“Usually I have too much to say, and now I don’t have enough,” said Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws last night at the Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg. There, a host of local musicians held a benefit for the Yellow Dogs, an Iranian-American dance-punk band that lost two of its members and a frequent collaborator and close friend in a tragic shooting last week. It was a fitting statement for an evening that felt more like a memorial service than a fundraiser, one in which the most important sentiments were expressed through music rather than words. “Moments like this make you realize how hollow words are,” added Johnny Azari, an Iranian-born musician, poet and activist who opened the evening with the solemn “Freedom Glory Be Our Name,” a song he had written with one of the slain musicians, singer-songwriter Ali Eskandarian.
The night began with a candlelit vigil walk from Cameo Gallery, where the Yellow Dogs played their first show in Brooklyn earlier this year, to Brooklyn Bowl, where they played their last. Members of the processional carried pink roses, daisies and white chrysanthemums, which they gave to concert attendees as they entered the Bowl. Inside, memorial boards had been set up for the dead – Yellow Dogs drummer Arash Farazmand, guitarist Soroush Farazmand and Eskandarian – plastered with photographs of the band with family and friends (and a few cats) and accompanied by tea candles from the walk and black Sharpies for the audience, who wrote messages like “Thank you for inspiring us with your life” and “I wish I had half your courage” (not to mention some unfinished business: “I still have your scarf”). A giant screen overhead projected more pictures of the band and clips from music videos for the frenetic, angular “This City” and jittery “Dance Floor.”
Onstage, the music swung from Ecuadorean synth-smith Helado Negro’s softly meditative quaver, accompanied by just an upright bass, to the raging rock & roll of local punk outfit Dirty Fences and singer Mitra Sumara’s stirring pop and funk from pre-revolutionary Iran. “It’s an honor to have such an incredible cast of bands and artists,” said Rahill Jamalifard, singer for the five-piece Habibi, who also curated the night’s lineup. Even David Byrne made a cameo of sorts: though he couldn’t attend, the idiosyncratic musician gave a note New York-based Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat, who read it during a short speech before Here We Go Magic frontman Luke Temple’s understated electric solo set. “It can’t be easy to go on,” Byrne wrote. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re going through, but if you can keep making great music, we will be all so grateful.”
TV On the Radio‘s Kyp Malone, no stranger to loss himself (two years ago, TVOTR bassist Gerard Smith died after a battle with lung cancer), gave one of the most moving performances of the night. The vocalist audibly choked up onstage before he started playing, and once he did, the wrenching walls of guitar feedback sounded as anguished as he must have felt. By the time Nada Surf took the stage to end the night and landed on the gentle chorus of Let Go track “Blonde on Blonde,” more than a few members of the crowd had clustered into group hugs, holding hands and kissing foreheads. But before anyone could get too down, Caws pulled a switch the Yellow Dogs probably would have approved of, closing with “The Blankest Year” – “Fuck it, I’m having a party” – celebrating the lives that were lost instead of mourning death.