"I'd like to thank all of you Phish fans," Patti Smith said before the finale of Saturday's annual Tibet House benefit on the eve of the Tibetan New Year, and on cue, the upper balconies of storied Carnegie Hall -- the cheap seats on a night when prime orchestra spots went for upward of $100 -- erupted in cheers. Nodding to the twirling, dreadlocked masses, Smith couldn't help giggling. "See, now that's a collective voice. Good for you."
While Phish's Trey Anastasio, appearing at the Tibet House benefit for the second time, may have elicited the most fervent fan reaction, he was hardly the musical highlight of a night that moved smoothly from the quietly transcendent -- and there is no other word for the otherworldly chanting of the monks from Drepung Gomang Buddhist Monastic University -- to the deeply sensual sounds of Brazilian singer Virginia Rodrigues, who looked, moved and sounded like a French Quarter priestess.
Over two-plus hours on Saturday night, only a few moments were less than excellent. Cape Breton fiddle phenom Ashley MacIsaac displayed none of the flashy, psychedelic panache touted in a recent New Yorker profile; instead, he moved the audience with a deep, nontechnical "Slow Air & Reels." Taking things in the opposite direction, West African soul diva Angelique Kidjo commanded the audience to "clap with conviction" during a song about a woman who marches up to the man she loves and tells him she'll only marry him.
A pair of numbers featuring Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog and Navajo-Ute flutist R. Carlos Nakai sustained the most beautiful moments of the night. Master of ceremonies Philip Glass said he believed it was the first time the Tibetan flute and the American Indian flute had been played together onstage. (The two musicians are working on an album to be released later this year.) Whether or not he was right, "Universal Peace" and "Meeting Place" brought an awesome hush upon the sellout crowd.
Better-known faces delighted as well. David Byrne, in a flowing, untucked tuxedo shirt, performed a yet-to-be-released number alone, doing his best Roy Orbison imitation as he warbled about love and longing. And Rufus Wainwright previewed his next album with "Poses," a roiling piano song about a "young man who moves to the city and basically prostitutes himself and becomes really ugly and nobody wants him anymore." By way of further explanation, Wainwright disarmingly offered this: "Basically, someone who didn't want to date me. So this is my revenge."
Yet it was Smith who stole the show, as she did last year. She came out midset for what has become a standard reading from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." When she finished, she spit on the stage. It was one of the few seemingly extemporaneous moments on a night when the artists were, for the most part, seized with reverence.
Later, Smith returned for a miniset with her longtime backing band and exchanged playful quips with the audience, establishing a rapport that was missing from the night's clichid, "it's one of the honors of my life" pronouncements. When a stagehand (in a jacket and tie, no less) came out between songs to adjust one of her microphones, Smith muttered, "the power of the unions," before rolling her eyes. More than 20 years after she won over the New York intelligentsia, the grande dame of American punk still has one of the most commanding stage presences in music, whether she's squealing away on clarinet or shouting to the world. Her band, including Lenny Kaye on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, did its best with an acoustically challenging situation. The cavernous stage made the drums sound as if they were being played in the back of a barn.
The night ended with a Smith sing-along. "The people have the power," she exclaimed, backed by Anastasio, Byrne, Rodrigues, Kidjo and Wainwright, "to redeem the work of fools." To even ask whether Tibet House, a New York charity dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture in the face of the continued Chinese occupation of Tibet, will be able to redeem the work of fools -- to say nothing of overcoming the hunger of totalitarian regimes or the fury of deep-rooted ethnic hatreds -- is a utopian question. But Saturday night, at least, it seemed like the right one to ask.