We’re all dealing with our own new crises, whether it’s COVID-19, winter storm power outages, Brexit, etc., that it’s easy to forget about the problems that have been with us in this world for a long time. It’s also very easy to not even look outside our own little circles. But acclaimed composer Philip Glass and a whole host of artists brought the eternal issue of Tibet, its culture and suffering, to the fore in the 34th Annual Benefit Concert for Tibet House on Wednesday, February 17th.
The Tibet House Benefit has been going on for decades as a benefit concert, first at Town Hall then Carnegie Hall, raising money for Tibet House US, “a long-term cultural institution to ensure the survival of Tibetan civilization and culture, whatever the political destiny of the six million people of Tibet itself,” created at the urging of the Dalai Lama himself. One of many such Tibetan cultural houses around the world, it not only celebrates the still-surviving ancient culture, but also keeps the issue of Tibetan rights alive. Yes, “Free Tibet” can seem like a trendy slogan for celebrities, but in the face of the power of the People’s Republic of China, it’s easy to do no more than mouth the words.
For the first time ever, the Benefit Concert had been moved online, for obvious reasons. Always held in February to celebrate the Tibetan New Year (it’s the Year of the Metal Ox), last year’s (QRO photos) was able to happen just before everything shut down. The shift to online obviously had its pluses and minuses, going from a high-class event to sitting on your couch, but able to be seen by people not in New York City, as well as recruit performers from around the world without having to check their availability. It was brought to couches around the world via Mandolin, the new livestream platform, including both a live chat and private ‘watch parties’.
The event opened with Tibetan Drepung Gomang Monks performing their own chanting, “Praise of the Great Maitreya-Jam Chenma”, a sort of cleanser and focuser for the evening ahead (particularly for watching from home). The opening was a close-up on the face of the one-and-only Iggy Pop, reciting Dylan Thomas’ classic “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” with reverb & jazz accompaniment. Mr. Pop has evolved from proto-punk wild man to elder statesman (still probably wasn’t wearing a shirt…), and like many this year was a returning Tibet House performer.
Philip Glass gave an introductory speech, noting the different set-up this year, and spoke more at later times. The first musical performer was legendary performance artist Laurie Anderson, with collaborator Rubin Kodheli, Jesse Paris Smith, and Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal (also returning from last year). They put together an extended invocation of the Buddha, “Songs From The Bardo”, mixing the very old and the very new. Yes, it was unusual and oh so artistic (when Anderson would mention a color of the Buddha, the screen would filter to it, such as “The Red Buddha”), but Tibet House US has long fused ancient Tibet with avant-garde NYC. Smith also got to do her own song “Monster”, in tribute to Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsundue, who is undertaking a one-man walk protest in India, home of exiled Tibetans.
But the evening was not all high-falutin’ artistes. Austin’s Black Pumas brought some nice soul sounds (and youth) with “Colors”. Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips introduced two songs from their recent ‘space bubble’ concerts, “Flowers of Neptune” and later “All We Have Is Now”, where the band and the fans were in their individual plastic bubbles (the best new use of The Flaming Lips’ iconic giant plastic bubbles since Coyne got Tibet House ’19 presenter Stephen Colbert – QRO photos – to get in one back in ‘012 – QRO photo). Coyne noted that this was the band’s first chance to bring their very high COVID concept, ‘can it actually work in reality?’ idea to people outside of their Oklahoma home.
Branching out from Tibet & US, noted Beninese-American Afropop star Angélique Kidjo returned for another year, doing two songs, “Cross-Eyed and Painless” and her version of Talking Heads’ world music classic “Once In a Lifetime”, from her recent reimagining of the band’s iconic 1980 album, Remain In Light. Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard delivered more sweet Southern soul in two performances, “Stay High” and later “Baby”.
Tibet House US co-founder Robert Thurman came on to speak to the issue at hand. Yes, he did kind of go on, but understandably so, covering everything from the traditional Tibetan celebrations that inspired the Benefit Concerts to the current oppression being felt in the region (just look to the north and the Uighur ‘work camps’). Glass took the opportunity afforded by the recorded livestream to bring back the late, very great Allen Ginsberg, Beat Generation iconic poet. He passed away in 1997, so there was film of him reciting “Wichita Vortex Sutra” at the ’96 benefit, and it was kind of crazy to hear such a legend, even from his final years. There was more beat poetry thanks to Marc Anthony Thompson of Chocolate Genius, Inc., though it was done by his daughter, actress Tessa Thompson, from Australia (with Robert Thurman-father-of-Uma, two dads of Hollywood ladies). The online concert enabled far-flung performers, though the images of palm trees in the Southern Hemisphere summer was a little tough for all of us freezing in North America…
The online concert also meant that viewers could see performances from right inside the artist’s homes, and that’s just what Annie Lennox did. Okay, she only had one camera, but it was on the famed musician & her piano (and her home looked just as stylish as you’d expect), doing a number of songs. Valerie June included her own cover of Radiohead’s classic “Fake Plastic Trees”, which has been covered a lot, but that’s because it’s a great song. Cage the Elephant rocked “Skin and Bones” from their studio, though it was a little weird to see them live and have singer Matt Shultz not jump into a crowd (a very pre-COVID activity…).
One performer people were particularly stoked to see was Phoebe Bridgers. The young singer/songwriter had maybe the best 2020 of anyone in music, launched into the big-time with her amazing album Punisher (QRO review), including Grammy nominations and just having played Saturday Night Live (she was the one all the old rock fogies were complaining about for smashing her guitar). But she noted that her Tibet House US Benefit Concert 2020 performance was the last time she played to “real people.” She did two songs, “Kyoto” with not only Glass himself but also a better old rock fogy Jackson Browne, and her strings version of “Moon Song” with Rob Moose, seen on the reinterpretations EP they put out, Copycat Killer (QRO review).
The other artist people wanted to see was Eddie Vedder, frontman for grunge all-stars and great American rock band Pearl Jam. He was phoning in from somewhere sunny, noting that he was on a “not very good microphone,” and had busted out his ukulele. Okay, so this wasn’t Pearl Jam rockin’ “Jeremy”, but Vedder has a whole solo album of Ukulele Songs, and did one, “Can’t Keep”. Admittedly, it was a pretty short appearance for the first name on the bill, with the folks in chat definitely wanting more.
The close of the event returned to regulars like Patti Smith and Tenzin Choegyai, but also had one very special guest: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. For over sixty years, the Dalai Lama has lived in exile from Tibet, keeping the flame of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet itself alive in a way perhaps unprecedented in human history. The eighty-five-year-old man (here’s someone who deserves the vaccine shot…) thanked Tibet House US for not just preserving Tibetan culture, but also showing it to the world.
By this point, even the COVID crisis is kind of old hat, and every season brings a new climate change-induced catastrophe. There are benefits happening everywhere because there is need everywhere. Everyone’s reinvented for the times, including livestream concerts. But this was a special livestream benefit concert for a special cause.