The annual Tibet House benefit is a New York City musical tradition, always well-curated by composer and downtown arts ambassador emeritus Philip Glass. The organization’s mission is to preserve, protect, promote and advance Tibetan culture — and with its focus on peace (inner and outer), meditation, healing and happiness, that mission couldn’t be more timely. So the event, billed as the 32nd annual (give or take a few; no one seems to recall exactly), was especially welcome this year. And as usual, the music captured the spirit of the moment.
Laurie Anderson perhaps did that best. Performing in duet with cellist Rubin Kodheli, she played blue, ruminative melodies on violin, and discussed the idea of “feeling sad without being sad.” Then she talked about Yoko Ono’s 2016 reaction to the election of Donald Trump — an extended scream posted to Twitter — and led the audience in a reprise of that shriek, to a count of 10. The crowd, a mix of scruffy art types and well-appointed society patrons, acquitted themselves well, issuing an impressive if not quite bloodcurdling holler.
At other points, Tibetan performers set a meditative tone. Monks from the Drepung Gomang Monestary began by chanting blessings for the new year — the Earth Pig Year, according to the Tibetan calendar. Composer Tenzin Choegyal encouraged the audience to sing the Sanskrit mantra “om mani padme hum” and played a long-necked Tibetan lute called a dranyen, with Glass at the piano, Leonardo Heiblum on tablas, and the Scorchio string quartet.
Stephen Colbert, who perhaps had strolled around the corner from the Late Show studio, didn’t deliver a monologue, instead reciting Allen Ginsberg’s darkly wry song-poem “Birdbrain,” also with Glass at the piano. An indictment of human indecency, it remains disturbingly relevant (“Birdbrain supplied helicopters to Central America generals, kill a lot of restless Indians, encourage a favorable business climate/Birdbrain began a war of terror against Israeli Jews/Birdbrain sent Zionist planes to shoot Palestinian huts near Beirut”).
Equally surprising was Jason Isbell’s performance, about 10 minutes of wordless, feedback-laced electric guitar virtuosity over electronic beats. It was the sort of rangy, freeform playing he doesn’t allow himself with the taut 400 Unit. But it suggested their next album might be something else again.
One of best things about the Tibet House shows is how they encourage artists to do the unusual. For some, that involved covers. Patti Smith played a pair of ecological protest songs: her poignant reading of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” and a roaring new take on Midnight Oil’s 1987 “Beds Are Burning.” Her wingman Lenny Kaye led the band in a cover of the Stones’ “I’m Free,” with bassist Tony Shanahan segueing into the first verse of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” in a graceful nod to the transgender rights battle. Nathaniel Rateliff delivered a stirring, hope-filled cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” in a woodsy tenor that recalled Levon Helm’s version. Rateliff also sang a brawny duet of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” with Jon Batiste (who got more stage time than his boss, playing some elegant solo piano later in the evening).
New Order — “well, sort of New Order” as leader Bernard Sumner qualified his band — paid tribute to David Bowie with a version of “Be My Wife” that showed how much the two men’s voices have in common. (Sumner added that Bowie “was a huge influence on Joy Division back in the day.”) The group also delivered magnificent readings of their “Ceremony” and “Love Vigilantes.” On the latter, Sumner sang the signature couplets “I want to see/My family/My wife and child/Waiting for me” in his plaintive high tenor, conjuring images of despicable ICE activity at the U.S. borders.
Other artists reimagined their own material. Debbie Harry cast Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” as a torch song with string quartet, her “ooo-woo, oh-whoa”s turned into more of a blues wail than a rebound reverie. Her outfit made a striking impression, too: a sort of flamenco-ish black-and-pink affair with rhinestones and a cape that spelled out the words “Stop Fucking the Planet” in silver block letters. Chris Robinson and Neal Casal nicely approximated the California jam fire of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood with members of Patti Smith’s band. For a finale, Benin-to-Brooklyn expat Angélique Kidjo reprised her spectacular Talking Heads tribute project with an African-influenced remake of “Once in a Lifetime,” yanking off her headdress and dancing wildly.
By now, the tradition of the Tibet House concerts has outlasted many of the series’ guest performers: Bowie, Ginsberg, Reed, Allen Toussaint, the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, Spalding Gray, Maggie Roche. Glass, a Tibet House co-founder, turned 82 this year. Here’s hoping he and Tibet House continue to thrive.