“I wrote this song a year ago, which means it’s not from the Sixties,” singer and mandolinist Chris Thile joked at Carnegie Hall on Thursday. Thile was referring to the theme of the night – an evening of durable protest songs, pegged to a city-wide festival devoted to the legacy of that decade. But in every way, he wasn’t kidding: In a dramatic version of “Falsetto,” from his 2017 album Thanks for Listening, the Punch Brother and radio host imagined what a certain current president would say to an entertainer who dared speak his or her mind: “Don’t tell it like it is/Entertainers better keep the entertainment light,” before criticizing the artist’s “girly falsetto” (which, almost proudly, Thile flashed during the song).
The topical song isn’t dead – consider much of Kendrick Lamar’s work or recent contributions like Eminem’s “The Storm” and Pink’s “What About Us” – but in the age of Donald Trump, the tradition isn’t flourishing quite as much as one would expect. The Carnegie Hall show, which brought together a variety of performers, including David Crosby, pointed out how vital (and musically remarkable) that lineage was – and the ways it’s being carried on around the world.
The night began with a different sort of inspired nostalgia: Fronted by bassist Michael League, the nine-piece Snarky Puppy, which served as the house band for the entire show, played an elastic three-song set of vampy instrumentals that tipped its hat to jazz fusion of the Seventies, down to keyboardist Shaun Martin’s delightfully squealy synth solos. Crosby, who’s worked with League and Snarky Puppy in various settings, revisited topical songs such as CSN’s “Long Time Gone” (with League and Michelle Willis offering up the required harmonies) and his erstwhile bandmate Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth.” (This was likely the first time Crosby has sung lead on that song in public). As in recent years, Crosby also revived the finger-pointing “What Are Their Names” from his 1971 solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name.
The past came alive in similar ways throughout the night. Thile (who recently took over hosting duties of A Prairie Home Companion, now retitled Live from Here) unleashed a dramatic, mostly voice-and-mandolin version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” then broke out his funky, Americana-Timberlake side and stage moves with a limber version of Stevie Wonder’s anti-Nixon “You Haven’t Done Nothin.'” British singer Laura Mvula offered up a simmering take on Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” that conjured the spirit of Nina Simone.
Living up to League’s introduction, in which he said he’d invited “artists from all corners of the world” to celebrate the topical song tradition, Fatoumata Diawara, the singer and guitarist originally from Mali, provided two of the night’s most striking moments. Her ode to the power of women, “Mousso,” sung in her native language, was hypnotic, and her captivating stage spins enhanced her anthemic “Unite.” Both Afrobeat-steeped songs were also a testament to the way Snarky Puppy can seemingly adapt to any and every genre. In addition to Thile’s “Falsetto,” Snarky Puppy trumpeter Mike “Maz” Maher stepped up to the mic for his “These Words,” a commentary on the influence of music in politics that cannily couches its message in smooth-jazz balladeering.
While we all await further anti-Trump songs to emerge, the show ended with one of the best examples of how it’s done – an all-on-deck version of Neil Young’s “Ohio,” with Crosby and League sharing the lead vocals. As a protest song, “Ohio” remains almost impossible to top, even after 47 years: Played by Snarky Puppy guitarist Bob Lanzetti, Young’s opening riff remains as sturdy – and chilling – as ever. And, sadly, so do its lyrics. At the show, “four dead in Ohio” suddenly felt as much about the shootings of so many young African-American men as it did about those Kent State students. For better or worse in terms of America, “Ohio” sounded as if it had been written this year.