Red velvet seats lined the room surrounding the vast stage outlined in arches of delicate gold detail. The Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall filled to the brim with concertgoers as everyone waited in anticipation for the event to commence. That brisk, fall, Sunday night, the Pathway to Paris organization was producing their biggest benefit concert yet – a call to action for climate change.
Pathway to Paris, an organization co-founded by Jesse Paris Smith and Rebecca Foon, is “a dynamic collaboration between musicians, artists, sustainability consultants, cities and activists to highlight solutions to climate change, and to help turn the Paris Agreement into real action.” They partnered with the United Nations and 350.org to shed light on how the people of New York could stand up and take action to help our city and our earth.
As the lights dim in the house and rise on the stage, Mila Rosenthal and Jo Sheuer of the UN Development Program come out to introduce the night, touching on the devastating natural disasters that the Earth has endured this year, demanding change, and, as Mila states, “gearing up for the fight ahead.”
Mila and Jo introduce the organizers of the event, Jesse and Rebecca, who walk out on stage with such regal grace. “As we grow, we become aware of the ways we harm our planet,” Jesse says, as she speaks poetically about how climate change is our unifying global concern and music is our universal language, making this concert a magical gathering of likeminded people. “The earth is our home and our home is in danger,” Jesse goes on to say, calling for action from the people assembled in the room.
As they finish their speech, Jesse walks over to the piano and Rebecca sits down with a cello and they begin to create a very somber piece of music. For the first couple of minutes there were no lyrics, just the sounds of them stroking their instruments. Then, from out behind the shadows of backstage, emerges music legend, and Jesse’s mom, Patti Smith. After the thunderous applause from the audience subsides, Patti begins to recite Emily Dickenson’s poem “Nature” Is What We See, the short staccato nature of the poem flowing nicely with the tune that Jesse and Rebecca are producing.
Jesse and Patti both couldn’t help but get emotional after the piece was finished and you could tell how much love they have for each other and how proud of Jesse Patti was. The rest of Patti’s set consisted of moving renditions of “Mother Nature’s Son” by The Beatles, “Where Do The Children Play?” by Cat Stevens, and her own, “Peaceable Kingdom.”
It was a legend-filled night as more talented icons kept coming to the stage. Michael Stipe, R.E.M. lead singer, took the stage for a rare solo set covering Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy,” one and half songs by Ringo Starr (“It Don’t Come Easy” and “Photograph”) and the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning.” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist, Flea, took the infamous Carnegie Hall stage in a casual white t-shirt and dark jeans for a rocking solo jam session on just his bass bringing the rock and roll vibes.
“I kinda like this joint,” Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq squeaks out in a tiny voice as she centers herself on stage wearing a shimmery disco ball-esque dress. She wowed the crowd with her deep growling sounds intertwined with high-pitched squeals that were moved along by the momentum of her cellist Jeffery Zeigler – it was quite the journey through sound.
The stage lights dimmed and coated a sleekly dressed Cat Power in a red aura as she took her seat at the piano. She crooned out an endless stream of songs, one just flowing into the next, including “Nothing Really Matters,” a combination of “Norma Jean” and Names,” and “Maybe Not.”
Joan Baez is the cool grandma that everyone wants in their lives – fashionable, funny, and a little flighty. She began her set that night with the perfectly morbid “Another World,” by Anthony and the Johnsons. “I wish it weren’t that dark, but it sure is spot on,” she says. She also sang “The President Song Amazing Grace,” by Zoe Mulford, led a sing-a-long of “Imagine” by John Lennon and ended on “Swing Low Sweat Chariot.”
Talib Kweli got the crowd moving with his funky jam, “Get By,” accompanied by the Risky Boys, Flea on bass and Joan Baez sneaking out from the wings and doing a little jig.
Nothing could compare to the emotion Tibetan artist Tenzin Choegyal cast over the room that night during his outstanding performance. Tenzin has a voice that can move mountains; literally I think some mountains quaked in their non-existent boots once his voice started to echo throughout the auditorium. He began with “Elemental Prayer,” his voice quivering out the notes and Jesse accompanying him elegantly on the piano. But when Tenzin went into his song “Heartstrings,” and brought out the Tibetan elders, that’s when it hit me the most. Watching their faces as they sang, so filled with hope for the earth and joy to be on stage that night, filled my heart with warmth and my eyes with tears.
The night was also filled with riveting and informative speeches from environmentalist Bill McKibben and Indian scholar Dr. Vandana Shiva. “Some people would say that by coming to a benefit concert that’s enough – I am not one of those people,” Bill says as he directs everyone to the blank sheet of paper in the back of their programs. He urged everyone to write a letter to comptroller Scott Stringer asking him to divest the New York pension fund that has more than $3 billion invested in oil, gas and pipeline companies.
“She has cried non-stop this year,” Dr. Vandana Shiva says about Mother Earth. “If only we would listen, if only we would respond.” She goes on to say how the state of our earth is a life or death issue for millions and if we want a fossil fuel free world we must strive for an organic world. She believes that we should stop looking for alternatives, like finding other planets that can contain life, and just take care of our own planet.
My favorite part of the night had to be when I was finally able to open up the box under my chair labeled “Little Sun.” Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson led the crowd in performance art piece creating movement with our little suns – solar powered by the sun of Berlin – and eventually creating a blackout. After the show the suns were going to be sent to the children of Puerto Rico affected by Hurricane Maria who need a little sun in their lives right now.
As Patti came back out on stage to end the night, she had a “proud mother moment” as she talked about how Jesse and Rebecca started out putting on this show in a little bar a few years ago and is amazed by how much it has grown.
Patti then took the stage to sing Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” followed by a powerful ending of her own “People Have the Power.” She was joined on stage by everyone who was a part of the night all singing and dancing with glee. At the end Patti slowly walked over to Jesse, who was playing the piano, and clapped out her love and pride for her daughter. The house lights rose with a great feeling of community in the air.
Article: Merissa Blitz
Photos: Vivian Wang