During a week-long 2004 residency at Carnegie Hall in New York, Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso invited his friend David Byrne to join him one night. The two have a history that stretches back to the ‘80s, when Byrne’s Luaka Bop label helped introduce a number of international artists, including Veloso, to a new audience.
It’s little wonder Byrne was drawn to Veloso’s music. The singer was on the leading edge of Brazil’s Tropicalia movement in the late '60s, a cultural rebel who respected his country’s rich musical heritage even as he reinvented it. Veloso, in turn, saw a kindred spirit in Byrne, with his stylistic openness and ability to mash up genres with brazenness, quirkiness and wit. And yet they’re hardly perfect a match: Veloso served up revolution with a deceptive smoothness, Byrne fashioned his with nervous energy. A potentially revelatory evening seemed in store.
But the potential sparks that one expects from such a pairing take a while to ignite. “Live at Carnegie Hall” (Nonesuch) finds the two artists trading fine but predictable solo acoustic sets before collaborating. Both artists play relatively constrained versions of some of their most popular songs, essentially playing a recital to a theater full of reverent fans. None of the risk-taking that underlines both their careers is much in evidence.
Byrne finally cranks things up on “God’s Child” and “Road to Nowhere,” breaking up the stuffy atmosphere with his vocal whoops and wails. Veloso brings a wicked panache to his duet with Byrne on Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers,” as if gently mocking the hapless narrator’s inability to cope with the sudden reversal of human progress. And Veloso shades Byrne with wistful melancholy on the latter’s heart-breaking ode to nothingness, “Heaven.” It makes this a worthwhile if not essential addition to each artist’s formidable discography.