Most people come to Carnegie Hall to play their big hits,” Ray Davies said two weeks ago, about halfway through Philip Glass’s annual benefit for Tibet House. “I’m gonna play my flops.” It was that kind of show: loose and funky and marked by the sort of creative peaks and valleys that don’t usually define a musty all-star fundraiser. Indeed, when Glass shuffled onstage to begin the program in his rumpled uniform of black slacks and button-down, he looked as though he’d walked into H&R Block, receipt-stuffed manila envelope tucked beneath his arm.
Yet all evening the composer’s handpicked humanitarians bristled against the expectation of stuffiness. Admitting they’d never had an opening act like the Tibetan monks who preceded them, Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach filled the vast auditorium with ghost-town echo and broken-pickup reverb. Neo-cabaret wild child Nellie McKay, who’s exchanged her fiery Reba McEntire ‘do for a platinum Mighty Aphrodite look, pounded her piano maniacally and spat out words about her dead cat with red-faced glee. Marc Anthony Thompson led a nine-piece band through a set of dour deathbed blues with no shoes on, then allowed ex-Phish frontman Trey Anastasio to rip a fierce ginger-ale guitar solo. (Anastasio’s own set was a bummer of drab string-assisted folk-pop mumbling that not even McKay could rescue during an attempted Gram-and-Emmylou duet of “Flock of Words.”) For his promised flops, Davies played a medley of tunes from The Village Green Preservation Society. His voice withered to a Randy Newman sing-speak as he put all manner of kink into his tales of English “introverts, extroverts, and perverts.”
Lou Reed, disguised as he often is these days as Sally Jessy Raphael, bypassed kink on his way to profundity in an outrageously off-key reading of “Perfect Day” that carefully complemented his pal Antony’s quietly devastating “Hope There’s Someone”—these two are the real new Gram and Emmylou. And Patti Smith is the new Quincy Jones: The punk poetess wrapped up the night by leading the entire company through an awkward if impassioned “People Have the Power.” So, cuter couple: Thompson and Davies, or Auerbach and a monk?