By Abigail Everdell
David Byrne, the National, Feist, Bon Iver, and Sharon Jones, among others, performed at New York’s Radio City Music Hall Sunday night for Dark Was the Night Live, a celebration of AIDS/HIV awareness organization Red Hot’s compilation of the same name. And what a celebration it was, with over two hours of collaborations (Byrne and Dirty Projectors! Feist and Bon Iver!) — and Jones’ show-stealing performance!
Despite a seated, mostly sober audience, iffy sound, and songs that were often being played live for the first time, the hip 20-and-30-something audience got what they came for: A jovial indie rock revue, carried above its flaws by the enthusiasm of devoted performers who knew that, this time, it was all for a greater good.
The curtain rose on prog-pop band Dirty Projectors, who established a theme for the night with their precise vocal harmonies. Singer/guitarist Amber Coffman took over on main vocal duties, relieving bandleader Dave Longstreth, and stirred up an impressive white chick R&B groove on new track “Stillness is the Move.” It was perfect timing for the king of off-kilter funk, David Byrne, to join them onstage. Together Byrne and the DPs performed two songs — including Dark Was the Night standout “Knotty Pine.” It was certainly one of the night’s many highlights.
Next, Red Hot founder John Carlin took the stage for a short speech, in which he thanked the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner for all their hard work. Dark Was the Night is truly the Dessners’ project — they spent two years curating and producing it — and the familial, collaborative atmosphere of the event reflected their attempt to capture their generation’s music scene and all its stars.
Among those stars: A silver-sparkle-clad Shara Worden, a.k.a. My Brightest Diamond, who took the stage for a single song — an ethereal, skat-free, and inspiring version of Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good.” Worden’s pipes tackled the staple effortlessly, hitting each note without strain.
The National — with the side-burned Dessner brothers looking shockingly like members of the Brandybuck clan — then performed”29 Years,” “England,” and Dark Was the Night track “So Far Around the Bend” before inviting Worden back to harmonize on their new song “Dandelion Crybaby.”
TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek followed with another one-off performance, singing “With a Girl Like You” with accompaniment from the National, TVOTR bandmate Jaleel Bunton on synth, and a backup choir of previous performers. Moments later, Byrne closed the concert’s first half, performing his past Red Hot contributions like “Dreamworld” with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and “Waters of March” with Feist.
Twenty minutes and one overpriced strawberry daiquiri later, Bon Iver opened the concert’s second half with the gorgeous harmonies of “Blood Bank.” Next, they invited the National to join for DWTN’s “Big Red Machine,” and My Brightest Diamond for “Flume.”
Feist soon took the stage solo to perform a rendition of traditional folk song “The Wagoner’s Lad,” Little Wings’ “Look at What the Light Did Now,” and Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song.” On her version of “Train Song” featured on DWTN, Feist is joined by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. But in his absence Feist invited the “grizzly angels of Bon Iver” back onstage to help. But it was her solo, set-closing rendition of an electric blues number that really awed, proving the lady packs more guitar chops than most give her credit for.
The concert ended with a short but rousing set from the Dap-Kings and their sassy frontwoman Sharon Jones, who ordered her band to play a fast one, “So I can get my blood moving.” She was oddly static during the performance of Shuggie Otis’ “Inspiration Information,” but later confessed to SPIN.com that the confusing lyrics were to blame. “We spent hours trying to figure out Shuggie’s lyrics, but it still doesn’t make sense. I told them to give me a teleprompter. But that song is a music song, that’s what it’s about, that’s what you remember; ‘Badaba daba da!'” The group followed with a lengthy rendition of “100 days, 100 nights,” which brought the audience out of their chairs to dance for the first time all night.
All the performers closed with a big choral number. Halfway through their cover of Pete Seeger’s campfire singalong “This Land is Your Land,” Jones sped back onstage for a clearly planned but perfectly executed interruption. She navigated through a crowd of pale, skinny folk singers, grabbed a mic, told them that their version was, you know, fine (sideways glance to the audience, eyebrow raised), and then launched into the Dap-Kings grooving, funk rendition with blaring horns. Jones, bounding the stage from side to side, showed ‘em all up with one well-placed shake of her hip.