Philip Glass' 80th Birthday at Tibet House Benefit Concert Was a Message to the American People

 Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Tibet House US
Patti Smith performs onstage during the finale at the Tibet House US 30th Anniversary Benefit Concert & Gala to celebrate Philip Glass's 80th Birthday at Carnegie Hall on March 16, 2017 in New York City. 

Every year, Carnegie Hall hosts The Tibet House Benefit Concert featuring a flurry of iconic musicians, however this year felt different (and not just because it was Philip Glass’ 80th birthday). But Glass’ celebratory event was more than just one big fête; it was a political statement. “We need to have this loving, political revolution, but resist,” Glass declared onstage before the concert began.

Although each year the soirée is centered on preserving the Tibetan civilization and culture (as the Dalai Lama requested in 1987 when Tibet House US was founded), this year’s concert hit closer to home. At the center of Tibetan culture is the celebration of peace, love and joy, something that is lacking in currently in the U.S. With the country in disarray, all of the coveted artists who played during the benefit used the power of their craft to show that we, as Americans, should strive to have the same ethos of the Tibetan culture. And they did it through the power of song.

While some artists were more overt in their political subtext, others did so through peaceful protest. With an opening chant from Tibetan monks and the “Elemental Prayer” from Jesse Smith and Tibetan performer Tenzin Choegyal, these particular performances proved as opportunities for the audience to learn introspection, unity, peace and appreciation from Tibetan culture. The allusion to politics was more subtle at the start, but as the show went on, it was clear music became the catalyst for political discourse.

Surprisingly the emotional climax of the Tibet House Benefit Concert really began at the beginning of Thursday evening when Laurie Anderson performed a spoken-word piece “Don’t Go Back to Sea,” that featured chilling anti-Trump lyrics like “you don’t look like a president to me.” Later she quoted her late husband, Lou Reed on “Dirty Blvd:” "Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor/ I'll piss on 'em/ That's what the Statue of Bigotry says." Anderson’s delivery paid homage to the political being personal, something that each of the artists managed to do throughout the night. The beautifully curated sets only continued, with perhaps the most moving between Glass himself and the Alabama Shakes, mixing the beauty of his keystrokes with lead singer Brittany Howard’s show-stopping powerhouse vocals on Sound & Color tracks. It was clear that the audience wanted them to keep performing past their three songs -- it would have been impossible to not leave a fan of Alabama Shakes by the end of the show.

An unexpected appearance from Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, was met with overwhelming support from the crowd as he solemnly said, “We haven’t had much to celebrate at the ACLU these last four months,” revealing the importance and relevance of the work that Tibet House does. Romero later added, “We must live the values Philip Glass has lived for 80 years” -- a profound statement about the host of the concert and America’s future.

But the aura of the evening changed to raucous once Iggy Pop and New Order joined on the stage. In a meeting of the punk masters, the duo sang New Order’s “Stray Dog,” which Iggy guested on, and then delighted the crowd with one of his deep cuts from 1987’s Blah-Blah-Blah, “Shades,” but surprised the audience with an incredible rendition of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” -- something Iggy and New Order fans will remember for years to come. (And note to Richard Spencer once again: New Order is definitely not on your side). 

Later during the show Sufjan Stevens, who has been extremely outspoken about how God would not stand for Trump’s immigration policies, decided to sing a melancholic, impactful version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

And finally the most overtly political performance unsurprisingly came from Patti Smith. It was hard not to get chills as Smith belted “Show your papers boy” during “Citizen Ship,” a track aimed at the issue of immigration. Although Smith has closed out The Tibet House Benefit Concert with “People Have The Power” in the past, it was more on the nose than ever because of our current political climate. All of the artists who performed at the event joined her onstage to sing along. 

In addition to the politics shaping the evening, it was a family affair of sorts for the artists, with Glass’ son Zack performing beautiful balladry with “Southern Skies,” Ben Harper playing with his 17-year-old daughter Harris (who if we’re being honest, is on the road to stardom) and Smith’s daughter Jesse accompanying her on piano and her son Jackson playing guitar in her band.

For many audience members, this will be the last and only time they’ll ever see Patti Smith perform alongside Iggy and New Order (or hear them play a Joy Division song together), Ben Harper play with this daughter and experience Glass collaborating with Alabama Shakes. It’s something that makes The Tibet House Benefit Concert profoundly unique. By mixing the political with the personal, if there’s anything we as American citizens can learn from The Tibet House, it’s to do better, love harder, peacefully protest and work together.