No show is assured to be flawless, but some are guaranteed to be highly satisfying, if not perfect, like Saturday’s show at Helzberg Hall inside the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees was a benefit for the Jesuit Refugee Service, organized by Emmylou Harris, who had no trouble recruiting some of her famous friends to chip in.
It was the second of the tour’s 11 concerts, all of which benefit the JRS’s Global Education Initiative, and from start to finish, the performances were stellar and true as the show’s purpose.
The two-hour singers-in-the-round show featured Harris performing songs alongside an all-star cast: Steve Earle, Buddy Miller and the Milk Carton Kids. Patty Griffin had signed on to participate but withdrew because of health issues. And Robert Plant will join the tour Wednesday for its final seven shows. They were joined by a multi-instrumentalist who added percussion and some dandy guitar rhythms and leads (whose name I did not catch).
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The format was simple but effective: Performers took turns singing five songs each. All participated in the encore.
Earle was the unofficial host, and he opened with “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had,” from his “Terraplane” album, then passed the torch to Harris, who passed it to Miller, and the Milk Carton Kids finished each round.
There were plenty of highlights. Harris sang the title track from her stellar “Red Dirt Girl” album, now 16 years old. She turned 69 in April, but her inimitable voice is still resonant and firm, especially in a venue like Helzberg Hall. “This room is stunning and beautiful, and the sound is so good,” she said.
She also sang “Darlin’ Kate,” a tribute to her friend and fellow songwriter the late Kate McGarrigle, and the traditional gospel hymn “Greener Pastures.” She also joined in on one of the show’s best numbers: a duet with Miller on the Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton hit “Burning the Midnight Oil.”
If there was a single disappointment, it was that Miller and his guitar play didn’t get more of the spotlight. His set included a gritty version of the Delmore Brothers’ “Freight Train Boogie,” with some vocal backup from Earle; a cover of “All My Tears,” a gospel ballad written by his wife, Julie Miller; and another duet with Harris, “Don’t Tell Me,” a song he co-wrote with his wife.
The Milk Carton Kids were back in the area for the second time in about six weeks (they headlined a show at Liberty Hall in Lawrence on Aug. 28). But it seemed apparent that they were introducing themselves to most of the crowd of more than 1,500.
Dry, droll humor is part of their shtick, and the duo, dressed in suits and ties, delivered plenty of it. Looking around the palatial hall, Joey Ryan deadpanned: “We’re used to playing shittier places than this.” When his partner, Kenneth Pattengale, scolded him for his language, Ryan apologized and said, “We’re used to being overdressed.”
If you’ve seen them before, you’re likely familiar with the story behind “Charlie.” As Ryan tells it, Pattengale wrote it for his daughter, who hasn’t been born yet. Nor has she been conceived. And there is no wife or prospective mother in the picture. “We’ve been singing it for four and a half years,” he said.
Their humor is secondary to their music, however. Their harmonies are impeccable, and Pattengale’s guitar play had Miller peering over a couple of times to have a look-see.
The highlight of their set, which included their own songs “Michigan” and “New York,” was the sparkling cover of Harris’ “Michelangelo.” When it was over, Harris patted her chest lightly a few times and took a couple deep breaths, clearly affected by it.
Harris spoke briefly about the purpose of the show and the young people it will benefit: students whose families have been forced from their homes and are in need not only of a new place to live but a means to continue their education. This summer, she visited a JRS camp in Ethiopia for Eritrean refugees, which inspired the Lampedusa shows.
Earle, as openly a political songwriter as any, catered some of his set list to the cause. He sang two of his best-known songs, “Goodbye” and “Copperhead Road.”
He also delivered a rambunctious version of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” and his own “Immigrant Song.” Before that, he told a story about his neighborhood in New York and how the corner delis had changed hands from one immigrant group to the next. His favorite, he said, was owned by a Korean, Mr. Kim, who was looking for someone else to take over because his sons, graduates of Harvard and MIT, were not interested. Point taken: This country has flourished thanks to the work of people who have immigrated here.
The show ended with a rousing version of Earle’s song “Pilgrim,” a song he wrote for the funeral of Roy Husky Jr., his friend and fellow musician. We are all travelers, Earle said as he introduced it, all trying to get home, to some higher place.
All six performers joined in, Earle on lead and the others on the chorus, bringing the show to a perfect close: “I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys / Until I see you, fare thee well.”