On Sunday night, I was fortunate enough to be in New York City to witness the Dark Was the Night concert at Radio City Music Hall. The live performance featured artists who appear on the Dark Was the Night compilation, the 20th release by the Red Hot Organization, whose work benefits AIDS and HIV awareness.
I'd never been to Radio City Music Hall before, so the grandiosity of the venue was enough to give the evening a wondrous, luminous tinge. I took my seat way up high, high enough so that I hoped the sound would be big enough to make what looks like a miniature stage down below feel near and alive.
The expectation all around was that this was to be a special night. Which, perhaps, was why it turned out to be not so special after all.
If anything dimmed the stellar lineup — The National, Feist, Bon Iver, David Byrne and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, among others — it was some of the bands' self-consciousness that the event was supposed to be serious. The result was that the music (despite guest appearances, duets, backing vocals and a generous sharing of space and ideas) felt enervated, even lugubrious. Rarely were there moments of levity, and the hints of spontaneity felt stifled and controlled. The concert was too orchestrated, which is different from too organized, and it rarely transcended or exemplified the joy of collaborative spirit it aimed to showcase.
Which isn't to say that there weren't spectacular performances. Bon Iver was the first artist to treat the show like any other, while still acknowledging its rarity; when he introduced his band members, he made attempts to personalize an instance and a venue that seemed too huge and too risky to make pedestrian. But playing music is playing music, whether in your bedroom or on a huge stage, and what makes it special is not the concert or what the concert symbolizes, but the fact that you're creating a moment. Bon Iver created a moment, while some of the other performers let the moment create them. Justin Vernon let loose on stage — with noise and volume, with movement, with his voice. He gave the night much-needed air, after so much holding in of breath.
It was also David Byrne, the only longtime veteran performer of the night, who let the music speak for itself instead of forcing gravity upon it with his delivery.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings may have been the only band that made Radio City Music Hall feel like the appropriate venue for the concert. Like Justin Vernon's Bon Iver, they lit the place up. And while Vernon's music uses stark clarity as a tool for illumination, Jones' utilizes fire. She and the Dap Kings brought a sense of celebration, and of revelation.
Dark Was the Night is one of the best compilation albums to come out in recent memory. The content therein leads the intention of the project and also transcends it. The Dark Was the Night concert was a fabulous benefit, and I feel lucky to have been there, but I wish more of the performers had informed the weight of the event, instead of letting the weight of the event inform them.