Patti Smith, Vampire Weekend Pay Tribute to Buddy Holly at Tibet House Benefit

February 4, 2009 1:55 PM ET

On February 3rd, 1959, China invaded Tibet, sending the Dalai Lama into exile in India. That same day, halfway across the world, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were killed in a plane crash in Iowa.

Both anniversaries were saluted at last night's Tibet House benefit at New York's Carnegie Hall, where Patti Smith, Vampire Weekend, the National, Steve Earle and others gathered to pay homage. "Fifty years ago, the day the music died, I was a kid living in Brooklyn," said Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, before launching into an energetic medley of of the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace," Holly's "Words of Love" and Valens' "Come On, Let's Go." "Now we're here to celebrate that music."

The tribute — which was topped off by Smith whipping out a harmonica solo on a jubilant cover of Holly's "Not Fade Away" — capped a night of musical cross-pollination: Vampire Weekend jammed on "M79" with Afro-funk orchestra Antibalas; African singer Angelique Kidjo, backed by an ecstatic horn section, tackled the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Steve Earle even covered himself: "I never sang this song before — I wrote it for Joan Baez to sing," he said of the folk tune "God Is God." "How cool is my job?"

Other highlights included the National's set — during which they played two new tunes, the solemn "The Runaway" and the finger-snapping, piano-driven "Wake Up Your Saints" — and blues singer Keb Mo's sweet, acoustic tribute to our new President. "I wrote this the day after the election," he said. "I know, it's corny." And for a brief moment, Smith mistook Carnegie Hall's hallowed stage for her beloved, grungy CBGB, spitting her gum on the floor as she led the audience in a fist-pumping rendition of the Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be There)." As the song wound down, she bent to retrieve it. "I'm just gonna clean up my mess," she said.

In keeping with Tibet House tradition, the show's last number was an ensemble performance of Smith's "People Have the Power." While the musicians hovered around the mikes and put their arms around each other, the crowd jumped to their feet to belt the chorus. Was it as fun as it looked? "Those big sing-along things always make me nervous," said Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig, weaving between buffet tables at the Roseland Ballroom afterparty. "But it was definitely exciting."

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