Last night, I went to my first concert at Carnegie Hall since I saw Ray Charles play there in the summer of 1996. It was a benefit concert for Tibet House, an annual event organized by Philip Glass and his “friends.” Although I condemn the invasion and occupation of Tibet by the Chinese, admire the political and religious leadership of the Dali Lama, and respect the work that Tibet House does to preserve the culture of that country, I’ll admit that I bought the tickets to see tUnE-yArDs play.
I think Merrill Garbus is one of the most talented songwriters and performers alive today, and I had never seen her perform live. Last night she was the first non-monk-ish musical performer, and she played “Warrior Woman” by Yoko Ono (now available as a benefit single to support Sandy relief in the Rockaways), and then “Gangsta,” a critically acclaimed song from the 2011 album W H O K I L L. She’s astonishing, but it really sucks to see such kinetic and stirring music in a place where the seats are jammed so close together that your feet are forced back up under your chair by the row in front. It felt closer to some kind of CIA interrogation technique (DON’T YOU MOVE YOUR LEGS!) or a racial brainwashing experiment (surely, you know that as white people, we simply cannot allow you to move your body to the sound of music), than it did to a concert.
That smaller stage in Carnegie is a children’s parable: too big for performers to be unmic’d, and too small for the PA system to do anything but distort, buzz, and blow out your ears. The loudness and hollowness of the sound from the PA made the largely weak and pitchy singers (Ariel Pink…really? Jim James…really?) sound worse than the spit-take portions of the first round of American Idol auditions. Beat boxer Rahzel used his own fancy mic to make his performance possible to, as he warned us in the intro, play a beat and sing a melody simultaneously using only his mouth, but no melody was ever forthcoming and the only remarkable part of his performance was his sheer endurance. It can’t be that easy to make pounding and buzzing noises for 10 solid minutes. The fact that he won a coveted spot performing with Philip Glass on piano made me wonder if he’s somehow related to Glass.
Nepotistic selection was the joking excuse Ira Glass gave for his appearance on stage, but I assume he was a draw for much of the audience given how many people stood and left once his piece was done. I. Glass took a portion of a story from his This American Life show–the one about the Riverdance Touring company that play the lottery–and interspersed live commentary. It’s a good piece, but it was extraordinary on stage because he had hired two young dancers (dressed in the performing arts equivalent of conservative Jewish women’s fashion…mid-calf skirts, bright red flower pin on the shoulder) to perform at intervals during the presentation. There are probably only a few examples of occasions where drawing together two radically different art forms (in radio there are no bodies, in dance there are no words) can produce such a whole greater than the parts. I won’t ruin it for you–I understand Glass has a whole show premiering next month from which this was drawn–but I absolutely insist that you try to see this if you can.
Update: In just hunting around the internet, I discovered this Vanity Fair piece on the show, in which they repeat the Glass joke I just used (radio, bodies; dance, words), include a picture to demonstrate my clothing joke is no joke, and announce the Annenberg performance.