Days after the 100th Tibetan monk sacrificed himself in flames to protest six decades of Chinese rule, a lineup in New York including Patti Smith, Tune-Yards, beatboxer Rahzel and My Morning Jacket's Jim James rallied support for the region's freedom during the annual Tibet House U.S. benefit.
"There are no lost causes," president Bob Thurman told the audience at Carnegie Hall Thursday night. "There are only causes that have not come to fruition yet."
Six monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery opened Thursday's event with a chant blessing, a meditative introduction to a prolific, if jarring, handful of musicians Tibet House co-founder Philip Glass recruited from a list of 80. Tune-Yards set the night's pace with a cover of Yoko Ono's "Warrior Woman" and the band's own "Gangsta," an anthem driven by Merrill Garbus' manic rimshot percussion and ear for harmonizing with her own howling vocal, which she sampled and looped on the spot for a dial-tone effect.
Two hours of structured chaos followed as Glass accompanied several performers on piano from one end of the stage, including Patti Smith during her dark interpretation of Allen Ginsberg's "Wichita Vortex Sutra." Rahzel, a veteran of this event, commanded the dense soundscape of "Etude No. 10" with his trademark mouth beats and rapid tongue clicks. The evening's energy wavered and waned at moments: Ariel Pink resembled a limp marionette, his limbs jerking out of time with the music as he growled and yelped his way through "Gray Sunset." And Thursday's show was Jim James' fifth as a solo artist; outfitted in a eggplant-colored suit, he eventually hit his stride during the upbeat "A New Life," his third and final song.
Some of the most intriguing music emerged from the background. Smith and her band's cover of the Yardbirds' "For Your Love" featured Lenny Kaye singing over the low hum of monk chanting, and the Scorchio String Quartet amplified every performance by balancing elaborate orchestral swirls with unsettling moments of staccato thunder.
"We shall live again," Smith sang during "Ghost Dance," holding her palms open toward the audience. During a momentary break just before her final song, someone in the audience broke the silence and hooted, "'Gloria!'"
"One day," she responded with a smile, "when I have my own show at Carnegie Hall, I'll do 'Gloria.'" Her band then exploded into "People Have the Power," a closer that brought most of the hall to its feet and into the narrow aisles to dance.
The milestone number of protesters' self-immolations, which coincides with this month's 100th anniversary of Tibetan independence from Manchu oppression, has overshadowed any celebration that might have otherwise occurred during the lunar New Year. It also reflects a deepening resentment toward China's government for exiling His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1949, and Tibet's supporters have called on incoming Communist Party leader Xi Jinping to condemn the occupation.
"When you get to the point where people are lighting themselves on fire just to protest, it seems like it's a very horrible place to live," Tune-Yards bassist Nate Brenner told Rolling Stone. "We just wanted to do what we could to raise awareness of it."
In an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this week, Glass said, "What we are concerned about is keeping intact the cultural language and traditions of Tibet. I don't doubt that at some point Tibet as an independent country will reappear. It may take a while, but empires all disappear."