In a world where good deeds seldom go unpunished, the latest benefit CD for Kosovar refugees seems like one that will escape the lash of lawyers and critics alike. Assembled with little interference from major record labels -- something Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys can't say for their high-profile efforts this summer -- the eclectic CD reflects New York's quirky, unregimented downtown music scene.
The CD is called "Refuge," and it appears on Orchard Records, a new label founded by the Net-based record distributors of the same name. The project was conceived in a casual e-mail by Michele Stuart Rubin, the 30-year-old poet and public-school teacher who founded Artists Responding to Crisis; her spontaneous impulse to "get some New York musicians together and do a compilation album fund-raiser" took flight when she called Joy Askew, a vocalist who has backed up Peter Gabriel and Joe Jackson.
Askew put her own projects on hold for two months to produce the record. The roster of musicians reads like the guest list at her own record launch: friends, collaborators and friends of friends. Melanie Gabriel emotes to music she wrote with her father, Peter, and Askew. Former Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid cut a feral track the moment he returned from a European tour, and the ever-melodious Richard Barone, who used to play with pop-wave group the Bongos back in the '80s, set a prayer to music.
"We tried to get some names big enough to sell the record," Askew said. "Some better-known bands wanted to donate tracks -- the B-52's, Patti Smith's band, Natalie Merchant -- but working with the big labels was too complicated. We ended up looking for musicians with smaller labels, or who were currently unattached."
Many of the artists, including the younger Gabriel, Barone and folk-rockers the Wild Colonials, gathered to fete the CD during two shows at the Bottom Line in New York City last weekend. Joe Jackson -- who does not appear on the CD -- performed solo piano versions of "Be My Number Two" and "Home Town" before Askew chimed in on "It's Different for Girls."
The most eagerly anticipated performance of all was by Ahmed Best, the actor who played Jar-Jar Binks in "Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace." Best, it turns out, is Askew's piano student. He played a gentle ballad about a death in his family. The crowd was quiet and reverent for his song, but afterward, a few people -- some of whom had left the show to buy action figures -- approached him for autographs.
Artists and labels donated all the tracks, and Orchard is taking no distribution fees for marketing the record. Ninety percent of the proceeds will go directly to Kosova Relief Fund, a registered nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the people of Kosovo (Kosova is the Albanian name for the war-torn province).