By Brian Ives
“I keep good company now,” Robert Plant joked from the stage last night. He was one of a group of performers – not the headliner – of an all-star Americana bill that hit New York’s Town Hall for the “Lampedusa – Concerts for Refugees” tour.
The rest of the lineup was a who’s who of the genre: Emmylou Harris (who spearheaded the brief tour), Steve Earle, Buddy Miller and folk duo the Milk Carton Kids. (Patty Griffin was on the bill, but was not at the show.) It was one long show done in “guitar pull” format. And Plant clearly enjoyed being part of the group, not the star.
Throughout the two hour plus show, each artist would take the mic on a song of their choice, with the other musicians occasionally singing backing vocals, or playing instruments. For his part, Plant mostly backed the others by playing a small hand drum with a metal brush. It was a small contribution to the songs that was somehow extraordinary: the singer of one of the most popular rock bands of all time, a guy who could headline Madison Square Garden just a few blocks south, on his own was doing hand percussion behind artists who are far less famous (and that’s not a slight on them; they’re all extremely popular artists, and rightfully so). He did this, quite obviously, because of his admiration for those artists, and because he wanted to contribute to the tour.
Lampedusa, the island that the tour was named for, is off the coast of Sicily, and often serves as a waypoint for refugees from North Africa as they search for safety and security. The organization that benefits from the tour, though, is the Jesuit Refugee Service, which works in more than 45 countries to meet the educational, health and psychosocial needs of refugees and other forcibly displaced people; notably, they are committed to helping people of all faiths. Learn more about this organization at their website.
Two names loomed large over the event, but went (mostly) unmentioned. Led Zeppelin and Donald Trump. To his credit, Plant avoided his former band’s catalog, when it would have been easy to blow the roof off with “Thank You,” “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” or, when Joan Baez joined, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” But at his show, he’s not “Robert Plant, formerly of Led Zeppelin,” he’s “Robert Plant, formerly of ‘Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.'” And, indeed, he dipped into their classic 2007 album Raising Sand a few times.
The issue of immigration wasn’t mentioned early in the show, but once it did come up, it seemed the artists made a concerted effort not to mention the Republican presidential nominee. And while all talk of immigration issues seems to have to include him by default, it was appropriate that the show not become an ad hoc political rally (when announcing that he was part of the tour, Plant said in a statement, “I’m not making a political statement. The organization that is receiving these funds is a religious one, however this is a totally secular mission. This appeal is trying to help on the ground wherever it can.”) As Emmylou Harris explained, there are an estimated 65 million refugees and displaced people in the world. “Either we can show them love and light,” she said, or they could, through desperation, follow a darker path. She very movingly framed it as an issue of not just humanitarianism, but of practicality.
The beginning of the show was all about the music, though: it kicked off with Steve Earle’s “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had,” followed by Emmylou Harris’s classic cover of Kitty Wells’ “Making Believe.” Plant’s first turn on the mic saw him covering Elvis Presley’s “Don’t,” and then Plant’s one-time guitarist Buddy Miller played his own “Shelter Me” (a song that seemed fitting for the night).
The Milk Carton Kids, sort of like a modern Simon and Garfunkel, but drier and funner (and unlike S&G, they both play guitars), played “By The Stars.” Two more classics followed: Earle’s “Copperhead Road” and Harris’ cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Love Hurts.”
Plant then explained what led him to become part of this alt-country family. “I had a bit of insecurity in the ’80s,” he explained. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“A little later” — more like two decades later — “I bumped into Alison Krauss.”
“I tripped over her,” he clarified, noting that he’d had a lot of Japanese rice wine that day. He said that it marked a new beginning for him, and then went into Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’,” from Raising Sand. Van Zandt, by the way, was Steve Earle’s mentor, and Earle watched with respect during the song.
After that, Buddy Miller played “Gasoline and Matches,” which he co-wrote with his wife Julie (deadpanning that, “I live with a really good songwriter”). Then, the Milk Carton Kids brought the house down with a hilarious number about one of the members’ soon-to-be-born daughter. (The punch line: there isn’t a definite due date, because there isn’t a definite mother. “We’ve been playing this song for four and a half years!”).
The first special guests of the evening then joined: Nancy and Beth, aka actress Megan Mullally and her friend Stephanie Hunt. With coordinated dance moves (sort of a cross between burlesque and the Soggy Bottom Boys’ moves from the end of O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and hilarious lyrics, the audience, and the artists watching from stage in amazement, loved them. They performed what they said was a new anthem for the Trump campaign (the only time his name was mentioned throughout the night), “100,000 Women Can’t Be Wrong.”
After a few more songs, including Earle and Harris’ duet on Earle’s “Goodbye,” Harris’s tribute to Kate McGarrigle (“Darlin’ Kate”) and the Milk Carton Kids’ cover of Emmylou Harris’s “Michelangelo,” Earle, as he often does, introduced his next song, with a long story. It started with the evolution of New York delis, which he said used to be mostly owned by Italians, now they’re owned by Asians and soon, he said, they’ll be owned by Mexicans. He described how fascinated he was by the owner of his favorite deli, an Asian man named Mr. Kim. “He speaks better English than I do,” he said, and explained that Mr. Kim learned Spanish in his 50s in order to stay in business, and that he’s hired mostly Spanish speaking workers. “That is who we are!” he said with pride.
“Don’t let anyone tell you differently! We know who this guy is,” he said, without needing to clarify who might “tell you differently,” or saying who “this guy” refers to.
A few more songs followed, including Robert Plant’s “Little Maggie,” Buddy Miller’s “Wide River to Cross” and the Milk Carton Kids’ “The City of Our Lady,” which contains the poignant lyrics, “History is hanging as a picture in a frame/Everywhere we go, we are the child of where we came.”
Then, Harris introduced the second and last guest of the night, saying that it was the person who inspired her to pick up a guitar. “She taught my generation that music is good to dance to… but music can change hearts and minds it can change the world.”
And with that, Joan Baez took the stage, saying, “This is a f—ing great show!”
“I call this a ‘pocket of sanity,'” she noted. “Don’t let the dogs get you down.” From there, she led the ensemble through Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” a song which looks at migrant workers and asks, “Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit? To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil And be called by no name except ‘deportees?'”
She then told the audience, “My father was a immigrant from Mexico… and he invented the x ray microscope! It’s not about people who are taking from us, they’re bringing us their gifts!” She and Earle then sang his song “God is God.”
They then finished with the entire ensemble, including Nancy and Beth, singing Earle’s “Pilgrims,” with Earle telling the audience, “We’re all pilgrims, no matter where we’re from or what language we speak!” As the lights went on, the P.A. played the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” a fitting message. A pessimist might say that the tens of millions of refugees in the world right now need quite a bit more than love. And optimist might counter that, with enough love, people might be inspired to help of those refugees return to their homes or start new lives. The show’s vibe was firmly in the latter camp. And in the midst of this very toxic election season, it was a message well taken.
For more information about Jesuit Refugee Services, go their official website.