It began with a parade of saffron-robed Buddhist monks chanting, and ended with Patti Smith spitting on Carnegie Hall’s hallowed stage.
Now in its 25th year, the Philip Glass–curated Tibet House Benefit Concert was once again a spectacle like no other. Though the main goal of the annual event is fundraising for the preservation of Tibetan culture and its Buddhist teachings, it also acts as a breeding ground for collaboration between Glass’s inner circle of friends (who happen to be experimental–rock ‘n’ roll royalty) as well as emerging acts that represent a new avant-garde vanguard. His knack for seeking these newer acts out makes his organizational role at the benefit just as vital as his performance. The show corresponds with Tibetan Lunar New Year, a time traditionally taken to engage in games, contests, and prayer, so while Carnegie’s opulent setting might seem in direct contrast to minimalist Buddhist practice, the unique one-offs from Glass’s guests are aligned with the celebration of a miracle nearly three centuries old.
After a rousing chant from the aforementioned monks, Philip Glass and his Tibet House co-founder, Robert Thurman (sometimes referred to as “the Dalai Lama’s man in America”), made opening remarks and pioneering video and performance artist Laurie Anderson took the stage. A longtime Buddhist and veteran performer at the benefit, Anderson moved through two short violin duets with Scorchio Quartet’s Martha Mooke. In Anderson’s trademark hypnotic cadence she spoke of a Buddhist teacher who said she should strive to feel sad without being sad. That somehow sums up Anderson’s approach to making art, as her insightful prose is tinged with a dark humor. Her account of breaking her back at age twelve by missing the swimming pool and landing on concrete during a dive was more than just a retelling of that event. It was also about her realization that through smirking descriptions of children hanging in traction “like rotisseries,” she had been omitting what had truly stuck with her into adulthood: the sound of them crying in the ward at night, or the smell of the hospital, or the fear she felt as her body healed. Though a bit dark, Anderson’s storytelling was arresting as always and set a reflective gravitas for the rest of the evening.
Dev Hynes, the British singer-songwriter-producer otherwise known as Blood Orange (or, going back even further, Lightspeed Champion), offered lush versions of “Of the World” and “Bad Girls,” a B-side from the 7″ for “Dinner.” Augmented by strings from Scorchio Quartet and a saxophone solo, Hynes’s vocals dripped like honey from shimmering patches of synth. Disparate but no less moving was Canadian Celtic fiddler Ashley MacIsaac’s spirited performance that followed. Clad in a kilt-and-track-jacket combo and accompanied by pianist Maybelle Chisholm McQueen, “Miss Lyall’s Medley” began with swooping notes that opened up into a surprising stomp as MacIsaac articulated its intricate rhythms, literally shredding his bow. That musicians as varied as Hynes and MacIsaac can comfortably play back to back speaks to the power of Glass’s curatorial vision.
That vision always includes musicians from the Tibetan diaspora, this year represented by the incomparable Tenzin Choegyal. Choegyal’s family fled Tibet in the early Seventies for refugee communities in India, but through his mastery of the dranyen, or Tibetan lute, he’s retained and reimaged his cultural heritage as he made a name for himself even after moving to Australia in 1997. Particularly captivating was his performance of “Heart Strings,” also the title track from his fifth studio album, released earlier this year. Leading the audience in a chant that loosely translates to “My mind in the sky, my body in the sand…in between, I don’t know,” his powerful, emotive warble occasionally punched through the melody to stunning effect. He was joined onstage by Anderson, who read “Heart Sutra” from the Tibetan Book of the Dead while Patti Smith’s daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, accompanied on singing bowls. As Robert Thurman explained during setup, “Heart Sutra” is about mobilizing the materiality of bliss and recognizing the moments when everything melts into subjectivity as Buddhists’ souls pass from one life to the next. Whatever its intention, “Heart Sutra” lulled the crowd into a veritable trance; no matter what one’s spirituality, the words Anderson read, the vibrations of the bowls, and Choegyal’s voice created a meditative reverie and reminded attendees of the benefit’s true purpose.
If anything could rouse the crowd out of its ruminant stupor it had to be Sturgill Simpson, whose heady sophomore record, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, has garnered unparalleled, genre-shattering critical acclaim (as demonstrated by the 2014 Pazz + Jop Poll‘s list of favorite albums) and led to a string of recent sold-out shows during his last stand in New York. His drawling, aw-shucks introductions to “Just Let Go” and “Turtles All the Way Down” belied an unforgettable, assured performance, his old-time country vocal bellowing through Carnegie. With ensemble shows, each artist only has the chance to do two or three songs, but more so than any other act, the brevity of Simpson’s performance felt downright tragic; the man could have played all night. If outlaw balladeering seemed out of place at Carnegie Hall, it speaks to Simpson’s wide appeal as a purveyor of thinking man’s country that it worked so well. He described “Turtles” as a rumination on his “last great existential dilemma” and admitted that reading about Buddhism was a heavy influence on “Just Let Go.” But the real gem was his last number, a stirring new song titled “Meditations on Lost Innocence,” in which he describes missing the days of his childhood. Though it hinges on richly detailed, personal vignettes, it’s a feeling nearly anyone can relate to; this is precisely why Simpson’s career is in the midst of going ballistic.
The last half of the show was a parade of stalwart, big-name performers, including Philip himself on piano, backing his cousin Ira Glass as the NPR host read two poems (one of his own and Allen Ginsberg’s scorching 1966 Vietnam protest poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which really allowed Ira to get theatrical). Debbie Harry followed with Blondie keyboardist Matt Katz-Boen in tow. They began with “Lovelight,” written by former partner and Blondie co-founder Chris Stein for Harry’s 1989 solo record Def, Dumb & Blonde. The track was oddly sultry for the setting, although it might have been the effect of 2,804 residual Debbie crushes seeping into the air from everyone in the room. Moving through one of Katz-Boen’s original songs and into an obligatory, karaoke-esque performance of “Heart of Glass” adorably dedicated to Philip, Harry got the audience totally stirred up.
In one of the oddest performances of the night, the Flaming Lips eschewed their own catalog in favor of covering the Beatles and David Bowie. It wasn’t totally off the wall, due to the fact that the Lips’ latest release is a track-for-track tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s and that the Bowie track “Warszawa” had been part of Glass’s “Low” Symphony. The odd thing, rather, was that Lips leadman Wayne Coyne didn’t sing so much as accent, loop, and manipulate Julianna Barwick’s vocals as she sang “She’s Leaving Home.”
But it was Patti Smith who brought the house down with an astounding performance that began nonchalantly with a birthday poem for the Dalai Lama (this year will be his 80th) but moved quickly into the fiery incantations of “Gandhi,” with her band and her daughter providing the music. Roaming the stage like a wild animal, sing-shouting her poetic verses, and yes, actually spitting in between verses, Smith was an absolute force to be reckoned with. It doesn’t matter that Smith herself is nearly 70. She executed a total-package performance that most Brooklyn bands made up of twentysomethings could never hope to achieve. Philip Glass noted the strength of the iconic women present: Smith and her daughter; Harry; and Anderson, all four of them holding hands and bowing together when all the performers (including Coyne’s “fwend” Miley Cyrus) returned to the stage for “People Have the Power.” After over two hours of phenomenal music, Carnegie Hall ended the night on its feet in honor of Tibet.