the original arrangements, several offered decidedly less conventional approaches. Glen Hansard added fiddles to "Girlfriend is Better," giving it an infectious Celtic style. British folk singer Pete Molinari's solo acoustic version of "Heaven" sounded as it was being sung by Hank Williams. And Forro in the Dark, composed of New York-based Brazilian ex-pats, infused "Girls on My Mind" with a Tropicalia flavor.  

Byrne's frequent excursions into theatricality were echoed by such performers as the Japanese female duo Cibo Matto, whose "I Zimbra" featured elaborate dancing and back-up vocals by Wilco guitarist Nels Cline; a heavily pregnant Amanda Palmer, who began "Once in a Lifetime" in spoken word fashion before  leading the audience on a singalong via cue cards displaying the lyrics: Joseph Arthur, who painted a colorful portrait on a large white board during his otherwise straightforward rendition of "This Must Be the Place"; and Santigold, who brought along two dancers performing campy choreography for her take on "Burning Down the House."  

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"I brought some help," announced Steve Earle before beginning his rocking version of "A Million Miles Away." It was none other Billy F. Gibbons, who added sizzling guitar licks throughout. The ZZ Top legend reappeared a few minutes later for his own take on "Houses in Motion," from the Talking Heads' classic album Remain in Light.

Highlights were legion: Esperanza Spalding's rollicking "Road to Nowhere," its jaunty rhythms emphasized by Antibalas' horn section; Jade, of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, dreamily singing "Here Lies Love" from Byrne's recent theatrical musical of the same name; the Sleigh Bells' Alexis Krauss, delivering a full-throttle "Life During Wartime" featuring back-up vocals from her father; and the rock band O.A.R., with a saxophone-infused take "And She Was."

But the true standout was Sharon Jones, who brought the crowd to its feet with a dynamically sung "Psycho Killer" that would have made Tina Turner proud.

In past shows, such honorees as Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe made unannounced appearances at the end. Here, Byrne's participation was a bit anti-climactic, since Gibbons had already spilled the beans about his presence backstage. But typically, he stole the show anyway, exuberantly storming down the aisle from the rear of the auditorium accompanied by the Brooklyn United Marching Band. Clad in black pants, white dress shirt and black suspenders and bow-tie, he led them on "God's Army" before the entire ensemble joined them onstage for the finale.  It all provided a suitably raucous conclusion to the joyous tribute.

Set List

Little Kids Rock—Stay Up Late

Cibo Matto/Nels Cline—I Zimbra

Antibalas—Crosseyed and Painless

Experanza Spalding—Road to Nowhere

Jade—Here Lies Love

Alexis Krauss—Life During Wartime

Forro in the Dark—Girls on My Mind

Pete Molinari—Heaven

Steve Earle—A Million Miles Away

Thievery Corporation—Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Billy F. Gibbons—Houses in Motion

Bebel Gilberto—Loco De Amor

Joseph Arthur—This Must Be the Place

Amanda Palmer/Jherek Bischoff—Once in a Lifetime

Glen Hansard—Girlfriend is Better

The Roots/Donn T—Born Under Punches

O.A.R.—And She Was

Sharon Jones—Psycho Killer

Santigold—Burning Down the House

CeeLo Green—Take Me to the River

David Byrne/Brooklyn United Marching Band—God's Love