The annual Tibet House Benefit Concert — a genre-spanning, cross-cultural charity show at Carnegie Hall that raises money for the non-profit Tibetan cultural institution — is frequently host to various unexpected pairings. Just last year, for instance, the event saw Patti Smith and Miley Cyrus singing together on the same stage.
The 2016 edition, which took place last night (Feb. 23) at Carnegie Hall, featured an equally stark contrast in performers — only this time, those artists happened to occupy the same body. Both Iggy Pop — mercurial madman and proto punk’s prowling panther — and James Osterberg, the 68-year-old Michigan-born man whose body frequently hosts the spirit of the Stooges frontman, performed at the event.
Following scorching performances from slinky soul powerhouse Sharon Jones (backed by the Patti Smith Group) and a dead-waking set of Gypsy punk from Gogol Bordello — additionally, FKA Twigs‘ two songs and nimble choreography kept Carnegie Hall enraptured in hushed awe — Pop took the stage to end the evening with a one-two punch David Bowie tribute.
When he kicked into “Jean Genie” (also backed by Patti Smith Group), one overzealous fan rushed the stage and started a one-woman mosh pit to the glam rock classic. While security contained the spontaneous outbreak of excitement — de rigueur for a Stooges show but perhaps not Carnegie caliber behavior — during “Genie,” they couldn’t stop the crowd when Pop’s second Bowie tribute sent dozens to the front row.
Singing “Tonight” — which Pop co-wrote with Bowie for Lust for Life and Bowie later covered on his Tonight album as a duet with Tina Turner — Pop was joined by most of the night’s previous performers for a show-closing sing-along, with soul standout Sharon Jones adeptly filling Turner’s shoes.
But prior to unleashing Iggy in honor of his late friend and collaborator, Pop paid homage to two other departed people in his life in a much quieter fashion. Taking the stage in a blue suit (no shirtless Iggy at Carnegie Hall), Pop delivered two spoken word performances.
“He was more James Osterberg than Iggy Pop tonight,” iconic rock photographer Bob Gruen observed to Billboard at the after party. “I’ve never seen Iggy do spoken word and act so adult. Iggy’s a very smart guy and it was great to see that side of him come out in public. He’s not just a crazy maniac — although he does that very well.”
Pop’s first poem was a meditation on his place in a world consumed by greed, ambition and consumerism called “I Talked to a Smart Guy,” and it featured musical backing from avant classical legend Philip Glass (who co-founded Tibet House and has curated the benefit concerts since their inception in the late ’80s) and Mandinkan musician Foday Musa Suso. His second spoken word piece was entitled “Mom and Dad Are Gone” and it found James Osterberg shedding Iggy Pop almost entirely for an alternately somber, angry meditation on losing his parents that found the rock legend frequently casting his eyes upward, as if waiting to catch a reaction from his parents from heaven while telling them, “I should have done more, I should have loved you more.”
“Iggy played the benefit two years ago and it was excellent, but I think tonight was transcendent,” singer-songwriter and filmmaker Adam Green told Billboard afterward. “He was talking about the death of his parents and it was affecting to watch it. I think it’s cool to watch an older person who’s been on stage for so long approach a subject like that and make it engaging for the audience and not corny.”
As for the poems themselves, Glass confirmed to Billboard they were made explicitly for the show. “The two poems we did took some work,” Glass admitted. “We were working on those over the phone for a couple weeks. I had been sending him music, and he would send words back to me, and I would look them over and tweak and send it back to him.”
Foday Musa Suso, who worked with Glass on the music for “I Talked to a Smart Guy,” says he and Glass barely required any pre-performance rehearsal thanks to their long-running friendship. “We’ve played this music together and we’ve known each other for a long time. Whenever I’m in New York I stay in his house.”
In addition to stunning sets from Western acts and performances from lesser-known international artists (Tibetan singer Dechen Shak-Dagsay astonished with her mélange of Buddhist monk mantras and ambient rock), the night boasted star power at the Gotham Hall after party, too.
Uma Thurman — daughter of Tibet House co-founder Robert Thurman — took the podium alongside her father and Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz to help auction off a guitar during the dinner gala. Aside from Thurman, a diverse array of artistic luminaries attended the after party, from FKA Twigs to MGMT’s James Richardson (hanging with the aforementioned Green and designer Arden Wohl) to NYC fashion legend Beatrix Ost.
Even so, the gala — like the concert — felt casual and intimate. It never seemed like the room was fixated on any of the celebrities in attendance. Glass said the same of the artists who play the Tibet House Benefit, many of whom (such as Pop, Gogol Bordello and Bowie) have played it more than once. “They all have tremendous humility — you don’t know that but I do because I work with them. At these shows, no one is being a star or a big shot.”