Monday, May 4, 2009

The Garden Was Alive Tonight

"Now remember, children -- sing pretty 'cause it's Pete Seeger's birthday," says Kate McGarrigle, and Rufus and Martha Wainwright reply "Yes, Mother," before they join Bruce Cockburn, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet (and is that Eddie Vedder doing piano in the back? I can't tell) in singing "Dink's Song/Fare Thee Well" to the Madison Square Garden audience during Pete Seeger's Birthday concert. Rufus gets a huge cheer when he takes a verse. The group is billed as the McGarrigle Family, and I bet half the audience doesn't know that Kate is Rufus' mom. (Probably the older half, the half that's between my age and Pete Seeger's age.) But everybody reacts to his voice. It soars out like it's on the wings of Noah's dove.

The whole 4 plus hour concert has moments like this, from Taj Mahal and Tom Morello singing "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy", which I remember Pete Seeger singing on the Smother Brothers Show, to Kris Kristofferson and AniDiFranco doing "Hole In The Bucket," to Joan Baez floating her voice over the words of "Jacob's Ladder" to the three high points at the end, Roger McGuinn's "Turn, Turn, Turn," Dave Matthews' "Rye Whiskey," and Bruce Springsteen's "Ghost of Tom Joad." Ever been in a concert hall with 18,000 other people where you could hear a pin drop? This was one of those moments:

I kept thinking four things throughout the evening. The first was "Oh my God, the people backstage who are getting everybody on and off deserve a gold medal." It was really seamless, and aside from those moments when Rambling Jack Elliott lived up to his nickname, everything went off without a hitch. The second thing I kept thinking was, Jeez, this is like High Mass for hippies. There are gospel songs, protest songs, anti-war songs, anti-garbage songs (Oscar the Grouch singing "Garbage" with Tom Chapin! I have died and gone to heaven!), and damn if everybody in the audience doesn't know the words. Even the young'ns know the words.

And that relates to the the third thing I was thinking. It's rare that I walk into a concert hall and skew the average age down instead of up. Sunday was one of those nights. But it wasn't just the age thing that was on my mind, it was the generation thing. There were a lot of people at the Garden in their 60's, 70's, 80's ("Just remember to be patient, there will be a lot of old people in front of us," as DJ said when we got there), and I kept trying to imagine what this concert meant to them, having grown up as the children of one Depression, to see the country go from bust to boom to bust again and from rural horse-and-carriage to international Humvee, to see social upheaval to rival the San Francisco Earthquake, and wake up last November with a black man in the White House -- to literally be living in a world they couldn't have imagined when they were children. And I wished I could have gotten all their addresses (because they don't have e-mail, and if they do, their grandchildren probably sift through it for them) so I could write them one by one and ask them, "What's your story?"

There were a lot of stories at the Garden Sunday night. All of them unfinished; many of them unsung; none of them unworthy. Every one American. And that's the fourth thing I said to myself.

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