There has been no shortage lately of concerts in the name of hurricane relief – benefits have been held practically daily since the day after Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York and New Jersey. However, the show held yesterday to benefit Occupy Sandy – the grassroots relief organization fueled by the Occupy Wall Street community’s infrastructure – was especially good and perhaps the highest-profile show held specifically for Occupy. The stacked bill included Vampire Weekend, Dirty Projectors, the Walkmen, Devendra Banhart, Real Estate and Cass McCombs – a tremendous, solid assembly of indie rockers.
The show was held at St. Ann & The Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful neighborhood built on high ground and lined with stately brownstones. The attentive audience sat respectfully in wooden pews, and the hulking, Gothic revival church felt more like a sanctuary than a concert venue, illuminated by surreal, autumnal light beaming through stained glass windows. Largely unaffected by Sandy, Brooklyn Heights seemed an entire world away from the decimated neighborhoods in the Rockaways. This scene also stood in stark contrast to those swarmed churches that serve as "hubs" for the Occupy Sandy movement in Brooklyn, at 520 Clinton in Clinton Hill and St. Jacobi’s Church in Sunset Park. There, the laterally organized movement dispatches truckloads of supplies and thousands of volunteers. Hurricane Sandy exposed the severe disparities among the citizens of New York City, and the social media-driven Occupy Sandy worked quickly on the ground to meet need where government agencies couldn’t.
This show’s purpose was primarily to raise money for Occupy Sandy’s operations, but like the movement, it came together swiftly and organically, thanks to two brothers who had volunteered last weekend and a staff of Occupy volunteers. Jesse Lebus is an Episcopalian Franciscan brother who serves in the North Brooklyn area and also acted as the show’s MC. His brother, Morgan, works for Domino Records and Ribbon Music and knew most of the performers through professional connections. The pair’s initial vision was a completely acoustic show to be held in solidarity with those still without power, but the end result was a slightly more practical event. All of the bands’ sets were brief and stripped down – the performers had to share a Spartan stage with only a couple of tiny amps and the church’s grand piano angled on the side. The exposed setting encouraged some refreshing diversions from the bands’ regular stage shows.
Real Estate came on just after noon. St. Ann’s vaulted ceilings and echo-y stone interior elevated the North Jersey crew’s trademark shimmer, and tempos were slightly laid back. When strummed into the vastness, breezy singles like "Easy" sounded more melancholic, nostalgic for things lost, not past.
Vampire Weekend focused their set on fan favorites like "Oxford Comma" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," but the highlight came in an inventive 4-hands piano arrangement of "White Sky" that featured Rostam Batmanglij and Chris Baio sharing the bench. The band also trotted out their newest cut, "Unbelievers," this time without the opulent orchestration from when the group debuted the song on Halloween. Frontman Ezra Koenig cherished the concert as an opportunity to experiment: "when we play a normal show, we’re always changing our songs a bit because we can never fully recreate them live, but this morning we all just got in here really early with some coffee and sat around the piano. It was really fun."
Devendra Banhart played the shortest (12 minutes!) but most delightful set. The folkie wild man came dressed for church, sporting a neat haircut and a shave in lieu of his typical long hair and beard. He appeared sans guitar, accompanied only by an upright bassist. He sang with a beatnik whimsy, wiggling around the stage in a heated musical conversation with the bass player, occasionally wagging the mic in his face. The duo achieved remarkable dynamics, and the combo sounded chilling and beautiful when Banhart sang in a low whisper. When he whistled or chirped in a girlish falsetto, he was warm and funny – the crowd laughed.
Banhart’s act was spontaneous, unpretentious and intimate. He later admitted to Rolling Stone that the arrangement was "completely thrown together," since he thought there wasn’t going to be any amplification. "I haven’t played acoustic guitar in like, 6 years . . . I don’t own one," said Banhart, "So I called my buddy Jason (Ajemian) who’s got a stand up bass and said, 'let’s do this.'" But despite his light-hearted performance, Banhart somberly reflected upon finding the body of a dead woman in the darkened streets of Manhattan, minutes after she had been struck dead by falling scaffolding. "It certainly brought neighbors closer together," he added. "When did I realize how bad it was? It was when actually we got the power."
The Walkmen delivered the most majestic set of the bunch. The band was down two members, but four trumpet players augmented their sound. The sharp, brassy chorale bolstered Hamilton Leithauser's dark, soulful pipes, combining into an epically rich texture. Considering the cold, snowy nights after the storm for those without power, the lyrics from "Stranded" assumed a special significance: "Why does the rain fall cold/ when I’m stranded and starry-eyed."
Cass McCombs was the one performer who isn’t based in New York, and his shadowy, subdued finger-picking served as a solemn meditation in preparation for Dave Longstreth, Amber Coffman, and Haley Dekle of the Dirty Projectors. Without the rhythm section, the group’s meticulous vocal work was overwhelming. The songs seemed less tightly wound, voices filling up the tall room in a wash, punctuated only by the peculiar, skewed twang of Longstreth’s guitar playing. The band skipped hits "Stillness Is the Move" and "Gun Has No Trigger." Instead, Swing Lo Magellan cuts like "See What She Seeing" and "Impregnable Question" stood out thanks to slower, more delicate interpretations. For the band’s last song, Longstreth revived the title track from his 2007 Black Flag covers project, Rise Above. The song’s opening lyrics evoked the spirit of the Occupy movement: "Jealous cowards try to control/ They distort what we say/ Try and stop what we do/ When they can’t do it themselves."