Musical Chairs

Jonathan Cohen reviews the 11th annual Tibet House Benefit concert at Carnegie Hall.

By Jonathan Cohen
Published February 25, 1999 9:44AM (EST)

Although world policy on the issue of Tibetan freedom has yet to change,
there remains a group of activists who will not let the plight fade into
the background, and the music industry is leading the charge. The annual
Tibetan Freedom Concerts have served as a soapbox for artists such as the
Beastie Boys and R.E.M., and the Tibet House benefit in New York City, which
graced Carnegie Hall Monday night, is now in its 11th year. Although much
thinner on pure rock 'n' roll than the Freedom Concerts, the Tibet House
shows have always fostered unique onstage collaborations, and Monday's
performance was no exception.

Composer Philip Glass, the vice president of Tibet House, hosted and
performed at the event, inviting Tibetan performance group Chaksam-Pa
onstage for a colorful ritual dance before Cibo Matto took over just before
8 p.m. Set to release a long-awaited follow-up to the band's 1996 debut
"Viva La Woman!" Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda got the show off on the right
foot. Backed by Sean Lennon on bass and beat-boxer Duma Love, the band
offered the evening's most electrifying moment with the hyperactive funk of
"Sugar Water." But Love's mouth magic was the only percussion needed for a
soft cover of Henry Mancini's "Moon River."

Guests drifted on- and offstage all night long, reinforcing the
benefit's team effort. Shawn Colvin followed Cibo Matto with "84,000
Different Delusions," a dark and lovely track from her 1996 "A Few Small
Repairs" album. Colvin was joined by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck for a steady
rendition of Crowded House's "Personal Universe" before she
made way for the rest of R.E.M.

With R.E.M. came Patti
a mainstay at this benefit over the past few years. Smith's
haunting backup vocals were showcased on R.E.M.'s dreary "E-Bow the
Letter," which suffered through singer Michael Stipe's barely audible
verses. R.E.M. settled into a better groove on a surprising cover of Pearl
Jam's "Long Road," accented by Nawang Khechog's otherworldly horn tones. A
short but sweet "At My Most Beautiful," from the band's most recent album,
"Up," featured both Glass and R.E.M.'s Mike Mills on piano and some
semi-tuneful backup singing by Colvin.

Gambian musician Foday Musa Suso was one of the concert's highlights,
playing the kora solo and in ensemble with Glass and Phish guitarist Trey
Anastasio. Suso made the most of the kora's incredible tonal range on his
hypnotizing solo piece, and added a delicately fingerpicked counterpoint to
Anastasio's guitar lead on Phish's "Brian and Robert."

Anastasio was clearly the crowd favorite. Pianist
Peter Kater assisted him for a beautifully slow-building rendering of
"Billy Breathes," the title track of Phish's 1996 LP.
Smith kicked the energy up a few notches on the caustic "1959," a
song about the initial Chinese takeover of Tibet, as well as with a brand
new song that took aim at the recent shooting death of an unarmed African man by police in New
York City. The evening concluded with each of the show's performers onstage
for an appropriately hard-hitting "People Have the Power," a Smith classic
that found the capacity crowd singing along at top volume. Mixing music and
social activism can sometimes be tricky, but judging by the enthusiasm
shown for Monday's performance -- onstage and off- -- it's clear that the
Tibet House and its supporters have their hearts in the right place.

Jonathan Cohen

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