Dark Was The Night Live @ Radio City Music Hall, NYC 5/3/09

The fear with any supertalent variety show like last night’s Dark Was The Night live event is that the appeal on paper will far outstrip the appeal of having your ass glued to a seat for four hours. And it was a very impressive piece of paper. But like the record that inspired it, last night’s concert somehow played even better in the execution. And like the record, it seemed people were playing for keeps, along with playing for charity, knocking out unforgettable moments all night — from seeing kindred spirits David Byrne and Dave Longstreth harmonize near the open to watching the assemblage of all-stars smile in awe as Sharon Jones hijacked and tore down the house with the closing “This Land Is Your Land” superjam. (That photo above is one of a few from that moment, in honor of Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday being celebrated over at a superconcert at MSG. It started as a staid strummer, and then Sharon happened.) We’ve got like a 100 photos (obvs), and video of that “This Land” superjam, and exhaustive accompanying notes for your mind’s eye:

I logged the night blow-by-blow on Twitter, but it probably bears repeating. Before that, some general observations: These sorts of charitable all-star endeavors are never competitions, except that they totally are competitions, so I’m giving the night’s MVP award to Justin Vernon aka he who straight crushed it. To be fair, as a friend noted, everyone straight crushed it. But not everyone was straight invited to collaborate as much as Bon Iver, and with much respect to Mr. Byrne, nobody got more applause at the mere mention of his name, let alone after (or even during) his performances. He was a constant presence onstage, and elevated everything he touched, subbing admirably for Gibbard on Feist’s “Traing Song,” plying blustery blues licks to the National’s new song, backing up David Byrne on his old Red Hot tune with Caetono Veloso, creating the vocal powerhouse moment of the night in trading verses with My Brightest Diamond on his stately and hypnotic “Flume.”

If not Bon Iver, then OK, David Byrne. His turn with Dirty Projectors was great, and his position as godfather of the Red Hot project was rightfully celebrated in word, and by a three-song set that closed Act One, featuring previously unperformed songs Byrne had contributed to previous Red Hot comps. There were percussion lines, Bon Ivers, and crazy footwork. And if not David Byrne, then Sharon Jones, who brought Radio City to its feet during her set, then created some memories on this encore…

…and if not Sharon Jones, then etc. Everybody did it. Hard. Essentially, each artist (but for My Brightest Diamond and Dave Sitek who went one-off) was given a four-song mini-set, during which they performed their contribution to the compilation along with whatever else. For Dirty Projectors that meant opening the show with the seven-minute epic “Useful Chamber” and “Stillness Is The Move” (SXSW was one thing, but now Amber is seriously starting to explore the space with those dance moves and Mariah styles) before being joined by David Byrne for two more: “Knotty Pine” and “Ambulance Man,” another Byrne/Projectors collab created for the comp that never made its list. (Hear it here.) It’s a great ballad — the Davids melding voices in striking harmony — and seeing them croon side by side further framed my thought that these two dudes are linked, mentor and heir. At the very least, they are similarly tall and twitchy. Also if you haven’t, listen to Bitte Orca all the time. Because it is the best.

Set breaks were eased with vintage video — Sinead doing a tune from Red Hot & Blue; Free Kitten, Bikini Kill, Luscious Jackson, Huggy Bear, et al talking about safe sex, etc. — a decision which lived and died by the videos they chose to air. They chose the right videos. Kim Gordon talking condoms and Beavis & Butthead’s responsibility as national role models to address safe sex was almost as good as Feist’s entire four-song set directly after it. But that was later.

After Dirty Projectors’ show open and some video during stage turnover came Shara Worden, doing her take on “Feeling Good” as popularized by Nina Simone with the night’s ostensible house band: Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars (of the National, and of course of Organizing DWTN fame), the National’s Bryan Devendorf on drums, and Doveman on keyboards. People were impressed with this performance. This is because Shara knows how to sing. Well. The switch over to the National was easy: just swap a pint-sized vocal dynamo in a silver dress for a tall, young-professorial looking baritone dude. Berninger was low-key as ever, kicking off “Slow Show” with rasp and husk, paying his props to his bandmates for their incredible work benefiting those living with HIV/AIDS, and introducing two new songs: one of which had a name I couldn’t catch, but had an intro very reminiscent of Sufjan’s “Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” (and a smoking Bon Iver guitar solo), and another that I could sorta catch but was mumbled so sounded something like “Vanderlyle Crybaby,” even though I realize there is no such thing as a Vanderlyle (yet).

After that it was TV On The Radio brain Dave Sitek dapper in a suit, crooning his compilation contribution “With A Girl Like You” along with his favorite horn dude Stuart Bogie, and that led to the aforementioned David Byrne three-song First Act closer. This started with a percussion line dancing its way through, followed by an even more impressively dancing Byrne, to his cover of Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” which appeared on the first Red Hot comp. For his Caetano Veloso collab track from the Lisbon Red Hot comp, he couldn’t get Caetono, so we settled for a Bon Iver. (“Sorry!” joked Byrne, because he is a funny man.) The next was a collab with Leslie Feist. Again, memories.

After a smoke break, Bon Iver did his thing as previously mentioned via purple prose, Feist did her thing, and Sharon Jones most definitely did her thing. No matter what you think of Sharon Jones (judging from RCMH, people think “I will go apeshit and dance to this”), this much is inarguable: you cannot follow Sharon Jones. Not with sleepy white folk, anyway. Which is precisely why she was the show closer, and also precisely why it was hilarious when the “superjam” appeared to be a sleepy tribute to the iconic folkie Pete Seeger, whose 90th was being celebrated across town at MSG. The night’s performers (sans Byrne, sadly) came out and strummed “This Land Is Your Land” like it was elementary school before Sharon swaggered out and in front of them, comically scoffed, professed her “love for that version” but then instructed the Dap-Kings to show us hers. You saw how that went. That’s how it ended. Good Was The Night. (Sorry. But you have to realize how many similarly terrible Was The Night puns I resisted.)

In compensation, here’s a stab at the setlist:
01 Dirty Projectors – “Useful Chamber”
02 Dirty Projectors – “Stillness Is The Move”
03 Dirty Projectors & David Byrne – “Ambulance Man”
04 Dirty Projectors & David Byrne – “Knotty Pine”
05 My Brightest Diamond (w/ The National) – “Feeling Good”
06 The National – “Slow Show”
07 The National – (new song)
08 The National (w/ Bon Iver) – “So Far Around The Bend”
09 The National – (new song, sounded like “Vanderlyle Crybaby”)
10 Dave Sitek – “With A Girl Like You”
11 David Byrne – “Don’t Fence Me In” (Cole Porter cover, from 1st Red Hot comp)
12 David Byrne (w/ Bon Iver) – “Dreamworld: Marco de Canavezes”
13 David Byrne (w/ Feist) – “Waters Of March” (VIDEO)


14 Bon Iver – “Brackett, WI”
15 Bon Iver – “Blood Bank”
16 Bon Iver (w/ Matt Berninger) – “Big Red Machine”
17 Bon Iver (w/ My Brightest Diamond) – “Flume”
18 Feist – “The Wagoner’s Lad”
19 Feist – “Look At What The Light Did Now”
20 Feist (w/ Bon Iver) – “Train Song”
21 Feist – “Someday Baby”
22 Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – “Not Gonna Cry”
23 Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – “When I Come Home”
24 Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – “Inspiration Information” (I think)
25 Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – “100 Days, 100 Nights”
26 Superjam – “This Land Is Our Land”

Thanks, indie rock. Let’s do it again sometime.