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It was a quarter of a century ago that the Tibet House Benefit Concert was first held, designed to raise awareness and funds for a charity which supports the preservation of Tibetan culture. Today, it’s an event that regularly draws VIPs of music and culture and has included members of R.E.M., Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and perennial performer Patti Smith, who’s appeared at the vast majority of them.
Like the inaugural, 2015’s silver anniversary incarnation, held March 5 at New York’s Carnegie Hall, was curated and directed by famed composer Philip Glass who chose Blondie’s Debbie Harry and psychedelic odd-rockers The Flaming Lips among the night’s big draws.
The event started with a traditional opening chant by Tibetan monks — which was both invigorating and inspiring — followed by Laurie Anderson, who performed two instrumental pieces with acclaimed violist Matha Mooke. Dev Hynes of Blood Orange followed with mild funk that wasn’t particularly inspiring, but the collaboration between eccentrically dressed Canadian fiddle supremo Ashley MacIsaac, who’s known as the bad boy of world music, and 79-year-old pianist Maybelle Chisholm McQueen was a superb pairing as the two thrived off their incredible if unlikely musical chemistry.
Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal was equally impressive, as much for his infectious smile as for his powerful and wonderful voice. Kentucky-born country singer Sturgill Simpson’s three songs stood in contrast to Choegyal’s traditional Tibetan tunes, but their earnest melancholy meant they were also right in keeping with the reverent tone of what had directly preceded them.
Philip Glass announced each artist before their turn, then appeared alongside his cousin, This American Life host Ira Glass. The latter gave impassioned readings of two Ginsberg poems – On The Cremation Of Chögyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara and Wichita Vortex Sutra — over the former’s maudlin and beautiful piano lines for a truly stirring, visionary performance full of heart, soul and emotion.
A brief performance by Debbie Harry followed, which featured the Blondie singer with guitarist/keyboardist Matt Katz Bohen. Head-scratching dance moves aside, Harry succeeded in bringing the crowd alive for the three songs she played, especially the classic “Heart Of Glass.”
The Flaming Lips are famed for their epic live shows, but their two songs — covers of The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” and David Bowie’s “Warsawa” — were surprisingly straightforward.
In contrast, Patti Smith was the undoubted musical highlight of the night. She started her mini-set with a birthday poem in honor of the Dalai Lama, who turns 80 later this year, then, with her daughter Jesse Paris Smith on piano, delivered a rousing rendition of “Ghandi” with her band while sending positive energy out to the room.
The good vibes continued when a seemingly shy Miley Cyrus, who was led out to the stage by the Lips’ Wayne Coyne, re-emerged for a rousing version of Smith’s “People Have The Power,” and, for the first time that evening, it felt like the people actually did.
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