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Better Than: Possibly expected.
A benefit concert can be tricky business. There’s a necessity to show earnestness when addressing the cause it benefits while an expectation for a fully-stocked and exciting line-up of performances and surprises exists. It can go horribly wrong or it can be an illuminating, moving and exciting night worthy of the cause it supports and the money shelled out by patrons to benefit said cause. At Carnegie Hall last night, where the 24th Annual Tibet House US Benefit Concert took place, the evening quite certainly felt like the latter.
See also: How Not to Throw a Human Rights Benefit
Over halfway through the concert, Tibet House’s vice president and legend of minimalist music Philip Glass noted that a certain amount of luck is necessary to put together these shows. From start to finish, it felt lucky to witness the performances and collaborations on stage as they honored the great work of the Tibet House US. The institution itself serves as a cultural embassy and educational non-profit founded in 1987 to preserve the cultural and spiritual heritage and legacy of Tibet. The cause and purpose of the event and work done by this particular set of artists as well as those not present were clear and resonated throughout the evening. Though star-studded, the benefit’s purpose was not diluted by the excitement in the air and the surprises presented over the course of a few hours.
Opening with Tibetan monks chanting, the organization’s president Robert Thurman gave a few remarks on the work that’s been done and necessity to keep knowledge on rich culture Tibet has to offer that is being stifled by its government. Robert Randolph then jolted the audience awake as seated patrons bounced in their seats itching to get up and move. Randolph looked exuberant on stage as he performed alongside Patti Smith’s Band and shredded on his pedal steel guitar through a pair of songs. His performance did show, however, the fatal flaw of hosting acts like these in an esteemed concert hall like Carnegie — the discrepancy between the type of venue we were in with the type of visceral reaction one might have to the songs being played. Though Carnegie allows for the type of necessary reverence for the cause, it’s difficult to stay seated as Randolph falls to his knees while playing the pedal steel guitar, yanking it around in front of him as if he were about to smash it just to solidify that the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll had so moved him.
A more concert hall-appropriate performance followed up and slowed things down with The National’s Matt Berninger, Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner. As offensively inoffensive and polarizing as they can be, with the edition of indie rock’s resident cool weirdo Sufjan Stevens on backing vocals. Still firmly seated in place, the audience experienced a trio of percussion-less, string-focused compositions from the band that were emotionally moving and gorgeous. “This Is the Last Time” specifically benefited from its even more slowed down arrangement, and Stevens’ backing vocals offered a nice dynamic to the tracks.
Stevens stayed on stage to continue performing with Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly as they presented the “naked versions” of a pair of tunes from their solar system-themed classical collaboration Planetarium. Again, stripped down compositions felt welcome in the venue and upped the emotional quality exponentially. Muhly stayed on stage for a phenomenal piano duet with his mentor Philip Glass before allowing Glass and violinist Tim Fain to weave “The French Lieutenant” into “The Pendulum” for an evening highlight. There are no words Glass words to describe Glass’ consistently brilliant performances at this point, but it was Fain who really shined and moved the room with his virtuosity. The duo garnered the first and partial standing ovation of the evening.
Because this is an event honoring Tibetan culture, a Tibetan artist is obviously a nice touch. Though it would be great to see even more Tibetan artists take the stage at a benefit for an organization preserving their culture, folk artist Techung gave a heavy and ferocious set halfway through the evening that came unfortunately paired with off-beat clapping from an audience that apparently does not know when to wind down the clapping-in-time concert practice. Luckily, that only occurred during one song, but you could see the bassist regret his decision to get that started in the first place.
The evening then arrived to the concert “headliners,” if that’s an appropriate term for a benefit. Bernard Sumner, Phil Cunningham and Tom Chapman of New Order brought on stage Manchester poet Mike Garry and composer Jo Duddell for a special performance of Garry’s poem “St. Anthony” set to New Order’s “Your Silent Face.” Making it even more special is who the poem had been written in honor of — Factory Records’ owner Tony Wilson. Wilson of course, discovered them all when they were Joy Division.
The most excellent and fulfilling of the surprises came from Iggy Pop’s entrance on stage to perform a trio of songs with New Order. Dressed in an oversized black blazer, dress pants, and no shirt, Iggy Pop looked particularly buttoned up with only part of his bare chest peeking beneath the suit. He made a very Iggy Pop show of New Order’s “California Grass” before the evening’s most audience-rousing pair of performances arrived as the collaborators dove into two Joy Division tracks. Pop took over Joy Division’s “Transmission” as patrons jumped to their feet to “dance, dance, dance, dance, dance” as the song commands. Pop’s voice has aged nicely, even deeper and with more resonance as he perfectly delivered a vocal reminiscent of the late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’ deep tone. Excitement heightened as they transitioned into “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and more people jumped to their feet and ran towards the stage to continue dancing and jumping and taking part in this truly remarkable moment. Sumner took over the majority of vocal duties though Pop did the refrain justice. It was particularly special thinking of the influence Pop had on Joy Division and more specifically Ian Curtis, who had listened to Pop’s debut solo album The Idiot right before his death.
Iggy Pop then got a chance to perform his own set and offered up a pair from that aforementioned solo album, a moving touch after the New Order set. “Sister Midnight” and “Nightclubbing” were backed by Patti Smith’s Band and were made even more riveting by Pop’s little old man booty shake and stripping of the blazer to reveal a black vest and still no shirt. The audience had settled down quite a bit, appropriate as frequent Tibet House Benefit performer Patti Smith prepared to honor the late Lou Reed with a breathtaking cover of Reed’s “Perfect Day” after Glass offered a few remarks on the immense amount of activism Reed had done in his lifetime for the Tibet House and otherwise. Celebrating the Year of the Wood Horse, Smith had a theme to her song choices after the tribute. After setting Ted Hughes’ poem “New Foal” to music, she performed “Land” off of her debut Horses. She mixed “Gloria” into the song before replacing the final “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” with a drawn out “do you know how to pony?” because when Patti Smith gives you a theme she is going to drive it on home in the most poetic and seamless way possible.
It all ended with Smith’s “People Have the Power” accompanied by the entire lineup. Towards the song’s end, she adorably pulled Iggy Pop, Robert Thurman, and Philip Glass to the center, which tugged at every imaginable heart string. It was a fine ending and yet another reminder of what the audience had gathered for this evening to support and who made it worth staying through the evening for.
Critical Bias: The last time I saw both Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, was at the same Lollapalooza ’07 weekend, in the pouring rain for the former and sweltering heat for the latter. Just like last time, Smith made me super emotional and Pop had me running towards the stage.
Overheard: “PHILIP GLASS IS AWESOME!” – screamed from the balcony as Glass sat down at the piano.
Random Notebook Dump: Did tonight just make me a fan of the National?
Tibetan Monks Chant
Robert Randolph w/ Patti Smith’s Band & Tim Fain – “Bo Diddley in A”; “I’m Going Down”
Members of the National w/ Sufjan Stevens – “I Need My Girl”; “This Is the Last Time”
Members of the National w/ Sufjan Stevens & Nico Muhly – “Vanderlyle”
Nico Muhly, Aaron Dessner of The National and Sufjan Stevens – “Planetarium”; “Neptune”
Nico Muhly & Philip Glass – “The Chase”
Philip Glass & Tim Fain – “The French Lieutenant Dreams”; “The Pendulum”
Techung – “Khamlu”; “Jungu”; “Snow Lion of Peace”
New Order w/ Mike Garry, Joe Duddell & Phillip Glass – “St. Anthony”/”Your Silent Face”
New Order w/ Iggy Pop – “California Grass”; “Transmission”; “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
Iggy Pop w/ Patti Smith’s Band – “Sister Midnight”; “Nightclubbing”
Iggy Pop w/ Tim Fain, Philip Glass & Patti Smith’s Band – “Mishima November 25th”
Patti Smith – “Perfect Day”; “New Foal”; “Horses”/”Gloria”
Patti Smith & All – “People Have the Power”