It wasn’t lost on many during Tuesday night’s Lampedusa: Concert for Refugees benefit that a series of concerts to raise awareness and funds for the current refugee crisis was in full swing just as the presidential election drew increasingly nearer.
In an election season where refugees have become such politicized figures, where they’ve been distilled down to talking points and memes and likened to a bowl of Skittles, the Emmylou Harris-helmed benefit was a humbling reminder that, above everything else, refugees are just people.
They’re just people. Men, women, and children, and in the current refugee crisis, 65 million of them around the world have been displaced from their homes. This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s a humanitarian one.
“You can start from a place of fear and suspicion, or you can start from a place of love and compassion,” Joey Ryan, one half of indie-folk duo the Milk Carton Kids said. “We’re all doing this to hopefully promote the latter.”
People behind the slew of Facebook comments that litter the event’s posts might want to question their decisions to boycott the concert series for political reasons. It wasn’t a political event. It was a momentary relief from the negativity and ugliness that has flooded the news cycle. There was no mention of either candidate, save for a brief comedic song from Nancy and Beth (actresses Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt’s musical alter egos). There were no accusations of who’s right and wrong in a political war over immigration, no damning critiques of anyone involved in either political party.
The musicians held back from proselytizing; any remarks about the refugee crisis were brief and told in personal anecdotes. The Milk Carton Kids shared that their family histories are marked with immigration stories, that there were stark differences between the lives of distant relatives who made it in America and those who were turned away. Harris told a short story about meeting a former child refugee who came to America on the back of a train and is now a college graduate working with refugee services to give others the same kind of help he received.
It wasn’t a night about politics. It was a night about music, and the way it can unite people, especially when it’s for a good cause.
The evening began unassuming and intimate, with each musician sitting and playing in-the-round style, taking turns singing lead while others occasionally joined in, at times performing songs as an ensemble. They referred to it as a good old-fashioned guitar pull, as if they were just friends jamming together and not some of the most seminal names in rock and roll. But casual as they tried to be, each musician gave performances that were met with thunderous applause, reminders of just how much they could do with such sparse fanfare.
Harris hushed the crowd with a soft performance of “Making Believe,” joking afterwards that she was just beginning to realize how many sad songs fill her library. Buddy Miller lightened the mood with fiery guitar work and an electrifying rendition of “Gasoline and Matches” with Harris. Steve Earle reminded the audience that everyone, especially New Yorkers, came from somewhere else with “City of Immigrants,” and the Milk Carton Kids stunned the crowd with a Simon and Garfunkel-esque cover of Harris’s “Michelangelo.” Robert Plant’s take on the ancient folk song “Little Maggie” began simply and quickly crescendoed into a lush roar of sound from all of the musicians on stage.
While the night’s political points had existed mainly in quiet undertones, in the subtle, yet pointed set list choices, its purpose was well made towards the end of the evening when special guest Joan Baez took the stage. Baez taught an entire generation of musicians that music could not just sound good, but it could do good, Harris explained. That work was, in a way, part of the reason why they were all gathered together on stage, part of the reason why Baez was nominated for a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that morning.
Before a passionate, poignant performance of “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” the First Lady of activist songwriting mused that maybe people were looking at the refugee crisis the wrong way.
“My father was an immigrant from Mexico and ended up becoming the co-inventor of the x-ray microscope,” she explained. “We shouldn’t be thinking about what immigrants are taking from us, but what gifts they can bring.”
Upcoming Tour Dates:
October 19 — Philadelphia, PA — Merriam Theater
October 21 — Washington, DC — Lisner Auditorium
To learn more about the Jesuit Refugee Service’s Global Education Initiative, visit http://jrsusa.org.
Featured image: Ben Stas for the Boston Globe