21st-Annual Tibet House U.S. Benefit Concert
Starring The Flaming Lips, the Roots, Taj Mahal, Michael Stipe, etc.
Thursday, March 3
Better Than: “Auld Lang Syne”
“Beauty is power — violence is weak,” we are told soberly by Tibet House U.S. cofounder Robert Thurman at the onset of their glamorous annual gala. The Tibetan Buddhist author and professor (and father of actress Uma) greets the well-packed pews of Carnegie Hall with an eloquent speech about simplicity, peace, acceptance, condolences. So in deference to his long scholarship, we won’t say that this star-studded variety show has any victors or victims; at the New York cultural center’s 21st-annual benefit, there are only brothers and sisters united. Tonight, there are no losers or winners.
Except the winners are the Roots. And how.
Well, the Roots and cover songs: The night is packed to the gills with other artists’ jams, not so astonishing for a blithe Carnegie Hall tradition with a pretty staggering admission price. The audience skews comfortably middle-age, although their adorable and apparently politically minded toddlers also represent in full hordes. (“He’s so awesome!” my neighbor in a pink jumper screams alternately for ?uestlove, Philip Glass, and Tenzin Choegyal as I envy her chic childhood.) The audience is not here to be surprised — Tibet House U.S. is an educational cultural center based in the city and commissioned by the Dalai Lama, and tonight some of its performers do encourage Tibetan independence from China, but it’s not to be confused with the more virulent Free Tibet movement nor the Tibetan Freedom Concerts of 1996-2003. This is mostly a party for the Tibetan New Year on March 5. (Happy returns in your Year of the Female Iron Rabbit.)
All that said, the Roots blow this unassuming audience’s hair back: I’ve never seen such a civilized group of people so quickly reduced to their id. The Roots first back a luminary or two – charismatic Beninoise singer Angèlique Kidjo on Curtis Mayfield’s scorching “Move On Up,” Grammy-winning blues singer/guitarist Taj Mahal on his funky “Why Did You Have to Desert Me?” – and then send out one simple solo missive to the audience: a cover of Neil Young’s “Down by the River.” ?uestlove explains beforehand that they played this cover a few weeks ago, on this very same Carnegie stage, for the equally glitzy Young tribute night; he’s not apologetic about this recycling, and why on earth would he be with their sultry, power-jam scrambling? It’s a ruminant Young ballad ratcheted up to sonorous squall, all wah-wah guitar solo theatrics and stadium croon from “Captain” Kirk Douglas, backed by punishing time-signature hopscotching from ?uestlove, the other members alternately languid and furious to match. It is sex on a stick in this austere hall, and as Douglas trails off in a last swoon, the prim audience actually howls and leaps to a standing ovation, almost toppling each other in their haste.
Aside from that mid-set “Freebird” moment, the three-hour fete brings other hybrid performances of varied success. The evening’s curator is Tibet House U.S.’s Vice President, composer Philip Glass, eminence of all that is downtown and experimental; he lends nuanced piano to Hal Wilner’s reading of “Roosevelt After Inauguration,” an ardent if hurried delivery of the William S. Burroughs poem, as well as properly elegiac keys to the Flaming Lips for a supine take on their “Do You Realize.” The latter feels pretty special. (Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, in turn, raves that Glass is “fucking cool,” and that their afternoon of collaboration at Carnegie was “a motherfucker of a day.”) The Lips are predictably beatific, perhaps relieved to abandon their stint covering Pink Floyd on the sweaty festival circuit; in a stripped-down set, they also trot out The Soft Bulletin‘s ponderous “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” as Coyne fiddles with his bubble-encased guitar and makes self-deprecations about his dazed grinning.
Other noteworthy bits: Buddhist monks open with throaty sacred chanting, long horns, and brass cymbal dishes. Australian singer/songwriter Tenzin Choegyal performs traditional Tibetan music on dranyen (long necked lute), along with his contemporary effort “Jhi Chung” (“Little Bird”); the latter trots along on a twanging pulse that Hank Williams would’ve appreciated. Kidjo’s soaring “Africa” goads the polite crowd into dancing. Taj Mahal takes the stage with daughter Deva Mahal for a spartan duet of his Tropicalia-tinged ode to her, “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes.” James McCartney, folksy songwriter son of Paul, suffers from screeching feedback in his opening set, which he handles stoically, though it throws off his version of Neil Young’s “Old Man.” Patti Smith, a longtime advocate of the Tibet House U.S. — and, like Taj Mahal, Stipe, and the Roots, a veteran of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts – reads French poet Arthur Rimbaud over daughter Jesse Smith’s and collaborator Michael Campbell’s xylophone composition, which is actually less pretentious than it sounds. The house string quartet sits gamely, sometimes superfluously, through almost all of this.
Towards the end of the three-hour shindig, Michael Stipe materializes to sing — and explain at earnest and astonishing length — “Saturn Returns,” from R.E.M.’s 2001 disc Reveal. (We learn that it’s about a convenience-store clerk who studies astronomy, yet Stipe’s artistic license allows the curiously refutable lyric, “Saturn is orbiting nothing/He’s off on its own.”) The pretty “Every Day Is Yours to Win,” off this month’s new R.E.M. album Collapse Into Now, sets a pensive tone that the Flaming Lips abet and Patti Smith then shatters soundly with two rowdy rock jams, the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”
All parties reassemble for the genial finale, which defies all odds and is not a cover: Smith’s “People Have the Power,” a peppy Kumbaya group hug to beat ’em all. Choegyal leaps frontward and entwines fingers with Smith, Coyne leads Thurman in a ebullient hopping dance, and Captain Kirk leads the backing band alongside Lenny Kaye. (We can’t spot ?uestlove in the melee, to the disappointment of our young neighbor.) After this long jam, the massive group bows and exits swiftly. The audience reclines, cheering for . . . well, what? Not rebellion necessarily, not rock bombast entirely, but some intersection of good musicianship and good intentions. And not a bad start to the year, at that.
Critical Bias: How many libidinous jokes can you make about beaming aboard Captain Kirk Douglas? ‘Cuz this girl can beat you.
Overheard: “There is love, motherfuckers,” which is Patti Smith’s idea of stage banter.
Random Notebook Dump: “Angelique Kidjo has changed outfits two times and now seems to be eyeing James McCartney’s ceremonial sash.”
Jesse Smith, Michael Campbell & Patti Smith
Angelique Kidjo & the Roots
“Move On Up!”
The Roots & Taj Mahal
“Why Did You Have to Desert Me?”
“Down by the River”
Taj Mahal & Deva Mahal
“Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes”
“Blues with a Feeling”
Philip Glass & Hal Wilner
“Roosevelt After Inauguration”
“Every Day is Yours to Win”
The Flaming Lips
“Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”
The Flaming Lips & Philip Glass
“Do You Realize”
All (group finale)
“People Have the Power”