Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees: Town Hall 18 October 2016

I got an email that Steve Earle was going to be playing a charity concert in NYC and on the bill were Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, and The Milk Carton Kids. All five us were going – rtb, violaleeblue, mollyT, and Mrs. Devereaux. Unfortunately, Mrs. Devereaux couldn’t make it last night. And we were all disappointed with that and that Patty Griffin wasn’t on stage. Later I found a repost of Griffin’s Facebook post on the site of their first venue – Griffin had to cancel her performance for health reasons but her friend Robert would be filling in for her on some of the dates. There are 11 concerts during the month of October in the US and Canada.

We were in the last row of the center upper balcony section of Town Hall. I like the last row because then I can stand if tall people sit in front of me. I like Town Hall because it’s an intimate hall not built for but made for folk and jazz. It was built as a meeting house and there’s not a bad seat in the house.

My evening started with a banking errand. It was still early so I walked up Third Avenue to find something to eat. Turns out 25th Street is a pedestrian mall (when did that happen?) for Baruch students. That led to me walking up Lexington Avenue, which I forgot was Curry Hill in that area. I love Indian food but I’m eating at Floyd Cardoz’ new restaurant next week. I ended up at Trattoria Belvedere. It is obviously an old neighborhood place. Some regulars came in while I was there and there was a tourist couple. It’s one of the many old-school Italian restaurants run by Albanians in the city. Everyone was very nice to me. The menu reminded me of the late 1980s, which fit in with the two businessmen sitting in front of me – one had suspenders and a yellow tie and wouldn’t look out of place as Gordon Gekko’s employee in Wall Street. The specials brought the menu into the 1990s or perhaps the 21st century. I have nothing but good things to say about the food and the service. It reminded me of what I love about NYC in the best way.

Continuing up Lexington, I was horrified to see the fence surrounding a new big hole in the ground in NYC. One Vanderbilt is going to be a towering tower right across Vanderbilt Place from Grand Central. The builders say it’s not going to overshadow Grand Central but will highlight it. After it’s built, the only way to see Grand Central will be from the front. There’s the horrible Pan Am (now MetLife) building that was never supposed to be built (you were supposed to be able to look down Park Avenue and see past Grand Central and all the way up Park Avenue) behind it and the Westin (formerly Helmsley) Hotel on the right. It reminded me of what I hate about NYC in the worst way.

In Town Hall, the lights came down and Emmylou Harris walked onto the stage to huge applause. She stood at the center mic and introduced each of the performers, who came in and sat down – Buddy Miller, The Milk Carton Kids, Robert Plant, and, the person with whom she would not have been able to organize the concert, Steve Earle. Joining them was David Pulkingham on guitar, percussion, and vocals. There’s no recording or photography at Town Hall but there’s a few videos of last night’s performances up on YouTube. I saw Plant and the special guest – there may be others.

The reason for the concert was mentioned a few times with Harris making some pointed statements about who to thank for sponsoring the concert. The Milk Carton Kids made a joke about it being a good cause and how they wanted to help the poor Jesuit refugees. The Jesuit Refugee Service has been around for 36 years meeting the educational, health, and psychosocial needs of refugees and other forcibly displaced people all over the world. There are currently 65 million refugees around the world and in 2015 the JRS launched the Global Education Initiative. North African refugees pass through Lampedusa, a small island off Sicily, which is their waypoint in their search for safety and security. For more information about the work they do and to make a donation, please click on the JRS link above.

The concert was going to be in the round with each musician taking a turn. Others accompanied on vocals, guitars, mandolins, harmonica, banjo, dobro, tambourine, and Plant played a hand-held drum with a metal brush. When you think of what a superstar Plant is and you see how much he’s enjoying sitting around with these great musicians, you realize that he is really where he wants to be. The Milk Carton Kids generally played without help from the others – the seasoned musicians were obviously enjoying watching the youngsters, who needed no help from them in playing or in making an audience laugh and have fun. From what I’ve read, the music was changing – not necessarily everything from night to night – but enough to keep it interesting for them.

Earle started things off with “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had” and Harris followed with Kitty Wells’ “Making Believe” by first making a comment about real country music. Plant said, “I keep good company now,” and sang a spot-on version of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t” with everyone helping with gospel-like backing vocals and then Miller played his “Shelter Me.” Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are very funny and, I’m guessing, unfamiliar to most of the audience and Ryan said, “Now that you got your money’s worth,” and continued, “We’ve been in this room before which is more advantageous for us.” “We’re thrilled,” he deadpanned. They performed “Hope of a Lifetime” and blew everyone away with Pattengale’s guitar playing and their harmonies. There was a huge response for them.

Earle said he had been a big fan of The Milk Carton Kids for years. Joe Henry had told him to listen to them and he always did what Joe Henry tells him to do. Earle said he was at the Americana Music Awards with them. “Not sure why I was there. Oh yeah, because Shawn Colvin was there.” At the end of the awards show everyone sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” because “that’s fucking inevitable” and he joined The Milk Carton Kids where they were on the side. Then he said he was going to show them something because “I’ve been doing this a long time” and the mandolin was out for “Copperhead Road.” Harris commented that all her songs are dark depressing sad songs and she then sang the B-side of one of her singles – a duet she had originally done with Gram Parsons. This time Miller joined her for “Love Hurts.” Plant said that in the 1980s he had a bit of insecurity because he didn’t know what he was doing. A little later he bumped into Alison Krauss – “Actually I tripped over her because I was full of Japanese rice wine” and he made a record with her and that started him to knowing what he was doing. He performed Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’” from Plant and Krauss’ Raising Sand. The show was informal – both Harris and Plant were reading from lyric sheets (Harris for background vocals). And Harris was even helping Plant with taking the lyric sheets off the music stand as he finished each page. But it was never loose. The musicians were tight and perfect all the time. Miller followed with an “upbeat number” co-written with his wife, who is “a good songwriter. Her name is Mrs. Miller,” “Gasoline and Matches.” The Milk Carton Kids introduced their next song by saying that they got a call from Harris’ people asking “If they’d like to..” “Yup!” They were lucky it was just a tour they were so quickly agreeing to. While Pattengale played guitar, Ryan made this long introduction, which I’d forgotten I’d heard the first time I saw them. That was good for me because it’s a very funny introduction to a song, where Ryan says it’s a song Pattengale wrote for his daughter (people applaud and Ryan mentions the lack of enthusiasm based on other audiences’ responses) and Ryan continues that having a baby isn’t that big an accomplishment since lots of people have babies. Some by accident. The song is called “Charlie,” which elicited some chuckles and Ryan said the song is about what type of girl and woman Pattengale hopes Charlie will be and what kind of father Pattengale hopes to be. Then the punchline – there is no due date yet because there’s no mother yet. “We’ve been performing this song for four years.”

Harris introduced Nancy & Beth, who are Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt. They’re wearing glasses, head mics, and jumpsuits. They had the first and only mention of Trump all evening. Earle said, “We know who this guy is who might tell us differently” when he’s telling a story about immigrants later in the evening and we all know who he’s talking about. Nancy & Beth perform a Trump campaign song called “100,000 Women Can’t Be Wrong” complete with awkward choreography. They had told us they had jumpsuits. After the song they told us “they also have chairs” and do another song that involved awkward chair choreography. There must have been a little improv in their introduction because they said something about The Milk Carton Kids that made them laugh.

Earle did a beautiful heartbreaking version of “Goodbye” with Harris as a duet, which is a song she’s also recorded and performed with him before. Harris told a story about her good friends the McGarrigle Sisters and how they became the sisters she never had. Rufus (Wainwright) called Harris when Kate was dying and she was honored to be there with her at the end. Harris performed “Darlin’ Kate,” which Harris wrote for her. I couldn’t catch everything Plant was saying but he was talking about not knowing much about railroads but knowing about Scotland and hobbits and The Milk Carton Kids come to his room at night in their pajamas with milk and Ovaltine and he tells them about Misty Mountain. He mentioned something about a happy song and a woman from the audience yells, “Finally!” which was a little rude on its own but even more because of the song Harris had just played. What was that woman expecting from this group of musicians? With Harris on choruses, Plant performed a haunting version of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets.” Then Plant said about Miller, “This guy always pulls the cat out of the bag.” He laughed and said he didn’t know why he said that. This led to Miller telling a story about how he used to have 11 cats and they had to move because one kept spraying the air conditioner return. Harris apparently knew the names of all 11 cats at one time (no longer – there were a couple of jokes about being older and losing your memory and the fact that the audience grows up with you and also can’t remember). Ryan or Pattengale asked Plant if Miller’s story was what he had in mind when he mentioned cats or was he being metaphorical. Plant said he didn’t remember what he had said. Miller then told a story about boat trips that included Kris Kristofferson and Richard Thompson, which led to something about recording those performances and “I Let the Freight Train Carry Me On.” The Milk Carton Kids said it’s a strange and humbling experience to share the stage with your heroes and some of the greatest songwriters. “And they’re not assholes.” They decided to perform one of Harris’ songs and when she found out she said that usually she performs other people’s songs but no one does her songs. They told her that’s because there are too many fucking words. They did “Michelangelo.”

Earle said how much he loves NYC and how much more it is home to him than Texas or Nashville ever were. But there were some things to get used to – like the neighborhood deli. He explained that first Italians owned the delis and now they’re owned by Koreans and slowly being owned by other immigrant groups. His local deli is owned by Mr. Kim, who not only speaks English better than Earle but he speaks Korean, which seems like a hard fucking language. And in his 50s, Mr. Kim learned Spanish because most of his employees are from Central America and Mexico. Since Mr. Kim’s kids are at Harvard and MIT and are not coming back to work in the fucking deli, Mr. Kim is carrying on another NYC tradition, which is to sell your business to one of your employees. The former employee pays in installments and that becomes your pension. Earle loves this country and he loves this city because of stories like that. “That is who we are!” I knew which song was coming – “City of Immigrants.” Harris talked about the reason why they were there and then mentioned some of the musicians we lost this year and performed the Stanley Brothers’ “Green Pastures.” Plant mentioned driving through the Kentucky gap (I guess the Cumberland Gap?) where all the musicians are Scottish and he performed an old Appalachian standard, “Little Maggie.” Miller followed with his “Wide River To Cross.” Mentioning the 65 million refugees, Ryan said that you can start from a place of suspicion or you can start from a place of compassion. The Milk Carton Kids performed “The City of Our Lady.”

Harris now introduced the special guest. She started by saying that she was the reason she picked up a guitar. I knew it had to be someone older than Harris, so I knew who it was. “She taught my generation that music is good to dance to but music can change hearts and minds. It can change the world.” Out walked Joan Baez. She stood center stage with her acoustic guitar and said, “This is a fucking great show!” “I call this a pocket of sanity. Don’t let the dogs get you down.” When I heard the first line of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” I couldn’t have been happier. Afterwards she told us how she has been talking about immigrants and how they bring our vegetables to our table. But then she realized that her father, an immigrant from Mexico, co-invented the x-ray microscope. So obviously she wasn’t thinking big enough. “It’s not about people taking from us, they’re bringing us gifts.” Earle joined Baez for his song “God Is God.”

Then Baez sat down and Nancy & Beth came out and Earle told us that he’d written “Pilgrim” for the funeral of Roy Huskey Jr., who was the best doghouse bass player in Nashville and his father, Roy Huskey, was the best doghouse bass player before him. A pilgrim is a traveler and Harris decided to repurpose the song for this tour. “Everybody has a right to a home. No matter where they come from. No matter what language they speak.” While Earle was speaking, Baez leaned over to Harris and kissed her. And while Earle was singing, Baez stroked his arm. Everyone took a verse and then all of them sang without instruments and it was so so beautiful.

There were a couple of annoyances that evening – two guys stood behind us the entire show and were talking, but never long enough that I felt I had to ask them to be quiet. Then a woman in the row ahead of us, who was with those guys, climbed over two rows and then started talking loudly with another group of people while Ryan was speaking. They had to be shushed a few times before they finally shut up.

But it was a lovely evening spent with the best songwriters performing their own and others’ songs beautifully and with love and care for over two hours. All to support an important organization that is doing very good work. We walked out to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” which is a lovely sentiment but also try and donate if you can.


By Carene Lydia Lopez