[9 March 2009]
Ah, where would we be without benefit shows? Well, probably in much the same place with regard to the reforms they’re striving for, especially since the ticket revenues left over after production costs have been accounted for probably aren’t all that formidable most of the time. Consider 2007’s Live Earth series, where the carbon footprint of shipping the bands around outweighed the benefits of having them preach about the environment in the first place.
The last Tibetan Freedom Concert I remember paying any attention to was a hometown affair, a bunch of local bar bands playing metal in a seedy dive surrounded by people who were more likely to have Tibetan symbols tattooed on their shoulders than painted on souvenirs from their travels there. It probably raised about three digits worth of aid money. The one before that involved watching the Beastie Boys play to a stadium on MTV. The one that goes down at Carnegie Hall is different from both in that the people it appeals to probably have the kind of money that can make a difference.
The evening opens and closes with Tibetan performers—a small group of monks with rooster-like traditional head garb and guttural chants at the top, and a guitarist named Techtung with heavy Western influences at the end. Still, I’m not going to put one over on you with five paragraphs about how this all resonates with the plight of the Kirti monks in Amdo, even though I think I could pull it off. To be perfectly frank, I’m just excited about catching a performance by Philip Glass, the concert’s organizer and one of the most transformative voices in classical music in at least the past thirty years. But the lineup for this is pretty remarkable across the board: The bill reads like about a third of an entire Carnegie season.
At long last, after energizing little pills from Antibalas and Angelique Kidjo and one from Glass’ mediocre singer-songwriter son Zack, which I suspect had more nefarious intentions, I get my wish: Glass leads Carnegie’s house string quartet in a performance of “Facades”, which also features dueling soprano sax players. It’s instantly identifiable as Glass (Senior, at least) within three notes—that is, just long enough to play a simple figure and then start repeating it. Both horns and strings spend most of the piece swaying majestically between two chords just a nanometer apart, since most of the action is in the relative inaction of the melody. Glass’ piano parts underneath are buried beneath the rest of the instrumentation, but they’re the closest thing the piece has to a consistent anchor. They’re also the only time I’ll get to hear him all night, aside from short introductory interludes and nervous stage banter.
Many of the other musicians get two or three songs at most, implying that far more performers have been scheduled than is sensible in order to cast the widest net of appeal and draw in as many people as possible. (Guilty as charged, but let me finish.) This lineup would have run until 3 am at any other venue, but we’re out shivering in the snow again by 10 pm, and Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson even performs with a minimal floor-tom-and-snare setup to get us there. Suggesting that the night is more about the Tibetans than the music is a perfectly valid argument, but if I’m not going to be entertained, I’d like to be educated and perhaps even inspired. Even though this would make a great platform, and I’m feeling perfectly receptive tonight, there’s no real attempt to educate or inspire, and Philip Glass doesn’t get a longer set either. Nor does Steve Earle, which is just as lamentable, because he is once again totally bloody transcendent. I first saw him a year ago at a show in a snooty highbrow joint in Virginia, where he played a solo set that started with sensitive solo acoustic ballads, built to a diatribe against the prevailing politics of the theater’s customer base, and ended with one of the Dust Brothers taking the stage to back him in a psychedelic folky-wiki turntable jam session. Previously, I had only known Earle because the rock radio station that raised me during my teens seemed to play “Copperhead Road” every other night around 10 pm. Thanks for everything, WROV, but I think you missed the mark on that one.
This time, I’ve had a chance to brace myself, but I’m still on the edge of my seat anticipating whatever concentrated pellet form he’s going to deliver here. His shorter appearance doesn’t really give him much room to flex, but he drops the most poignant spiritual insight of the night, monks be damned (sorry, poor choice of words). “I believe in God,” his mustache grumbles in one song, “but God ain’t us.” Glass may still lead in the majesty index, but for emotional gravity, nobody else can match Earle. Vampire Weekend teaming up with the quartet to make the string parts on “M79” happen is nice, but many of the others are lukewarm, or at least not given enough time to ignite. The National, in particular, mope around with a handful of dreary new originals, but nothing from Boxer or Alligator.
Patti Smith gets the most enthusiastic reception of all, which is a bit unsettling to me since her first wave of popularity hit in the ‘80s before I had so much as bought my first cassette album of terrible Hammer proto-hop. Her band is ace, at least: Earlier, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty’s astute placement of hi-hat barks had been the sugar that made Glass Junior go down, and his killer fills continue unabated as floppy mop-top guitarist Lenny Kaye leads the backing trio and the audience, sans Patti Smith entirely, in a fiery medley of ‘50s pop drawn from Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper in honor of the 50th anniversary of their legendary plane crash. The highlight, though, punctuates one of Smith’s bouts of frenzied head-flinging: She hawks up a nice fat loogie, deposits it quite expertly all over Carnegie’s hallowed stage, and then proceeds to apologetically mop it up.
What fun! But much like her punk rock bravado, the larger purpose of the night has also been diluted—it turned into just another reason to rock out, kind of the way frat boys celebrate Cinco de Mayo by switching from Miller Lite to Cuervo. I may not be all that invested in it as grand causes go, but still, I would think the Tibetan freedom struggle deserves better than that.
Patti Smith closes the show by leading all of the evening’s performers in a mass We-Are-The-World style rendition of her 1988 hit “People Have The Power”. Fair enough, but the thing is, I’m not convinced they give a shit. Even if the music is killer, I guess that part is still a work in progress.