It’s hard to knock a benefit release. But, if one is to support a worthy cause by releasing an album—and the Tibetan Health Initiative seems as worthy a cause as any—it seems like the disc should be better because of its goal, not just a smattering of sort-of rare tracks, as many benefit discs tend to be.
Anti- Records do not totally go down that route, and at least manage to put together an interesting presentation on Healing the Divide. Culled from a September 2003 benefit concert in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, the nine tracks here offer much its targeted listeners might not hear otherwise. That the disc starts with an address from His Holiness the Dalai Lama immediately injects it with some import; the listener can’t help but feel a little privileged to have the disc in hand. Following His Holiness is an invocation by the Gyuto Tantric Choir, a group that perform by throat-singing, which is a Central Asian form of overtone singing. The performance is startling at first, but then all-encompassing. It seeps into you, forcing you to stop what you’re doing and listen. And while I’ll admit to knowing nothing of that type of music’s rhythms, it is an arresting, eye-opening piece.
Anoushka Shankar—the daughter of Ravi Shankar—turns in a solid sitar piece with “Nivedan”, a song full of peaks and valleys, stops and starts. It serves almost as a companion piece to the choir’s invocation, in that they somehow end up complementing each other by setting both performances in stark contrast to one another. Later on the disc, Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso turn in a sublime composition entitled “The Gambia”.
But, to really no one’s surprise, this is Tom Waits’ show. He gets four of the nine tracks (no one else gets more than one, not even His Holiness), and these are well-selected from a set that originally ran just under an hour. While Waits’ performance here is totally solid, it doesn’t quite jibe with the rest of the disc. In the longer form that the actual concert took, this might have worked. But on the disc, it makes the selections seem less organic, as if Anti- selected some material Western listeners would be less familiar with, so they could get away with four tracks from one of their roster’s superstars. Of course, that is how one would get money for the cause, so while it saps the flow of the disc some, it might help the overall goal.
“Way Down in the Hole”, from Franks Wild Years, is the first track we get from Waits, and he’s his usual energetic, gravel-spit self. Performing here with the Kronos Quartet, none of his songs are marred by overarching string arrangements like some of his studio work is. Instead, the songs are stripped down and sharp, getting right to their marrow and, at the same time, right into yours. This performance of “God’s Away on Business” trumps the original version in virtually every way. While the instrumentation isn’t terribly different, it is given more presence than on the album. Waits’ vocal performance is a little more muted (at least as muted as his growl can be) when he’s free of Blood Money’s inexplicably high vocal mix, which made much of his singing on that album sound more like self-parody than his signature piss and vinegar. Also served well on the disc is the Alice cut, “Lost in the Harbor”. It’s a clearer version than on the album, and you might think the song would suffer when cut free of that album’s excellently grainy production. But here, the track sounds threadbare and revealing, and when Waits sings, “And I will fill the ocean back up with my tears”, he sounds completely vulnerable.
The highlight of his songs on Healing the Divide is the previously unreleased “Diamond in Your Mind”. To say the song is typical Waits fare (which it is) takes away from just how great it is. More of a piano ballad than any of the other selections here, the song is full of trademark Waits lines (“She’s like a wrecking ball that’s no longer connected to the chain”) and an anthemic chorus that leads to his performance’s, and the album’s, crescendo. He invites the crowd to sing the chorus with him, and they oblige, singing “Always keep a diamond in your mind / Wherever you may wander / Wherever you may roam / Always keep a diamond in your mind”. It’s a great concert moment, but also a reminder that, at least among the concertgoers, their goal of peace and reconciliation was a success. That Waits, the aging prankster, is able to lead this display of unity (at one point he quips, “So His Holiness goes to bed at 7:30, that’s not the Holiness I used to know”.) makes the moment all the more affecting. The disc as a whole is worthy of its cause, strong enough to be worth any donor’s while, though it might be a different story were this a for-profit release.