“Remain happy, remain loving—but resist.” Those were Professor Robert Thurman’s opening remarks at the 30th annual Tibet House Benefit Concert held Thursday night at New York City’s iconic Carnegie Hall. But perhaps “opening shot” might be a more appropriate term. Despite the glitzy setting, the concert was a night of peaceful rebellion—assisted by an unparalleled lineup of diverse musicians ranging from punk poet laureate Patti Smith, soul shouters Alabama Shakes, electro pioneers New Order, dreamy acoustic troubadours Ben Harper and Sufjan Stevens, and the raw power of Iggy Pop.
Presiding over the evening was composer supremo Philip Glass, whose role as curator and artistic director was dwarfed by his status as birthday boy. Having turned 80 years old in January, the evening doubled as a celebration of his life, as well as three decades of Tibet House’s service. The organization was founded in 1987 by Thurman, Glass, and actor Richard Gere at the behest of the 14th Dalai Lama, as a way to keep Tibetan traditions alive in the United States.
Nominally the night raised awareness of Tibetan resistance against the 60-plus-year Chinese occupation, but this night there was another “T” word in the air. Several artists used their sets to speak out against domestic political affairs, beginning with Laurie Anderson. The performance artist delivered a new spoken word piece, “Don’t Go Back to Sea,” featuring pointed lyrics like “you don’t look like a president to me,” and lines borrowed from late husband Lou Reed’s “Dirty Blvd.” Though recorded in 1989, lines like “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor/I’ll piss on ’em/That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says,” take on a potent meaning as the controversy over a proposed “travel ban” plays out in the legal system.
Stevens and Cat Martino made their own statement by singing a beautifully morphed version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—a mainstay of Stevens’ live performances for over a decade—and dedicating it to the commander-in-chief.
But it wasn’t all political demonstrations. Alabama Shakes played a stunning three-song set, including collaborations with Glass and the Scorchio Quartet on “Over My Head,” and “Sound & Color.” Iggy Pop’s collaboration with New Order, including (at Pop’s request) a rare rendition of the Joy Division classic “She’s Lost Control,” was a high octane highlight, and Ben Harper’s duet with 15-year-old daughter Harris on “Everything” tugged at the heart strings.
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Patti Smith and her band brought the night to a close with trademark fire and fervor, starting with a searing cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—its lyrical potency undiminished more than half a century after its composition. From there she dipped into her own back catalogue, first with “Citizen Ship,” a track from 1979’s Waves, and finally with a show-stopping version of her anthemic “People Have the Power” which got the 3,000-strong crowd on their feet and had the evening’s artists crowding the stage to sing along. Her parting shot? “Don’t forget that joy is one of our greatest f—ing weapons!”
Occurring days after the White House unveiled a preliminary 2018 budget that would effectively gut federally funded arts organizations, the concert served as a beacon of hope as the creative community faces a scary future. But Glass, the guiding hand behind the evening’s festivities, is optimistic. Being 80 brings with it the benefit of experience, after all.
“In the ’60s, we were really in a bad way,” Glass told PEOPLE at the post-concert gala at Gotham Hall. “At that time, the artists made huge contributions. That was the time we had Allen Ginsberg and Ornette Colman. When things are bad, the arts are flourishing! And that’s why when you go to a concert you feel that positive, because people respond to that. Looking at this two-party system where people don’t talk to each other, negotiations don’t really happen, no one talks about social justice anymore. It’s left up to the artists. That’s what you saw tonight. Patti particularly picked pieced that had social impact, and I think it’s the arts that keep us going!”