By Bret Gladstone
Sunday was what you could call a "win-win" night for music in New York City. At Madison Square Garden, arena-sized stars like Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews rang in folk legend Pete Seeger's 90th birthday with a massive benefit concert for Clearwater, a non-profit environmental organization (full report here). Less than 20 blocks away, an entirely different musical community came together at Radio City Music Hall to celebrate Dark Was the Night, the latest in a long-running series of AIDS-benefit compilations released by Red Hot. To date, the organization has raised more than $10 million to fight the disease across the globe. In the process, they've assembled a pile of great music.
Lovingly curated by the National's Bryce and Aaron Dessner, the show's lineup cut an impressively wide swath through the current NPR pantheon. David Byrne, Feist, Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors, Sharon Jones, My Brightest Diamond and Dave Sitek rounded out the bill; more importantly, all of them performed together at some point during the night. If the art-house films and rock-docs being shown between those sets weren't indication enough of just how "indie" this benefit was, the National made it clear in one smooth stroke. "You've been humming in a daze forever", Matt Berninger groaned in the band's gorgeous new lullaby "So far Around the Bend." "Praying for Pavement to get back together." Amen to that!
If Seeger is the looming patriarch of American folk music, his indie equivalent has to be David Byrne: a book-blurbing, edifice-playing, band-credentializing arbiter of alternative taste who wields his eclecticism and intellect the way Seeger wields his morality. No surprise, then, that in addition to collaborations with Feist and Dirty Projectors, Byrne manufactured the show's most bizarrely postmodern moment: a cover of Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" replete with African rhythms and Bon Iver's ghost harmonies.
Byrne wasn't the only one flipping through the American songbook. My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden brought the house down with her brassy cover of the 1965 show tune "I'm Feeling Good." Left alone on stage with her electric guitar, Leslie Feist slowed Dylan's "Someday Baby" into a twitchy, John Lee Hooker bar-dirge. And later, stage-dynamo Sharon Jones paid homage to James Brown by running through nearly every piece of hotplate footwork in the book, from the "camel walk" to the "tighten-up." After all, May 3rd happens to also be Brown's birthday. There's synchronicity for you.
The set-stealer, however, was Bon Iver, who clearly reveled in the acoustic possibilities of a large room with crystal clear sound. After working "Blood Bank" into a hard-driving noise blow-out, the band invited Worden and the National on stage for a rising, ethereal "Flume" that floored the entire venue.
As the venue curfew approached, the entire cast finally piled out for a bizarre mass sing-along of "This Land is Your Land," during which Jones strutted back onstage looking righteously pissed. "Hate to burst your bubble," she spit, "but maybe we should show you the Dap Kings version." Appropriately enough, "the Dap Kings version" is essentially Pete Seeger by way of James Brown. The bass-line dropped; the horns kicked in; Jones went back to work; and the rest of the night's lineup got funky like exactly what they were: a huddled group of earnestly awkward music geeks. It was thrillingly, refreshingly weird.