If you’d told me in 1992 that on a single day in 2019, I would buy a Bingo Hand Job record before breakfast, then see Michael Stipe debut three solo songs, followed by a gospel choir covering Patti Smith, and then Patti Smith herself performing a few songs accompanied by her daughter (all from the front row at a grand museum, seated under a giant whale), and then nearly get hit in the head by Lee Ranaldo’s guitar in a tiny storefront under the el tracks, and then the next morning Madonna would announce a new album, my mind would be blown. It would so obviously be a desperate attempt to keep me tethered to this planet. (You wouldn’t refer to EarthFest—too on the nose—and you definitely wouldn’t mention the part where Patti Smith nearly burst into my bathroom stall.)
But in 2019, this is somehow a real thing that happens on a random Saturday, and while it was happening, I kept thinking about why noisy children keep turning up at shows they don’t appreciate and how even the most independent of artists could benefit from a strong stage manager.
Still, the music itself was magical enough that even fussy kids and dead air couldn’t ruin the experience of EarthFest at the American Museum of Natural History.
Stipe, joined by Andy LeMaster and a boombox, had a bit of a false start—understandable, given how rarely he’s performed publicly in recent years—but it only got stronger as they kept going.
Stipe’s first song, “Gimme A, Gimme A, Gimme A Hand” made good use of his soulful voice; I’ve always loved when he’s tapped into that part of his talent, and even as his vocal range diminished in certain ways over the years, that soulful quality seemed to deepen whenever he deigned to deploy it.
I didn’t catch the title of Stipe’s second song, which had a Suicide vibe to it, but it filled me with warmth to hear someone as future-focused as he is sing “The paper’s calling and the photo’s flashing and the fashion’s changing fast.” LeMaster took the lead for part of it, but when Stipe leaned into his high range, I got chills.
(Between the second and third songs, Stipe read from an old Jonas Mekas piece and spun it in praise of YouTube creators, so I’ll take that as a tacit endorsement of the shaky video I shot on my phone.)
Stipe’s third and final song, “Drive To The Ocean,” was the most glorious, with cryptic lyrics, solid vocal support from LeMaster, a haunting backing track and what could only be described as classic Stipean dance moves.
No matter how many times I see Patti Smith perform “Wing,” “Southern Cross” and “My Blakean Year,” I find comfort in the power she derives from them, even if they’re not the songs I would have chosen to become staples of her set. Her reading of “Sleep Of The Dodo” was well-chosen for the environmental theme of the day and the space.
But it was “Because The Night,” with Jesse Paris Smith providing passionate piano lines, that sounded most sacred, and whether it had always been intended to end the event, it was the perfect grace note to hold us until our next sonic rendezvous.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich