Right before Patti Smith abandoned the low, throaty hum of her alto to burst into the growling second half of “Ghandi,” she spit on the Carnegie Hall stage. If it had been anyone else, the act would’ve seemed careless, like an afterthought, an accident maybe. It seemed like an act: not of attrition against the historical, honored stage, but an act of solidarity with the dusty, grungy corners of the world that the spirit of a benefit concert springs from. Smith subverted Carnegie’s stately elegance, taking the attention away from the conceptualization of the Benefit Concert and placing it back squarely on the performers themselves. This is Patti Smith, the Godmother of Rock and Roll, and she sometimes has to spit while she howls into the mic. If the Dalai Lama had seen it, he would’ve smiled.
At last night’s 25th Annual Tibet House Benefit Concert, the entire evening unfolded like a meditation on quiet rebellions, kicked off by the gruff yet melodic chanting of the Tibetan monks themselves. Laurie Anderson followed that up with two songs performed on an electronic violin. Accompanied by another string player, Martha Mooke, the dueling violins reminded me of Swan Lake’s tragic, roiling elegance. Anderson then sat and told the story of how she broke her back and spent weeks in a children’s hospital when she was younger. Her speaking voice is like crumpled velvet, musical even in its tonality. She speaks in a rhythm that seems to emerge before her words, as though she’s waiting for their sound to catch up with her meaning. Anderson’s story centered on the way that we make ourselves the heart of the narrative, wiping others out of our stories, and how we lose perspective in the process — a fitting, pointed tale for a night dedicated to preserving a civilization that’s slipping away.
The night really hit its stride, though, when Dev Hynes took the stage. Hynes is a magnificent producer and an inspired composer, but he seems to have reached a new level in his work lately. His voice is liquid mercury. Even the first few lines he sang from “Of The World” moved me almost immediately to tears. The song is brand new, original material, and it’s devastating. You can read the lyrics in a recent Tumblr post. He also played the lacy ode to a train wreck “Bad Girls.” In my mind, Hynes’ performance exemplified the best way to honor a cause like this: Perform your own art and contribute your own power, instead of donning the trappings of special collaborations or social justice in a forced, awkward way.
Hynes did just that, as did Sturgill Simpson, who seemed enthralled at the thought of being on Carnegie’s stage accompanied by a string quartet. (When Simpson usually plays in New York, it’s been at significantly smaller, stranger venues like Joe’s Pub.) As he sang the refrain of “Turtles All The Way Down” — “Love’s the only thing that’s ever saved my life” — it struck me as the ideal song for a benefit concert. The crux of the Tibet House’s mission is to preserve and honor Tibetan culture, and that culture is being rescued and preserved by those who love it.
At events like this, there’s the effortless incorporation of artists whose creative impulses already reflect the concert’s aims, and then there’s always the stiffer parts that don’t quite translate. Anderson and Tenzin Choegyal led an actual meditation mid-show that felt more disruptive than relaxing, and while Ashley Macisaac’s Nova Scotian foot-stomping Celtic music was incredibly impressive, it felt very out of place. Later, Ira Glass and Philip Glass did a poem-and-piano spoken word bit that mostly served to make it even more clear how excellent Laurie Anderson’s speaking voice is.
But Blondie’s frontwoman Debbie Harry was another bright spot. She kicked off her set by banging two huge gongs together and ended it by dinging two tiny bells — possibly the greatest metaphor for Blondie’s music that’s ever existed. When she performed my favorite-ever Blondie song “Heart Of Glass,” even the greying heads in the back rows were bopping and moving in their seats. Harry’s voice still does that helium blip flip when she hits a high note, that sound that made listening to Blondie feel kind of like popping bubble wrap, and she beams positivity all the way up into the rafters. The Flaming Lips performed after Harry because I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to have a benefit concert anymore if Wayne Coyne isn’t included. The best part about their set was that Juliana Barwick deigned to sing with them, even if the arrangement of “She’s Leaving Home” left a lot to be desired. Barwick’s voice deserves a hall like Carnegie’s though, and she filled the place with impressive, steady brightness.
In the end, how could the night not be Patti’s? When Smith swept onto the stage, her presence was a physical force. She shared her personal connection to Tibet House, recalling how when she was 12, she watched the Chinese invasion of Tibet and began praying for the Dalai Lama’s safety every night. Last night she noted that he’s still alive and well on the cusp of his 80th birthday and performed “Birthday Poem” in his honor. Surely it wasn’t solely Smith’s prayers that kept His Holiness safe, but after being in her presence I wouldn’t be surprised if her appeals weren’t weighted a little more heavily than ours. Smith epitomized the goal of concerts like this — that the performer have a personal connection to the cause without forcing it, that their art already springs from the same sensibilities the organization values. But as her offhand spit revealed, her values remain solely her own no matter where she is.
The benefit closed with an all-ensemble rendition of “People Have The Power” and a ripple spread through the crowd when Coyne’s BFF Miley Cyrus emerged from the wings to sway onstage. It would’ve been better if she’d been squeezed into the lineup to perform her stunning cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” One cause at a time I guess.
[All photos by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Tibet House.]