[12 April 2012]
Any artist trying to crack the code to longevity would do well to follow the careers of David Byrne and Caetano Veloso. Both men are respected elder statesmen with careers that span 30-plus years. When you command such a vaunted position you get to do things like play all-acoustic sets at Carnegie Hall with one of your equally respected buddies. It’s just one of the perks.
Why Live at Carnegie Hall, which is drawn from an intimate 2004 show at the famed New York venue, is coming out eight years after the initial event is anyone’s guess, though it does go a long way towards cementing both artist’s “living legend” status. Byrne has definitely made the most out of his fame, making sure to keep his fingers in lots of different artistic pies. These days he’s just as much a musician as he is a cycling spokesperson or a mastermind of ludicrously scaled art installations.
Caetano Veloso is still best known as one of the inventors of the unique Brazilian genre Tropicalia, which combined equal parts protest anthems and infectious Hendrix-inspired dance tunes. It’s fair to say he has mellowed significantly over the past few decades.
Live at Carnegie Hall builds on Veloso’s recent persona as a floppy hatted, acoustic-guitar toting Joao Gilberto acolyte. The album’s opening tracks feature Veloso gently strumming his guitar. As the set progresses he’s gradually joined by cello and percussion accompaniment. The spare instrumentation works especially well on the sublimely melancholy “Coraco Vagabundo”, though it’s not a great sign that the album peaks before Byrne even shows up.
Anyone hoping what it would sound like to hear these two harmonize or trade verses on “I Zimbra” is bound to be disappointed. Of the album’s 18 songs, only three are duets, or four if you count Veloso’s flighty backing vocal on “Heaven”. The only real moment of unity comes on the gentle “Dreamworld: Marco De Canaveses”, which the duo penned together.
David Byrne’s reputation as a fan of world music notwithstanding, he and Veloso make an odd match. Byrne’s occasionally strident tone doesn’t exactly fit with his partner’s sweetly soaring voice. This disparity gets highlighted when Veloso manages to elicit a hearty chuckle from the crowd after adopting a Byrne-esque yelp on “[Nothing But] Flowers”. In fact, the pairing doesn’t seem to based on anything more than mutual admiration. Live at Carnegie Hall‘s tracklist is split pretty evenly down the middle between Veloso and Byrne sets. The album plays more like some program director’s fantasy double-bill than a real collaboration.
The whole thing feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. Despite Veloso’s born-again Bossa Nova traditionalism, anyone who’s taken even a toenail dip into his massive back catalog knows he has the adventurous spirit of a true musical pioneer. It would be great to hear what these two could come up with together beyond your basic acoustic crowd pleasers.
Anyone who ever hoped to hear an acoustic take on Talking Heads classics like “Life During Wartime”, or wondered what Little Creatures standout “And She Was” would sound like with some serious woodblock accompaniment will more than satisfied. Live at Carnegie Hall is bound to appear as the soundtrack at more than a few hipster barbeques this summer.
I seriously doubt any of this is a sign that either artist is in the waning phases of his career. Veloso continues to arrange gorgeous soundtracks for filmmakers such as Pedro Almodóvar, and Byrne’s excellent 2008 collaboration with Brian Eno Everything That Happens Will Happen Today serves as proof that he has vital songwriting left in him. Live at Carnegie Hall may be forgettable, but it’s a harmless and occasionally pleasing aside in the oeuvre of two undeniably necessary artists.