“Talk about eclectic!” proclaimed the papa behind me to his teenaged progeny as the lights went up at New York’s annual Tibet House Benefit at Carnegie Hall last night. It was an apt assertion for an event that saw both Das Racist and Lou Reed share the same string quartet. Or Das Racist share — and flirt with the comelier members of — a string quartet at all.
The 22nd Annual Tibet House Benefit Concert, curated by composer and event art director Philip Glass, is thrown in honor of the Monlam Prayer Festival, which is held around the time of the Tibetan New Year. As the lights first went down at Carnegie Hall last night, the monks from the Drepung Monastery in Tibet filed silently onto the stage. The audience started up a tentative applause (does one clap for holy men?) which was soon replaced by a round of guttural chanting by said monks. Although an invocation, it was the first musical act of the night, a booming, didgeridoo-like chorus that filled every crevice of the massive concert hall.
From there, the night spiraled out, flitting from the ancient to the absurd — and back again. After the monks’ appearance, multimedia artist Laurie Anderson started things off, filling the darkened stage with her honeyed, powerful pipes telling a story about seeking enlightenment on Utah’s Green River, only to be plagued by a crew of nature-loving incest survivors.
Just as Anderson escaped their clutches by climbing a bluff (and therefore communing with the aforementioned mountains), Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons fame) took the stage wearing a bright poncho, and, in his warbling Miss Havisham voice, launched into an updated version of Anderson’s “The Dream Before (for Walter Benjamin),” the sad tale of a modern-day Hansel and Gretel.
Antony only occupied the stage for the briefest of sets before introducing James Blake, who took the audience further into that hushed, fractured fairy tale world with his auto-tuned chorus of a voice, quietly slinking off stage after a rendition of “The Wilhelm Scream.”
From there, the night eased into a classical/traditional interlude with a performance by of “Pendulum” by violinist Tim Fain and Philip Glass on the piano, followed by Tibetan vocalist Dechen Shak-Dagsay performing “Jewel Taking Refuge” in glowing silks. Still, before the audience could retreat wholly into this otherworld, folk rock band the Two took the stage covered in glitter, wielding a tambourine to bust out the more rock-tinged “Everyday.” The band left the stage with a tribal shout, tambourine aloft and shaking, as if to welcome Das Racist to the party.
Accompanied by the Scorchio String Quartet, Das Racist launched immediately into “Michael Jackson” and “Rainbow in the Dark,” amending the lyric “I’m fucking great at rapping” to “I’m pretty great at rapping” to honor the solemnity of the occasion, perhaps. Still, they managed to execute enough air-humping and microphone fondling to make the string quartet thoroughly uncomfortable.
Jangling off stage, the Das Racist guys were quickly replaced by a more subdued Stephin Merrit of The Magnetic Fields, who mumbled into the microphone that he often feels like “the cartoon frog who only sings when alone” while on stage, before launching into “This Little Ukulele,” “The Book of Love” and “Andrew in Drag,” the new Magnetic Fields’ single.
After a medley from Patti Smith’s band, the man of the evening, Lou Reed presented a melange of songs from his massive catalog, ending with the Velvet Underground classic “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” a finale that saw the entire assemblage bound out on stage like the cast of a high school musical, Das Racist spinning in the background like the class clowns.
Still, the show wasn’t quite over, as one occupant of Carnegie had yet to sing: the audience. We were not tasked with chanting, or rapping or narrating some tale of aborted enlightenment — no, we were given the most difficult of musical assignments known to man: “Happy Birthday,” a necessary addition to the setlist as Philip Glass has just entered his 75th year.
From Tibetan monks prayerfully bellowing to an off-key rendition of that most dirge-like of celebratory melodies, yes, someone else’s papa, that was quite eclectic. To say the very least.
Check out the photos below from Hive’s photographer Loren Wohl.