What begins with saffron-robed Tibetan monks chanting and ends with Miley Cyrus hugging Philip Glass?
That’s not a setup for a punchline or a trick question; it’s a literal description of last night’s Tibet House Benefit Concert, the 25th annual at Carnegie Hall. With a mix of talent unlike any other concert, one musical style abruptly shifted to another, yet it all fit together as though some strange design of conscience. Laurie Anderson telling a story about story-telling begat Dev Hynes/ Blood Orange bringing us back to the future sounds of the ’80s with synthesizer/ sax songs “Of the World” and “Bad Girls.” Ashley MacIsaac – “the bad-boy of world music” according to Carnegie Hall’s Playbill – fiddled away in Celtic tradition, donning a Nova Scotian kilt to match his fro, followed next. He started the traditional “Miss Lyall’s Medley” slow, then got faster, then stomped his foot as he launched into double time. All the while 79-year-old Maybelle Chisholm McQueen (Glass joked while introducing her, “you’re never too old to make your Carnegie debut“) was rippin’ it up on piano with a boogie-woogie spirit befit a dingy, smoke-filled bar in some cartoon version of the 1940s. At least that’s where my imagination went as I listened.
Tenzin Choegyal played a Tibetan lute called a dranyen with an eclectic make-shift band consisting of the legendary Lenny Kaye and other members of Patti Smith’s band, the Scorchio Quartet and Laurie Anderson plucking an electric violin during “Jhi Chung.” Now that’s what I call fusion! For “Heart Strings,” Tenzin’s second number, Philip Glass joined on piano, and for “Heart Sutra,” his third, he chanted while Laurie read from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Glass added ambient piano tinkles. The latter was more a mediation than a performance, as well as the most intense segment of the night. Simultaneously calming and emotionally intense, Scorchio Quartet’s Leah Coloff’s cello line evoked an amazing journey through death to rebirth. Throughout it all was the drone of Tibetan Singing Bowls. If you’ve never heard these, google them – they’re legit trippy.
Buzzworthy country singer Sturgill Simpson came next. “It’s an immense honor to be here,” he said upon coming on stage. “I’m not sure how I got here.” He began with – what else – a song he said he wrote after reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “Just Let Go.” “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego/ It never done me no good no how,” the first line goes. Backed by only his own git-fiddle pickin’ and the Scorchio Quartet, he reached the song’s lyrical apex a bit later:
“Am I dreaming or am I dying?” That’s kind of how the whole concert felt.
The Scorchio Quartet, a classical string quartet that’s developed a reputation for playing with unclassical artists such as Trey Anastasio, Damon Albarn and David Bowie, enhanced most of these performances. Their arrangements were subtle, rarely calling attention to themselves, but they’re the crux of why all this music – from Tibetan chants to foot-stompin’ Celtic jigs to metamodern country music to heart wrenching Flaming Lips performances – came together so dreamlike. Recapped like this – mere words on a screen – these artists and their performances may seem ineffectual, boring even. And it was a most sober of events to be sure, but as it played out in the flesh, each act rubbing against the others stylistically, it was a magical mystery tour all its own.
Sturgill continued, sprinkling blues fills between the vocal phrases in his signature single, “Turtles All the Way Down” (you know, the one with lyrics about LSD jumping out of nowhere). He closed with the Waylon Jennings-esque “Pan Bowl,” his self-described “meditation on lost innocence.” Both were acoustic solo. Both nonchalantly illustrated how much effort he must have put into practicing his craft over the years. Maybe that’s how he got to Carnegie Hall?
Allen Ginsberg frequently participated in the first decade or so of Tibet House Benefit Concerts. After he passed his “participation” was extended by others – usually Patti Smith – reciting his works. This year radio and TV host Ira Glass read Ginsberg’s “On Cremation of Chögyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara” and “Wichita Vortex Sutra” backed by his cousin Philip on piano. Apparently Philip and Allen once upon a time toured together doing this sort of poetry and piano act. It was powerful.
Keep in mind all of the above is happening in Carnegie Hall to a polite audience that is mostly silently listening. It’s also worth noting that this was the end of a full day of snow in New York, about eight inches dumped on the city by the time of the concert’s delayed start. Which is to say the atmosphere in the room was as unique as the program itself. It shifted though when Debbie Harry came on. Introduced by Philip as “one of the true icons of American song,” she was backed by just Matt Katz Bohen and his elaborate set-up of keyboards and guitar-feeding-through-laptop gadgetry. It was impossible to tell what he was playing, what he was triggering, and what (possibly) had been pre-recorded. The main attraction was, of course, Harry’s voice and personality (even if it did sometimes seem like she was singing karaoke at a bar). She sang Blondie deep cut “Love Light,” a song by Matt called “A Rose By Any Name,” and “Heart of Glass.” The latter made for some pun fun as she introduced it as “definitely dedicated to Mr. Philip Glass.” As many times before, her voice at the start of each phrase was a mystery to me (“Once I had a love… Seemed like the real thing…”). Why does the melody seem so impossibly high? It’s something to do with her beautiful vocal tone I suppose but I can never quite pin-point what. Another point of interest for music geeks like me also played out as the song boogied to its end. By this point the audience had let loose. People were dancing in the balcony and most of the audience was clapping along on the backbeat. Here comes the geeky part: Blondie, those tricksters, snuck some bars of 7/4 into the middle of the composition. As a result, half the audience continued to clap along at the same pulse they had before (which was now the downbeat), while the other half caught on to the rhythmic irregularities and clapped on the backbeat as before. People tend to clap like those around them. As a result, some seating areas would clap one way, while other regions of the hall clapped another way. Hearing the clapping in Carnegie split between the two groups was an amusement in itself, as was hearing Debbie segue into Shangri-Las’ girl-group nugget “The Train From Kansas City” at song’s end.
The Flaming Lips – with a little help from fellow Okie-bred Julianna Barwick, Philip Glass and the Scorchio Quartet – brought the concert to an emotional high with a pair of once-in-a-lifetime performances, both covers. First was The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” one of the songs on their full-album Sgt. Pepper’s remake released for charity last year. On that version, Spaceface collaborated with Phantogram and Julianna Barwick. Last night Phantogram and Spaceface were not present, though Spaceface’s frontman Jake Ingalls was, as he’s also a member of The Flaming Lips. With Scorchio mimicking the string arrangement of the Beatles’ original and Steven Drozd conducting from his keyboard, Julianna took the lead. I know this song is a classic and all, a centerpiece of sorts on the most sacred of classic rock cows, but the complete lack of subtlety to lines like “she’s having fun” have always struck me as cloying, undermining the emotional punch Paul was so obviously going for. The sentiments in “You Never Give Me Your Money” seem like a more honest reflection of Macca than “Can’t Buy Me Love” or his sermonizing “fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.” Not last night though. Something about Wayne Coyne’s warbly voice balancing with Julianna’s angelic tones forced me to hear it anew as the truly sad story of parent-child strife and longing for personal fulfillment it is. Wayne – the oldest person on stage at this point – singing the lines from the parents point of view (“what did we do that was wrong? we struggled hard all our lives to get by“), almost as though he’s a character actor, made all the more poignant. But what really drove it home was Julianna’s breathtaking performance, both sonically – the way her voice swooped down on “Wednesday morning” then up on “five o’clock,” how it grew as she held the note on the “-ing” of “leaving,” the tonal quality of her voice when she hit “home,” or the way she wrapped her voice around “she is free” or “motor trade” for example – and in her emotionally connection to every word.
I was reminded of Yoko Ono’s essay on Feeling the Space. “My father had a huge desk in front of him that separated us permanently,” she wrote the 1973 LP. “There was always such a space around me.” How many of us can relate to this longing to be closer to the very people who we owe our existence to, but instead feel a distance from? How many of us can feel the space that separates us from our parents as though it’s a physical – albeit invisible – wall? Yet there’s also the parents perspective in the song. They worked hard to do what they believed was right only to devastatingly find that in doing so they alienated the person they were working for. I now see that the key lyrics aren’t the lines about money, but rather those about “living alone for so many years” and “something inside that was always denied.” That’s what make’s Julianna’s performance was so sublime: it evokes the bitter saccharine of feeling the space. I’m not the only one that was touched. By song’s end Julianna was misty eyed.
For their second selection the Lips performed a unique arrangement of “Warszawa,” a David Bowie and Brian Eno composition originally on Bowie’s classic ’77 LP Low, and later incorporated in Philip Glass’ 1992 classical piece “Low Symphony.” The Lips’ versions began slow and quiet, with Glass on piano, three Lips playing keyboard parts (Drozd, Ingalls and Derek Brown) and Scorchio’s filling out the texture (Wayne was bobbing along, seated on the ground; Michael Ivins and the Brothers Grimm were MIA). After about three and a half minutes Julianna began layered her voice over the top, building it to a new section in which she and Drozd harmonized with wordless singing. By the five minute mark the form had repeated itself and Julianna came in with a variation of the same melody, this time an octave higher. The entrance of Julianna’s high notes were stunning; a collective gasp from the Carnegie crowd in awe of her beauty could be felt. OK, so maybe I’m projecting that on the audience. I’m really not sure. But everyone I noticed seemed taken aback. I know I was.
As is the annual tradition, Patti Smith closed the concert. She began with her poem “A Small Entreaty” in honor of the Dalai Lama’s upcoming 80th birthday, but it was a gripping performance of 2004’s “Gandhi” that most attendees will probably remember this concert by (that’s what its standing ovation suggested at least). Patti’s presentation of ideas and images – its namesake’s childhood illness, the idealism of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” a call to action to “get ’em with the numbers/ long live revolution” – synched with her band’s dynamic build. One section flowed to another, from spoken word to sung melodies, to bellowing pleas with Patti as preacher, as sage. She spat on Carnegie’s elegant stage. In other words, it was classic Patti. Carnegie Hall – to paraphrase David Byrne – ain’t no Mudd Club or CBGBs, and Patti isn’t the fresh pioneer she once was, but her transcendental powers to channel emotions, captivate an audience and lead them through her stream of conscious, is – to borrow again from Byrne – same as it as ever was.
The Tibet House Benefit Concert annual finale is Patti’s “People Have The Power” with all the artists coming back on stage to sing along. Last night Miley Cyrus – who was sitting with the Lips in the balcony for most of the show – also joined. See for yourself in the video below. That’s Patti in front, with Philip and Wayne to her left, in front of the Scorchio Quartet. Steven, Julianna and Miley were behind Patti, with Lenny Kaye and the rest of Patti’s band behind them. To their right was Debbie, Sturgill, Laurie, Dev, Tenzin and the other performers. Even after a whole night of bringing together stylistically diverse talents it still seemed like the most random collection of musicians imaginable. Is this just some crazy dream? Like, “what…Miley Cyrus is singing back-up for Patti Smith? Debbie Harry, Sturgill Simpson, Philip Glass, The Flaming Lips and some Buddhist monks are too?…and look, there goes lucy in the sky… with diamonds!”
Patti is fronting this all like some sort of shaman, going on about “dreaming in my dreaming/ of an aspect bright and fair..sleeping..broken/but my dream it lingered near;” climaxing with a simple proclamation that was no surprise, yet felt surprisingly apt:
“people have the power to dream…”