One of the most high-profile benefit shows held to date in support of Ukraine took place in New York last night. Taking place at City Winery’s Manhattan location, the event featured performances by Gogol Bordello (whose leader, Eugene Hütz, was born in Ukraine), Patti Smith, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, Suzanne Vega, Magnetic Fields auteur Stephin Merritt, reggae vet Matisyahu, Jesse Malin, O.A.R.’s Marc Roberge, and indie singer-songwriter Lady Lamb, all showing up to raise funds for financial and humanitarian relief in the embattled nation.
Co-organized by Hütz and the venue, the three-hour show raised more than $130,000, which will be donated to Come Back Alive (a non-profit that supports the Ukrainian Armed Forces) and Care.org. Those funds also include a $50,000 donation to Doctors Without Borders by Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon, who were invited but unable to attend. In announcing the latter news onstage, Smith recalled a similar pro-peace sentiment from Ono —the time Smith and her friend Robert Mapplethorpe went to Times Square in 1969 and saw Ono and John Lennon’s famous “War Is Over” billboard.
“Fundraising is crucial,” Hütz told RS before the show. “People are being super generous and making astronomical donations. Our task is to keep beating the drum and tell the story authentically. Ukraine is its own independent nation. Everyone who thought Ukraine was a willing part of Russia is basically living in the world of moronic Russian propaganda.”
The benefit began with an unplugged set by Gogol Bordello, including a fervent take on “When Universes Collide” (“Son, don’t get caught on the wrong side,” goes the song’s chorus). Smith and Hütz, who was literally draped in the blue-and-white Ukrainian flag, then performed the country’s solemn and unflinching national anthem, alternating verses sung in English (Smith) and Ukrainian (Hütz).
The guests who followed — New York–area artists selected by Hutz — played brief sets that tapped into their back catalogs for songs that could easily apply to current events. Originally written about the bombings in Lebanon about 15 years ago, Smith’s “Qana” could have also been inspired by current Russian attacks on Ukraine (“Some stay buried/Others crawl free/Baby didn’t make it/Screaming debris”). Vega’s “Rock in This Pocket (Song of David)” (“So small to you/And so large to me/If it’s the last thing I do/ I’ll make you see”) could easily have been written from the defiant perspective of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Stephin Merritt and his frequent bandmate Shirley Simms played four Magnetic Fields songs to Merritt’s ukulele accompaniment, and in an otherwise somber event, “The Day the Politicians Died” (“Billions laughed and no one cried/The day the politicians died”) elicited well-earned laughs.
Other highlights included Finn’s mournful acoustic version of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” and his own “Certain Songs.” The show wrapped up with a typically riotous and energized gypsy-punk set by the full Gogol Bordello band, which included an older but also applicable song, “Undestructable” (“How many darkest moments and traps/Still lay ahead of us?”) and a newly written song, “Focus Coin,” about misinformation.
For Hütz, who fled Ukraine with his family when he was young, his bond with his native country remains strong, and he’s still in touch with friends and family there. “I grew up in the punk rock scene there and a lot of my buddies are fighting in civil defense,” he said. “My relatives are now driving in cars with fucking AK-47s and babies in the back seat. Some of them are in full combat and some of them are trying to get to safety. It’s full-on war. Luckily for now, they’re all alive.
“The invasion began eight years ago,” Hütz added. “Eight years ago we started to beat this drum and the world seemed to be comfortable thinking it was just some sort of local matter. Guess what — it’s pretty fucking far from being a local matter. Now that everyone was shoving it under the carpet for eight years, here is the result. Everyone is going to be affected by it. We are dealing with a monstrous fascist regime.”