Tibet House Benefit
13 Feb 2012: Carnegie Hall New York
Composer Philip Glass continues to be the artistic director for the annual Tibet House US Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall and this year’s 22nd incarnation was not atypical from the past. Like prior events, a significant number of talented artists were selected to quietly grace (or even behave outlandishly on) the stage with their presence, including Tibetan monks clad in saffron robes. As expected, proceeds from the ticket sales go to help support the Tibet House, with some being shared with the local community this year. Plus the event commemorates the Monlam Prayer (Great Prayer) Festival and the Tibetan New Year (also known as Losar) which counts today, February 22nd, as the first day of 2012.
Among the artists lined up were rock luminary Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Antony (without any Johnsons), rappers Das Racist, dubstep singer James Blake, Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields), beat-box legend Rahzel, violinist Tim Fain and Glass himself. But before anyone else appeared, eight monks from the Drepung Monastery began with a solemn chant. Their collective droning produced a stilling effect while one monk’s guttural stirring achieved a sound similar to a long Tibetan horn (think the undulating didgeridoo). Then Bob Thurman, professor at Columbia University and “The Dalai Lama’s man in America”, spoke briefly about the painting of Potala Palace in Lhasa hanging over the stage and invoked the audience to imagine a free Tibet.
The second performance came from Anderson, who worked her violin and some sparse, foresteal synth loops around her spoken word story. Anderson described a journey with some Buddhists that crossed paths with an incest support group and their self-help programs telling stories around a campfire while passing a spoon around to some laughs. As the off-beat tale continued, Antony walked out and built up the tale with his gorgeous voice. He sang/narrated Anderson’s “The Dream Before” about Hansel and Gretel living in Berlin—the line where Hansel tells Gretel she can really be a bitch got laughs. At the end, Anderson’s haunting instrumental helped birth the cataclysmic prophecy (“there is a storm”) from Antony.
Antony and Anderson’s performance was one highlight of several over the evening. Both musicians (plus Glass) had been at the previous Tibet House Benefit show (way back in 2006) but many of the artists (almost the rest of the lineup) I had not seen in any setting. James Blake and his two backing musicians began with his “Lindisfarne” works before going into “The Wilhelm Scream”. Blakes’ voice was often lost amidst the percussive electronics, especially during the latter’s crescendoing synths, and may have been better suited for a club but it was good to finally see him live.
Glass and Fain
The next performance was from Glass himself on piano and the violinist Tim Fain whose incredible skills were just breath-taking to hear. The piece was Glass’ “Pendulum for Violin & Piano”, originally composed for the ACLU’s 90th anniversary, and as it coursed and heaved I couldn’t help but find myself transfixed. Dechen Shak-Dagsay and her band followed them. Her voice evoked exotic glimmers from her homeland (her family fled Tibet) and left the audience in a reflective mood. Then an unannounced group, The Two, Ara Starck and David Jarre from France, performed “Everyday”.
With just over half the event completed, Glass brought out the Scorchio String Quartet. Then the thought-provoking music was subsumed by something a bit more bombastic; Glass asked the audience to welcome Das Racist. The rappers, Heems (Himanshu Suri) and Kool A.D. (Victor Vazquez) in their suits, plus their hype man Dap (Ashok Kondabolu) in his lengthy salwar kameez, put on a ridiculously over the top (and possibly offensive to some) performance of “Michael Jackson”. Dap flailed about in the middle of the stage, swinging his arms and moving his body solely by thrusting his pelvis, while Kool A.D. scrambled about, tumbling on the stage and grabbing the cellist’s hand. However hilarious and awkward it may have been for the audience, Das Racist are definitely tongue in cheek. The Playbill characterized the group as a “white guilt art project/science experiment/ponzi scheme” whose goal is to make a million dollars. Now that they are one of a handful of rappers who have performed at Carnegie Hall, I wish them well on in this endeavor.
Stephin Merritt kept the audience laughing afterwards with his “This Little Ukulele” singing that he “wished he had an orchestra behind me” and his wish came partly true as the string quartet joined him for the lovely “The Book of Love”. And when he concluded with the funny, and perhaps a bit saddening, love song “Andrew in Drag”, the audience was at least in on this joke.
Rahzel followed Merritt, the beat-boxer was another game changer for the evening and put together his tremendous “Transformation” right in front of the audience. Then Das Racist returned for their song “Shut Up, Man” with more of their antics. At one point, Kool A.D. grabbed the American flag and hauled it to center stage. Along the way, it did touch the stage, but because the stage of Carnegie Hall is an achievement, it may be less cause for distress (it’s not the ground).
In the final stretch, the Patti Smith band led by Lenny Kaye, rocked through several tunes including “Born to Lose”, that sounded good but lacked a stage presence. The void was soon filled by Lou Reed. His performance began a bit lack-luster as he required a music stand to read from though he did conduct the quartet from his position. But Reed ended with the typical charity style with all the musicians again on stage for “Beginning to See the Light”. Finally, the musicians paid their thanks to Glass with a thoughtful gesture; everyone (including many in the audience) sang “Happy Birthday” to the composer who turned 75 this past month.
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