Their hair was white or missing altogether, their steps were uneven and precarious, their faces scrunched in the concentrated effort of maintaining verticality, but the old and seemingly cantankerous crowd climbing the elderly’s version of Everest up Town Hall’s balcony stairs were filled with purpose. Sure, they had missed out on the ground level seats — This show had sold out in less than 3 hours, which is pretty speedy for a concert whose average audience member age was nearing sixty-five — but they were here to see the Legends who were once merely contemporaries. The onslaught of years be damned! This was a reunion of sorts. The children of the ’60s revolutions returning to the still flaming battlefields of their youth.
We were gathered in the high school auditorium-themed confines of the Times Square-adjacent Town Hall for The Lantern Tour, one of a series of benefit shows for the Women’s Refugee Commission with its current focus on the humanitarian nightmare occurring at the U.S.’s southern border. And the artists were drawn to the cause; some who you’d expect, and some who’d make you think, “Oh. Them?” But on first sight of the stage layout, it was clear that this was not an opportunity for showboating. Seven seats surrounded by a variety of stringed instruments were set out across the stage, and seven bodies would fill those seats throughout the show, whether it was their turn or not. That’s a lot of staying out of the spotlight for anyone with too much ego.
The first to come out into the harsh, plain white lighting was the silver-glowing wonder known as Emmylou Harris, our evening’s central figure in terms of positioning and MCing. Although her banter sounded like a wine drunk mom on Facebook, her voice remains a wonder of harsh notes and whispers always flowing unpredictably from the font of her soul.
On Stage Right, we had the glorious Graham Nash, the only member of the tour team who had to stand up when playing a song, lunging at the mic as only a frustrated longtime activist with a voice that can’t quite match the anger inside can. Next to him was Lila Downs, the vocal virtuoso of the group and the most credible to the cause with her mixed Scottish and Mexican ancestry and her dope low key Oaxacan fashion. To Lila’s left was the one and only Jackson Browne, a songwriter who long ago left the path of pure laid back SoCal rock songs to craft tunes with, at times, overly specific lyrics – Look no further than his 2014 album Standing in the Breach and the lyrics “It’s hard to say which did more ill / Citizens United or the Gulf oil spill” – but tunes that come from an honest desire for the peace the old hippies have yet to find. [Graham Nash took a moment toward the end of the show to make it known that Jackson was the most committed musician/activist he’d ever had the pleasure of knowing. J. Browne shyly accepted the honor.]
To the left of Emmylou, we had a surprise non-announced-in-the-booklet star from the wilds of America, Steve Earle. [Emmylou guessed he wasn’t mentioned in the billing because “he’s on the run from the law”, which is exactly the kind of legend-building we need when the real answer is that Steve’s doing another charity event in NYC soon and they didn’t want to siphon off his fans into two different charity camps.] Steve Earle, the dependable Americana champion, was the fire around which everyone else was playing throughout the night. He bobbed and weaved with nervous energy as they took turns, and when his songs came around, he smoked out the room with that charred voice and tall tales from his days as a wanderer. I guess, having been a Greenwich Village resident for 14 or so years, he can’t rightfully have the wanderer title anymore.
Next, we had Shawn Colvin, all too often remembered by ’90s kids as the one hit wonder behind “Sunny Came Home,” which is too bad given her long career as a solid singer/songwriter and collaborator. To her left, rounding out the group was Jerry Douglas, who supplied dobro guitar stylings and gorgeous slide solos for everyone’s songs throughout the night. A late comer to the activist party, he described the Lantern Tour experience as being his “coming out party”, a comment that undoubtedly would’ve forced a Millennial crowd to rush to their phones and Tweet him into non-existence for making light of the struggles of the LGBT community. Never-the-less, his guitar playing was masterful, adding a doleful twang to an all-acoustic night.
So there they all were, on their folding chairs in a straight line, which Emmylou prompted us to imagine as a circle. No frills. Just a group of masters coming together to modestly jam. The rotation began with Emmylou, then to Jackson, then to Lila, then to Graham, then to Shawn, and ending with Steve, and we made it through three full rotations with a charming mid-set special guest appearance by Joan Osbourne, who dropped by to sing a verse of Emmylou’s gorgeous “Love and Happiness” from her first duet album with Mark Knopfler, whose grumbly/mumbly vocals were not at all missed. Joan then rolled into her own rendition of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” that felt like it borrowed a bit from Bonnie Raitt’s version but retained a classic rock jam feel. If God were one of us, he’d be supremely satisfied with Joan’s choice.
They each played, occasionally joining one another with some extra guitar or unobtrusive backing vocals, and they otherwise patiently waited their turn, sometimes enjoying their comrades’ musicianship and sometimes appearing to be far off in some distant mindscape. J. Browne in particular seemed to make his presence as minimal as possible, so still did he sit, so quietly did he speak when his turn came, but his English language version of a Cuban song called “Walls and Doors” spoke perfectly to the night’s theme and to the soul of the crowd. The purity of his barely weathered voice and his absolute earnestness combined into a shockingly moving and cynicism-proof belting of “There can be freedom only when nobody owns it.” He singlehandedly brought to the stage the virility of message-based songwriting, at least as far as its power on the stage.
Graham Nash knew the best way to the crowd’s heart: songs they knew. His first round pick, the topical and furious “Immigration Man,” came from his 1972 Crosby & Nash record, and his voice could barely handle the power he fired into it. But round two brought the gentle CSN slow jam, “Just a Song Before I Go,” much better suiting his high and light vocals. It was round three, however, that launched the crowd into the only sing-along of the night. “I wrote this… fifty years ago…” he prologued, with what seemed less like a stunned admission of how long he’s been at this songwriting game and more of a spoken sigh communicating that, despite the best intentions of his generation, we’re still all a broken and flaming mess. “Teach Your Children” was probably the obvious choice for his final song, but it was also the right choice. With its irrepressible harmonies, the crowd filled out David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young’s roles with ease, although due to age and whiteness, ended up turning it into something of a blanded up church hymn. Nothing, however, could stop this eternal jam from reaching the rafters of the spirit and blowing a hole for the sun to shine through.
There were some curiosities as well, such as Shawn Colvin’s fabulously rendered folked-out version of the Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 summer stereo blaster, “Crazy.” There was Emmylou’s kind of half-spirited version of Lennon’s “Imagine” as well, which is a song that did no favors to her typical powerful dynamics. Lila Downs stunned the crowd with an operatic and jaw-dropping performance of a song about the Mexican legend of La Llorona (soon to be an American horror film because nothing is sacred). And of course there were Steve Earle’s monologues about getting arrested in Texas and the wonders of New York’s bodegas and his bodega-man Mr. Kim’s embodiment of the ole American Dream. Laughs were had, and ‘fucks’ were sprinkled generously to un-stuff what could’ve been a stuffy bunch for a thoroughly depressing cause. While “Teach Your Children” might’ve been the rightful heir to set-closing royalty, it was Earle’s group sing-along “Pilgrim”, repurposed from its original intent as a funeral song for a friend to become a full-throated calling to the travelers and home-searchers the world over, that brought the proceedings to a close.
The night’s vibes were powerful and cleansing. All the festering of the weeks and years, scrubbed if ever so briefly from the hardening valves of these hearts in a way that reminds us all that music, whether speaking directly to the world’s hardships or just hinting at our common journeys, is the balm we need to spread across the scarred population of Earth. If there’s hope at all in this divided land, it’s in the communion of a group of people, a number of instruments, and the human voice calling out to its reflection in the throats of all others.
-David C. Casey