World Party front man Karl Wallinger has spent most of his career writing songs about surprises — positive and negative — lurking just beyond the horizon. Even he probably couldn’t have envisioned the bombshells that’ve impacted his life over the past few years — from an aneurysm that nearly incapacitated him permanently to the remarkable recovery that preceded his recent return to live performance.
At this low-key Gotham gig, World Party’s first in several years, Wallinger led a scaled-down version of the band through a congenial perf featuring retooled versions of past hits and a smattering of tunes from the just-released Seaview Recordings disc “Dumbing Up.” The singer-guitarist was in excellent voice — his supple falsetto hasn’t wizened a bit — and even better spirits throughout the 75-minute set.
Wallinger is a notorious studio rat who seldom uses one vocal track when 10 are available, so it was intriguing to hear him present his music in such stripped-down fashion. Alternating between acoustic guitar and piano, and backed by a pair of musicians who swapped electric six-string, violin and mandolin, he moved easily between froth and gravity, lingering lovingly in the places where the two met.
That’s the territory the trio explored on “Ship of Fools” and “Is It Too Late?” (the latter reconfigured with an intriguingly insistent Bo Diddley beat), to name two of the songs that offered more spice than sugar. Others tilted the balance the opposite way, notably “When the Rainbow Comes” and the Crosby, Stills & Nash-styled newie “What Does It Mean Now?”
The close-knit harmonies that imbued the mellower songs augmented the yearning qualities of Wallinger’s writing, most effectively on “Is it Like Today?” (which he described as an attempt “to cram the whole of Western philosophy into four verses”). That he wasn’t kidding might have made the good ship World Party a bit too ballast-heavy to be seaworthy, but when the melodic winds kicked in, Wallinger and company sailed off with a buoyancy that was a pleasure to behold.