Buddhists were known to be aggressors until they realized that “being violent and domineering was no fun,” said Robert Thurman at the start of Tibet House’s 26th annual benefit concert. Thurman (co-founder of Tibet House US and father of Uma) repeated the words “no fun” and “boring” as if to subtly hype the show’s headliner. But when Iggy Pop closed out the epic evening at Carnegie Hall, it wasn’t with hits like “No Fun” and “I’m Bored” – instead he performed a couple of unusual spoken-word pieces to the music of the evening’s host, Philip Glass, followed by a pair of rousing David Bowie covers.
Just as it did last year, last night’s concert commenced with some Tibetan chanting courtesy of monks in dramatic feather helmets. Glass shuffled on stage to recall the first Tibet House benefit in 1988 and its move, four years later, to Carnegie Hall. “It never occurred to us that 22 years later we’d still be doing these concerts,” he marveled.
Part of the concert’s staying power, said the East Village composer, was because “Carnegie Hall itself became part of the attraction” to pop musicians like Paul Simon, who had never played the hall before. That was certainly evident when Canadian singer and mandolinist-guitarist Basia Bulat took the stage in metallic gold boots and a spangling cape, to play a couple of her mellow, Cat Power-esque numbers with harpist Lavinia Meijer.
Meijer stayed on to noodle around with Glass and Foday Musa Suso, a fast-fingered Gambian kora player and griot who’s been a fixture of the Tibet House benefits. Their medley culminated in a mesmerizing solo harp rendition of one of Glass’s most recognizable piano pieces, “Metamorphosis Two.” (Watch one of Meijer’s previous performances here.)
From there, Sharon Jones boogied onto the stage in a pair of lethal stilettos and belted out a few of her numbers, “She Ain’t a Child No More,” “Tell Me,” and “100 Days, 100 Nights,” with the Patti Smith Band subbing in for the Dap-Kings (no sign of Patti herself this year).
On the less retro and more electro end of the spectrum was FKA twigs, who, true to her bad, weird self, came out barefoot, in what can only be described as a karate kimono (her band complimented the look, resembling cyborg Elvis impersonators attending a yoga retreat on Mars). After some sultry dance moves that merged black-belt and ballet, Twigs dropped her top to reveal a flesh-colored, sequined bra as she performed her new Sade-esque single, “Good to Love.”
Gogol Bordello was, well, Gogol Bordello. The boys stomped through a trio of gypsy punk numbers from their 2010 album, Trans-Continental Hustle. Glass noted that Gogol were returning favorites, but let’s face it, seeing them tear through their fiery anthems before the somber, seated crowd at Carnegie Hall just makes you sad you’re not at the old Bulgarian Bar on Canal Street, downing vodka apple cider while everyone dances on tables.
When the Scorchio String Quartet took the stage again, it seemed like there would be an orchestral interlude before Iggy went on. But suddenly, there he was, making a modest entrance in a blue suit worthy of the Thin White Duke. Before everyone could get over the “wait, wha?” moment, he was performing an “improvised internal dialogue” inspired by the music of Glass and Suso.
Backed by strings, Iggy narrated an encounter with a “smart guy” who was “in the poison business.” (“Now my line is poetry,” Iggy said, “so we had a problem right there.”) As the piece’s villain made claims like “I break people down and then I sit on them, it’s a lot of fun” and “you just poison the air a little bit and people will follow,” it was hard not to think of the situation in Flint, in Iggy’s birth state of Michigan. Ultimately, the hero of the piece decides not to get into the poison business and opts to stick to his beloved bunny rabbits—kind of like John Cusack in One Crazy Summer. (Or maybe a Buddhist analogy would be more apt. Feel free to insert one here.)
Those who know Iggy mainly as a “naughty little doggie” may be surprised to discover he’s a man of letters. But it’s true: he and German electronic artist Alva Noto just released a vinyl album in which he reads from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and poems are among the things he sent Josh Homme when the two were brainstorming their new album, Post Pop Depression.
So, yeah. Next up, Iggy introduced a spoken word piece set to Glass’s “String Quartet No. 5.” His voice cracked as he said, “This is what’s on my mind about my parents.”
“We love you, Iggy!” someone shouted from the crowd, giving him permission to bare his soul in lieu of his chest.
Iggy has spoken about his regret that he “didn’t do well enough” for his parents before they died, and that was at the heart of this very intense piece. Iggy recounted his NYC life of “hustle and bustle,” “sell and be sold,” “power, riches, freedom,” and, of course, “sex and the city” before reality dawned on him: “Mom and Dad are gone,” he repeated mournfully, “Mom and Dad are really gone.” After a brief biography of parents who were “thrown headfirst into the Great Depression” before moving to the wilds of Michigan, Iggy lamented: “I have their pictures, I have their tchotchkes, I have their ashes, and I have my memories. I have a voice to call out, ‘Mom! Dad! I love you. Are you still somewhere? Thank you! I’m sorry! I know now how you sacrificed. I should’ve done more. I should have loved you more.” At the end of the piece, he looked up and waved to the heavens, and then looked up again. (Listen to an audience member’s audio recording below.)
“All right!” Iggy said, clearing the air. “You know what?”
The crowd knew exactly what. A little Bowie was in order, given that not only Iggy but also the Scorchio quartet had collaborated with the late, great genius. As soon as the Patti Smith Band launched into “The Jean Geanie,” a young woman raced to the front of the stage only to be rebuffed by security. In full punk mode, she bolted back once and then twice, and by the time of the guitar-rattle solo, dozens had raced up the aisles to join her.
After the song, Iggy noted that “David Bowie touched a lot of people, a lot of people’s lives,” but in addition to that, his tunes were just plain catchy. Iggy introduced what he said was a “wonderful, elegant song” he had written with Bowie: “I was lucky enough to record it first, but with his help and guidance. He did it himself with Tina Turner.” The song’s “deceptively simple” refrain (it’s actually spoken to a lover dying of a heroin overdose) was “the right lyric for right now, and for tonight” Iggy said. And so the band launched into “Tonight.”
Halfway through, Sharon Jones came on to play the role of Tina Turner, hand-in-hand with Iggy.
Soon enough, almost all of the night’s performers were on stage to sing, “Everything will be alright tonight.”