MANHATTAN, NY—Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Steve Earle, Joan Baez and The Milk Carton Kids traded songs and stories in a benefit for the Jesuit Refugee Service, turning Town Hall into a hootenanny, campfire style. They all sat on stage like old friends the entire night as they shared guitar licks, vocals and corny jokes.
The Jesuit Refugee Service is currently hard at work on the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, which has become a port of entry to Europe for refugees risking life and limb as they flee their countries. The current tour’s been making the rounds nationwide with a floating lineup of Steve Earle, The Milk Carton Kids, and Emmylou Harris at the helm. At Town Hall, Robert Plant and Joan Baez joined forces with their high profiles, adding another dimension to the urgency of the refugees.
Themes from the displacement of the refugees to our nation’s history as a refugee haven were intertwined with the songs that took on a somber tone but were kept from getting too preachy with humor and a twinkly joy to life sprinkled in for good measure. The music prevailed as the players told the unplugged stories behind the songs as well as the good works of the Jesuit Refugee Service, particularly Emmylou Harris, who was one of the tour’s organizers.
Harris looked like the alt queen of country up there flanked by Plant and a grizzled looking Earle. Each performer played a song then passed the hat onto the next. Robert Plant took on Elvis’ “Don’t” on his first go around with guitarist Buddy Miles, adding some bluesy licks to it. He then played a few tunes including Tom Rush’s “Little Regrets” and “Little Maggie” that fit in very well with the set on a small, African-looking snare type drum with a wire brush drumstick as the other masters of guitar finger-picked and strummed the night away.
Steve Earle used the corner deli down in Greenwich Village, where he currently resides, as an example of this country’s history with immigration. He proclaimed early on in the night how happy he was to be back in NYC, “a place where you can get fresh flowers any time of the day” He talked about how the delis have changed ownership over the years from Italians to Koreans and onto the next generation of workers who buy out the owners as they pursue their version of the American Dream. He played “City Of Immigrants” on banjo as an urban beat backed him up. On “Guitar Town” he turned the place into a toe-tapping hoedown.
The Milk Carton Kids provided the comic relief for the night. Like two geeky nerds, they played off each other with the homespun back porch whimsy of some milk-guzzling choirboys. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan’s stone-faced tongue-in-cheek delivery lightened up the heaviness of the night, as did their stellar chops on guitar and gorgeous harmonies on Harris’ “Michelangelo”.
Joan Baez ended the evening with Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” and then “God Is Good,” citing her own immigrant status as an offspring of immigrant parents. For the grand finale, everyone took on a verse for the Lampedusa refugees on Steve Earle’s “Pilgrims,” ending a night of music to a great cause. The only thing missing was the marshmallows.
Show date: Oct. 18, 2016