by pelly (pics by neil – illustration by chris duffy)

At 6 PM last night I had no idea what I was doing with myself or the small mass of negativity resting in my chest. Thanks to some good counsel, an hour and a half later I was standing outside of Radio City buying a ticket for the Red Hot Dark Was the Night benefit concert and my sense of purpose had been renewed. Breaking down like an indie rock all star game, the night was speckled with fantasy collaborations featuring Dirty Projectors, Feist, David Byrne, My Brightest Diamond, Bon Iver, The National and Sharon Jones.

As the curtain rose, the thump of “Useful Chamber” by the Dirty Projectors filled the hall and the show was officially underway. The band followed with their new single “Stillness is the Move” while Amber Coffman spun around the stage like a little kid at recess having the time of her life. David Byrne then made his first appearance, joining the crew on stage to play “Ambulance Man” which didn’t make the final cut for the Dark Was disc despite it being an impressive and dynamic track. “Knotty Pine” ended up being the catchy collab to make the record and marked the final performance of the Dirty Projectors / David Byrne mini set.

As interludes between sets, the video screens played videos from Red Hot projects past. Sinead O’ Connor looking attractive in a blonde wig was an interesting bug out but I turned my attention back to the show when My Brightest Diamond trotted out her petite body in metallic dress. Though she’d make multiple cameos throughout the night, this was the moment she won over the theatre. Her cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” was absolutely chilling. Tempered pacing and resonating vocals made this five minute performance an incredibly satisfying treat.

Next up was The National and the realization hit that this show was a truly spectacular experience. They opened with “Slow Show” off of Boxer and then gave the crowd a stellar dose of new material. “England” featured an incredibly soulful blues solo and the melodic structure that makes The National so intellectually accessible. If the new tracks they played are any indication, their new record is definitely up to par with their past successes.

After some more video interludes, David Byrne came out with a percussionist ensemble to close out the opening act. The man puts total thought and effort into everything he does which is evident by the quality of his various compilation contributions. Performing three of his past recordings for Red Hot for the very first time, Byrne’s eternal youth was once again on display and every track was LP worthy. He opened with “Don’t Fence Me In” off the 2006 benefit record Red Hot & Blue but closed his set with a track off of 1996′s Red Hot + Rio. He introduced Feist to the stage for the first time of the evening and they performed a powerful duet of “Waters of March.” It was epoch and incredibly beautiful while peacefully transitioning us into intermission.

After the break, Bon Iver came out for what my one friend described as “the most perfect fifteen minutes of music I’ve heard in a while.” Justin Vernon’s voice was projecting like no other and leaving Sharon Jones’ later antics aside, the Wisconsin quartet stole the show. They were the only band to introduce their own sound guy (and maybe the only band to have one) but with good reason because the audio quality was absolutely exceptional yesterday evening.

Their set began with “Brackett, WI” followed by a rocking version of “Blood Bank” which drew the loudest cheers of the night. Vernon freaked out on guitar for an outro solo which was pretty glorious. The thrills continued as Matt Berninger from The National came out to assist with “Big Red Machine” and then Brightest Diamond returned to contribute vocals on “Flume”. Great set and great performance.

Down to the final two acts, Leslie Feist looked precious as hell as she came out by herself with an acoustic guitar. She played a cover of “Look at what the light did now” by Little Wings before Justin Vernon reemerged to sing Ben Gibbard’s part on “Train Song,” but the set highlight came when she grabbed for her electric. Covering “Trouble No More” by Muddy Waters, she was effectively violent on the strings and gave an extremely worthwhile performance. The session was short and sweet but it did the trick.

[Editor's note: "Trouble No More" was also revived/popularized by the Allman Brothers Band as well as Bob Dylan]

The evening culminated with Sharon Jones getting wild with The Dap Kings. Amidst multiple references of “having to sit in the back for too long,” Jones made sure to get the led out. Reminding us that it was James Brown’s birthday, she gave us a rundown of Brown’s classic dance moves like ‘the bugaloo,’ ‘the camel walk,’ and the ‘tighten up.’ Then she gave us a taste of her own shimmy called ‘the pony,’ very enlightening and awesome. Jones has an incredible voice and energy that rivals the inexplicably more popular Amy Winehouse.

For the show’s final number, all the acts (plus St. Vincent) took the stage and it seemed as if they were going to just slowly sway to “This Land Is My Land” which began incredibly lame. But Sharon Jones reappeared and slapped the Dap Kings into action for a spirtied encore of “This Land” done right. It was an incredible evening that brought alot of talented people together, with all proceeds going to AIDS research. It’s promising that the initiative received such high profile support from contemporary musicians and I’m thankful to have witnessed it in person.


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