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Who Did the Best Talking Heads Cover at Last Night’s David Byrne Tribute?

David Byrne. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Every year, Knitting Factory/City Winery founder Michael Dorf hosts a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall benefiting music-education programs. And the honoree of this year’s 11th annual show was a true (honorary) New York legend: David Byrne. Featuring performances from the likes of CeeLo, Amanda Palmer, and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, it was a night of yelpy singing, jittery dancing, and at least one comically oversize suit. Here’s a rundown of the night’s highs (high high high high hiiiiighs … sorry) and lows.

Performer: Cibo Matto featuring Nels Cline
Song: “I Zimbra”

Well, this was wonderful: a perfect pairing of performers and song. Clad in all-white everything, the recently reunited Japan-by-way-of-NYC food-pop duo Cibo Matto expertly walked that very Byrne-ian tightrope between artful self-seriousness and goofy, unadulterated joy. During the instrumental part, they did a series of synchronized dance moves that recalled a cross between air-traffic controllers and the backup singers from Stop Making Sense, while Wilco guitarist Cline provided some of his signature avant-noodling. Mostly this performance served as evidence that Miho Hatori is still one of the most stylish people on the planet.

The verdict: 8.5/10 big suits

Performer: Jade from (or formerly from?) Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Song: “Here Lies Love” (from the Byrne/Fatboy Slim musical Here Lies Love)

Jade — best known as the female singer in that one Edward Sharpe song that everyone knows — has a pleasant voice, but her stage presence last night was a little awkward. Dressed as a Disney princess who was loosely based on Janis Joplin, she spent most of the song twirling, swaying, and generally looking deeply uncomfortable as a front person. Not very Byrne.

The verdict: 3/10 big suits

Performer: Alexis Krauss from Sleigh Bells
Song: “Life During Wartime”

Before she came to front the demolition derby/pep rally that is bubblegum-punk duo Sleigh Bells, Alexis Krauss used to be a New York public schoolteacher, in a school so underfunded that it didn’t have a music program. In a touching speech before her song, she told us that she and her father used to provide free after-school music lessons for her “scholars” (that was cute), and she sweetly brought her dad out to sing backup. And then she straight-up ripped the fucking roof off Carnegie Hall. I will admit I was not a huge fan of the last Sleigh Bells album, but after Krauss’s exhilarating and overwhelmingly charismatic performance (she even did the rubber-arms dance from Stop Making Sense!), I am anxiously awaiting an inevitable Alexis Krauss solo album. The crowd, rightfully, went nuts for this one. I will always rememberMarch 23, 2015 as the day I saw a member of Sleigh Bells get a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall.

The verdict: 9/10 big suits

Performer: Pete Molinari
Song: “Heaven”

The British folk singer Pete Molinari is a human-size Kewpie doll they dressed to look like Bob Dylan. He was the only performer of the night who played without a backing band, and let’s just say this minimalism did not exactly serve him. Molinari “reworked” the melody to “Heaven,” leading me to draft a petition to make reworking the melody to “Heaven” a felony in New York City. The drunk old man sitting behind me who loudly tried to sing along was very confused. Which was not a singular occurrence: Later in the night, between acts, this man tried to lead the crowd in a rendition of “Burning Down the House” before realizing mid-line that the song he was singing was Madness’s “Our House.” I would have rather watched this man sing “Heaven” than Pete Molinari.

The verdict: 2/10 big suits

Perfomer: Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top
The song: “Houses in Motion”

Legendary beardo Billy F. Gibbons began by telling us how much he has always admired Talking Heads press photos, because Byrne was always looking off into space instead of at the camera. What was he looking at? Billy wanted to know. None of us could say. “Well,” said Billy, with a gruff pause, “Here’s looking at you, David.” There are maybe three people in the world who can get away with this sort of stage banter, and God bless them, they were all once in ZZ Top. While I will forever dream of what a Billy Gibbons cover of “Swamp” might have sounded like, this really was a perfect song choice, with the enchilada-bluesman finding the southern funk in this gem from Remain in Light’s weird(er) side. His spoken-word delivery was on-point, and (bonus points) he was very nice to the fan I saw ask him for a selfie on the street after the show. Here’s looking at you, Billy.

The verdict: 8.5/10 big suits

Performer: Amanda Palmer
Song: “Once in a Lifetime”

Hating Amanda Palmer is so easy that it seems villainously lazy, like taking candy from a baby. But then sometimes that baby comes out ahead of her cue on what was otherwise an exceptionally well-oiled show and impatiently demands into the void, “Can I get a spotlight on me?” and then you’re like, “Oh, yeah. That’s why.” So I am really looking deep inside of myself here when I tell you that this performance was not terrible. In fact, I sort of enjoyed it. I guess it is hard to fuck up one of the most cherished entries in the Great Human Songbook, and also, I am an eternal softie for a visibly pregnant woman singing a song about existential confusion. The circle of life, am I right?! I could have done without her goth-cabaret delivery of the chorus, but I cannot deny she was channeling it from somewhere else during the verse about the water at the bottom of the ocean. We’re cool for now, Palmer. But don’t push it.

The verdict: 6.5/10 big suits

Performer: O.A.R.
Song: “And She Was”

Haha, who invited these guys? My high-school best friend’s older brother? Anyway. This was the most faithful cover of the night, basically a note-for-note rendition by a very good bar band. I am giving them an extra point because even though there was a bongo left onstage from a previous performance, no one from O.A.R. even touched it.

The verdict: 7/10 big suits

Performer: Sharon Jones
Song: “Psycho Killer”

The first performance of the night that got everybody on their feet. I mean, this one speaks for itself: Sharon Jones, in sequins, singing the shit out of “Psycho Killer.” Pete Molinari lied! This was Heaven!

The verdict: 9/10 big suits

Performer: CeeLo Green
Song: “Take Me to the River”

A note to the editor of the Carnegie Hall Playbook: I don’t know, seems a little … soon to refer to a rape apologist as “an entertainer, pop culture & fashion icon, and professional ladykiller” in his bio? Maybe it’s just me. Fashion icon CeeLo was dressed in black slouchy Hammer pants and a shirt inspired by black slouchy Hammer pants, making him look like an evil genie who would fail to read you the fine print about your wishes or something. His performance was fine, but I can think of a thousand singers who would have done this song just as well or better. I still find this person icky and am not ready to encounter him in a charity-event context.

The verdict: Ohhh ohhh ohhhh, I really don’t care.

Performer: David Byrne and an entire marching band
Song: “Uptown Funk”?

Yes, for real. The finale of this glorious night was the man of the hour — clad in a crisp dress shirt, bow tie, and suspenders — walking through the aisle of Carnegie Hall with the Brooklyn United marching band behind him. First they played a jaunty version of “God’s Love,” and then, just when it seemed like they might end with one of Byrne’s more well-known hits, the marching band instead launched into … “Uptown Funk.” Byrne did not sing (sadly) but instead danced around angularly and hugged everyone onstage. I have no explanation for why this happened, and for the first hour I was awake this morning, I was convinced I dreamed it. Which means it was the ultimate Byrne move and there can be only one appropriate score …

The verdict: 10/10 big suits

Who Did the Best Talking Heads Cover Last Night?