I knew I moved to New York for a reason when I walked into the press entrance to Carnegie Hall and waited in line, slightly thunderstruck, next to James Blake and Antony Hegarty. We happened to be checking in at the same time for the 22nd Annual Tibet House U.S. Benefit Concert, except they went backstage and I took my press seat in the nosebleed section. By the end of the evening, Blake and Antony would join Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Das Racist, Stephin Merritt, Carnegie Hall’s two house bands, The Patti Smith Band and the Scorchio String Quartet, beat-boxer Rahzel, traditional Tibetan singer Dechen Shak-Dagsay, and violinist Tim Fain. The resulting variety show’s mix of humor and eclectic performances smoothed inevitable speed bumps that come from putting acts like Das Racist on a bill with, well, anyone.
The evening opened with a monastic choir studying at southern India’s Drepung Monastery. They ascended the stage in orange robes and plumed headdresses and began a dirge-like moaning that sounded like a didgeridoo. Each monk remained motionless and kept his lips parted the same as everyone else, so I could never tell who was singing when. I was transfixed and moved, especially when they revealed a certain vulnerability by removing their head coverings before bowing.
Philip Glass, who doesn’t look anywhere near 75, took over from there and invited Laurie Anderson on stage. Until this point, my only experience with her consisted of dismissing my roommate’s copy of Big Science on vinyl as weird and pretentious. But the real live Anderson was actually quite clever, starting out with an electric violin and a synthesizer that wafted sounds of rain falling, thunder, and tribal drums. Anderson then told us a story in that sardonic, Gandalfian voice of hers (only she and Ian McKellen can make “wooden spoon” riveting) about going on a silent Buddhist retreat that turned into a Survivor-like episode. Antony then quietly joined her onstage for a rendition of “The Dream Before (a.k.a. Hansel and Gretel Are Alive and Well)”, his velvet ululations fitting perfectly with Carnegie Hall’s plush interior.
After his performance, I thought James Blake’s equally soulful murmurs would reverberate nicely in the space, but unfortunately that was not the case. Someone once told me the reason that most people gravitate toward dubstep is because the floor-shaking bass reminds them of the feeling of being in the womb. Regardless (I smell the skepticism from here), the beats that propel “Lindesfarne” and “The Wilhelm Scream” should be heard in a dark room, pressed against a lot of sweaty people moving as one. In a cavernous auditorium, they just sound empty.
Fortunately, Philip Glass was perfectly at home on stage. He enlisted collaborator Tim Fain, whose violin can be heard in the soundtrack to Black Swan, to play “Pendulum”, which Glass composed to commemorate the ACLU’s 90th Anniversary. After listening to the original, I hear how the cello part is necessary to add heft and depth to the violin’s surging arpeggios, but Fain gave such an invigorating, expressive performance that it didn’t matter in this live setting. Dechen Shak-Dagsay logically followed, since she contemporizes traditional Tibetan Buddhist mantras in the same way that Glass keeps neo-classical music progressive and integrative.
But from there, all sense of coherence between venue and performance dissolved, starting with Das Racist. The thunderously aggressive beats behind “Michael Jackson”, especially backed by the Scorchio String Quartet, shook the foundation to its core. As soon as hype-man Ashok Kondabolu started thrusting his pelvis in slow motion across the stage, I lost it. It is just not possible to take them seriously, especially when they obviously don’t. When Victor Vasquez sat down on the lip of the stage and did a backwards somersault, while Heems seemed to not give a shit as he wandered aimlessly behind his band mates, it was clear the audience wasn’t holding back the giggles as hard as I was.
Ever the diplomat, Glass transitioned to Stephin Merritt with the comment, “A little change of pace.” For how explosive Das Racist was, The Magnetic Fields frontman was the opposite, eliciting chuckles with awkward stage banter. He took to the stage with a footstool, glancing meaningfully at the Quartet behind him as he sang, “I wish I had an orchestra behind me,” opening his set with “This Little Ukelele”. The Scorchio Quartet joined him for “The Book of Love” and he closed with “Andrew In Drag” off The Magnetic Field’s forthcoming album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea. I hoped Lou Reed would take the bait and play “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t.)
The man behind me pretty much summed up Rahzel’s performance with an emphatic “Yes!” when Glass announced him, followed shortly by thunderous applause. The Godfather of Noyze sang (or played? or did inhuman things with his mouth?) “Transformation”, which appeared in its original form on 2000’s “Night Rider” with Slick Rick. If you closed your eyes, as Rahzel suggested, he could have genuinely passed for a Transformer, but then you would have missed his robotic dance moves. He invited Das Racist onstage, where they launched into “Shut Up, Man” while Vasquez wrapped himself up in Carnegie Hall’s American flag and brought it stage center, letting it drag on the ground as he did so. Despite Das Racist’s welcome encore performance, Rahzel clearly owned his time on stage, beat-boxing so hard his shirt came undone.
And then, the “one and only, unforgettable, incomparable Lou Reed”, the Dalai Lama of rock and roll, took the stage for the night’s finale. As much as I was looking forward to seeing Lou Reed in the flesh, he let me down. His performance reminded me of something he said to USA Today about his maligned alliance with Metallica, Lulu: “I don’t have any fans left. After Metal Machine Music, they all fled. Who cares? I’m essentially in this for the fun of it.” From the way he read lyrics off a piece of paper in front of him and impatiently gestured to his band mates and the Scorchio Quartet, it appeared that he neither cared nor was having any fun.
The prize for old men who can still rock the fuck out definitely goes to The Patti Smith Band, whose blistering rendition of “Born to Lose” felt more authentic and just plain sounded better than Reed’s less-than-existential “Who Am I?” The song’s smoldering self-doubt still lingers—mostly thanks to Reed’s second guitarist, who looked beside himself to be jamming with Reed and shredded like his life depended on it—but it still felt empty. It wasn’t until the rest of the night’s performers came onstage to sing along with The Velvet Underground’s “Beginning to See the Light” that I forgave Reed for an underwhelming set. Instead, I sang “Happy Birthday” to Glass with everyone else and hoped that next time, I’ll actually get up the nerve to talk to James Blake.
Photography by Shaun Regan.
Update: Find videos from last night below: