Lampedusa: Concert for Refugees. Boulder Theater. 10.06.16
When I purchased tickets to Lampedusa, I didn’t even know what the word meant. I was sold on the names Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, and Buddy Miller. That line-up was reason I entered my credit card number and selected a pair of tickets. What caused the artists to come together for the show was secondary at best. An opportunity to see such legendary songwriters perform in a space as intimate as the Boulder Theater was not something I was going to pass up.
It was disappointing when the ‘special guests’ were only added to shows later in October, and that Robert Plant would not be at the tour opener, but I was still pretty excited about the line-up. When I received a letter of regret from Patty Griffin (the day before the show), it was also unfortunate. Sometimes less is more though; as was the case when Harris, Earle, Miller, and the young Milk Carton Kids performed ‘in the round’ in Boulder last week. Griffin was missed for sure, but her absence just provided more airtime for those on the stage.
Exhaustion had set in by the time we took our seats in the second row on Thursday night. Having been up with the sun to catch a flight out of Orlando before Hurricane Matthew was scheduled to wreak havoc on the East Coast, it had been a long day to say the least. As I browsed through the Jesuit Refugee Service pamphlet provided at the door, I began to understand the cause that brought the artists together for the tour.
The JRS is an organization committed to providing education, health, and psychosocial services to refuges and forcibly displaced persons of all faiths from around the world. The tour, Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees, borrowed its name from an island off the coast of Sicily that serves as a waypoint for people in search of safety and security. The politics and positions around refugees (especially from places like Syria) are quite divided in America right now, but those differences in opinions didn’t stop the show from selling out. There was no way to determine how people many were there to support the cause (vs. just seeing some of their favorite artists perform), but politics and fears aside, I think the majority of those in attendance would agree that the refugee crisis is something that falls on all of humanity to figure out.
Reading through the statistics in the literature provided, I realized how lucky I was to be exhausted in a theater in Colorado; having been fortune enough to hop on a plane to outrun a storm while hundreds of homes and communities and lives had just been lost in places like Haiti and Cuba. 65 million people worldwide without a place to call home…fewer than 50% with access to education…17 years as the average length of displacement. Those mind-boggling stats were transforming my exhaustion into depression, but then the silver-haired queen of country took the stage and began to introduce her fellow musicians…
“Buddy Miller, the Milk Carton duo, and my captain, Mr. Steve Earle.”
After quickly explaining the ‘in the round’ format, Steve Earle started the circle of songs. “We are here for a cause and we’ll get to that, but you are here to be entertained, so I’m just gonna play the blues.” And with that, from the comfort of his stool center stage, Mr. Earle opened the night with “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had”. Emmylou was up next with “Boulder to Birmingham”, and although she probably had the most muted personality of the entire crew, her voice soared like an angel during the song that was so appropriate for the night. Buddy Miller followed with a personality that more than made up for the reserved Emmylou. The man had tales to tell. He went on and on about playing Boulder on New Year’s Eve 2000 (“when we were all afraid of Y2K“), his wife’s obsession with salad dressing and European meat, and trying to get landmines banned. Miller literally threatened to use his time telling stories instead of singing songs, but he was finally convinced to pick up his guitar and take us through Dolly & Porter’s “Burning the Midnight Oil”.
The Milk Carton Kids were situated by themselves stage left and they acted as a sort of comic relief for the evening. Before singing their first harmony “about death,” they spoke about how they ended up on the tour. “Our manager called us up and said ‘Emmylou would like to know…’ and we said ‘yup!’” They didn’t know what Emmylou wanted of them, but it was Emmylou, so they were down for whatever. “Just don’t ask us to do anything weird, ok?” She laughed and replied “you can always say no, if you dare.” Then their attention turned to Mr. Miller, “we remember Y2K as well; it was the strangest day of high school.” All comedy aside, The Milk Carton Kids are a Grammy-nominated/AMA-winning folk duo who had earned the right to share the stage with those who had influenced them.
The rest of the two-hour performance kept the rotation going with a nice balance of humor, music, and messaging around the cause at hand. Earle joked about growing up in occupied Mexico (San Antonio) before rattling off shocking statistics as an intro to Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”. Emmylou told stories about her longtime friend and peer Dolly Parton (having just seen Dolly this summer, it’s crazy how different the two of them are), before performing “To Daddy”. Miller’s “Wide River to Cross” was almost a duet between him and Harris; opening up more and more collaboration as the night progressed.
As the core trio were carefully balancing entertainment with JRS’s messaging, The Milk Carton Kids were adamant that their short time in the spotlight would be all about them. “We are going to make it about ourselves.” Their next selection, “Charlie”, was setup as the best punchline of the night. Talking about Kyle’s future daughter, Joey spun a tale around how the song was written for the baby-to-be. When someone hollered in excitement at the prospect of Kyle having his first daughter, whom he was going to name Charlie, Joey roasted the overzealous fan. “That’s a little much. I mean it’s a pretty common achievement. People do it every day.” The big joke about Charlie was that she didn’t have “a specific due date, or even a mother,” Joey explained, before admitting “we’ve been playing this song for four and a half years.”
Emmylou harmonized with Earle’s “Goodbye”, before calling it “the saddest, darkest, deepest, most wonderful song.” She claimed to have “made a career out of finding” songs like that, before reminiscing about her days as a brunette, when she was taught harmony by Gram Parsons. “Love Hurts” was performed with Buddy Miller, and then he pulled out the electric guitar to heat things up with some fire and brimstone blues. The Milk Carton Kids continued with their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and then Steve Earle performed “Copperhead Road” (“so my fans don’t fuck up our bus“).
There were words for the sponsors, plugs for the merch, and David (the multi-instrumentalist in the background) was finally introduced. There were stories about how far we’ve come (back when wives were referred to by their husbands’ names and couldn’t be on the tour bus until they were married) and there were beautiful cover songs (Chapman’s “All That You Have Is Your Soul”). There were personal antidotes about interactions with local immigrants and refugees, and how they create the tapestry of cities like New York; guys like Mr. Kim, who own corner grocery stores and speak three languages, and the Mexicans who work so hard to create better lives for their children. And there was a lot of insanely good music.
The show ended with a group rendition of the ‘unofficial theme song’ of the tour. Steve Earle wrote “Pilgrim” for his friend’s funeral, and it has been performed at many funerals since, but the group decided to “take it away from the funerals and put it into life.”
Earle prefaced that last song with his own definition of a pilgrim. “A pilgrim is a traveler and we are all travelers just trying to get home.” It was the perfect ending to the show. “Pilgrim” seriously encapsulated everything the night was about, in a single song. If anything, the Concert for Refugees was about the incredible power of music and songwriting and singing and storytelling. Sure, it was about bringing people together for a cause (to help support the millions of people in need), but it was the music that was able to get all those people into the same room. Music is the universal language. It moves the masses in a way a talking head on a television, or a politician speaking at a rally, can ever do. I’m not saying these concerts are going to change the world or anything, but they made me aware of an organization I didn’t know existed beforehand. They also prompted me do some research on my own. Entertainment is extremely important, but so is education. Lampedusa was able to combine both into an incredible night of music, and for that reason, it was an amazing success.
You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had (Steve Earle)
Boulder to Birmingham (Emmylou Harris)
Burning the Midnight Oil (Buddy Miller)
Snake Eyes (The Milk Carton Kid)
Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) (Steve Earle)
To Daddy (Emmylou Harris)
Wide River to Cross (Buddy Miller)
Charlie (The Milk Carton Kids)
Goodbye (Steve Earle)
Love Hurts (Emmylou Harris)
Shelter Me (Buddy Miller)
Wish You Were Here (The Milk Carton Kids)
Copperhead Road (Steve Earle)
All That You Have Is Your Soul (Emmylou Harris)
Poison Love (Buddy Miller)
On The Mend (The Milk Carton Kids)
City of Immigrants (Steve Earle)
The Pearl (Emmylou Harris)
That’s How I Got to Memphis (Buddy Miller)
The City Of Our Lady (The Milk Carton Kids)
Pilgrim (Steve Earle)