There's an irony in the fact that something as vicious and horrific as the world's landmine problem produced something as transcendentally beautiful as the music heard at Massey Hall Monday night.
Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Bruce Cockburn joined forces in Toronto for the third in a series of five planned concerts to benefit the Vietnam Veterans Of America Foundation's Campaign For A Landmine Free World. And, in one sense, if not for the 70 million landmines still in the ground around the world and the 26,000 civilians maimed or killed by landmines annually, these artists might not have been inspired to join together to raise awareness and money.
And while we're blessed to have had this opportunity to see six masterful performers together on a bare stage, trading acoustic renderings of their songs in an intimate, off-the-cuff manner, the greater blessing would obviously be that there were no landmines to protest and no victims to benefit.
The 20-song performance was conducted in-the-round, with each performer taking turns in the spotlight, with Harris -- the ringmaster and a key organizer for this tour --starting things off. The kick of seeing a group of performers of this calibre assembled onstage is to watch the effect their music has on each other, and during Harris' "The Pearl," Carpenter and Griffith were moved to spontaneously kick in on the song's "hallelujah" chorus, while Cockburn improvised nimble guitar fills.
"Hour Of Gold," which Harris dedicated to her parents, and an aching "Michaelangelo" both found the ageless singer in superlative vocal form, and she even managed to step in during Earle's spot to take a verse of his song "Goodbye."
Hometown boy Cockburn staggered out of the gate when he badly muffed the lyrics to "Tokyo," but provided the evening's most graphic account of the underlying issue with a straightforward treatment of "The Mines Of Mozambique," and then celebrated the hope that arises amid squalor with a fleet-fingered rearrangement of "World Of Wonders."
While camaraderie was generally evident onstage, Mary Chapin Carpenter seemed content to play the wallflower and zipped through her solo spots with barely a comment to the audience. Although she's still probably best known for her hit cover of Lucinda WIlliams' "Passionate Kisses," Carpenter proved herself to be an uncommonly gifted confessional songwriter, capable of expressing the most intimate thoughts in plain-spoken, heart-breaking fashion, and delivered in a fragile voice that barely reached above a whisper.
If Carpenter was reluctant to chat up the crowd, Nanci Griffith peppered her mini-set with plenty of anecdotes. "Travelling Through This Part Of You," written after Griffith made her own trip to Vietnam to witness the ravages of mines, was dedicated to her ex-husband, a Vietnam veteran, while "Gulf Coast Highway" was lovingly delivered as a duet with pianist James Hooker and Pete Seeger's "If I Had A Hammer" was served up as a rousing singalong.
John Prine was clearly the sentimental favorite and repeatedly earned the longest, loudest ovations of the night. Returning to performing after a bout with neck cancer, Prine was charmingly dishevelled (he looked like he had a silver haystack perched on his head) but in solid form as he gave an aching reading of "Angel From Montgomery" (with Harris providing unearthly vocal accompaniment), a hilarious "It's A Big Old Goofy World" and a rousing "Paradise," before leading the crowd in a campfire rendition of "Illegal Smile."
Steve Earle jokingly referred to himself as "the token loud guy," and provided laughs with his cockeyed historical narrative "You Know The Rest," but also conjured a poignant, pointed moment with a banjo rendition of "The Truth" (a song he contributed to a benefit album for questionably-convicted young men known as the West Memphis Three) and closed off the evening with "Christmas In Washington," with the entire cast joining him in the song's chorus, an appeal for a return of the great social activist folksinger, Woody Guthrie.
Given the political conviction and compassion on display this night, though, Woody is still very much alive, in spirit.
Harris and Bobby Muller, the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Of America Foundation, both told the audience that this year's Concerts For A Landmine Free World series made a special point of visiting Ottawa and Toronto to celebrate Canada's role in getting 122 countries to sign the international anti-landmine treaty. More information on the campaign can be found at www.vvaf.org.
The concept was simple enough. And surprisingly powerful too.
Gather six extraordinary singer-songwriters and get them to perform together in an intimate acoustic setting all in the name of a good cause.
So it went last night at Massey Hall where event organizer Emmylou Harris was joined by the awe-inspiring lineup of Bruce Cockburn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and John Prine in the third of five Concerts For A Landmine Free World taking place this week in Canada and the U.S.
And like almost every benefit where several headliners have to share the same stage -- in this case they sat in a dimly lit semi-circle with their acoustic guitars in stands beside them -- everyone had their designated roles.
Harris, who lovingly concentrated on material from her latest collection, Red Dirt Girl (for which she wrote almost all of the material), was the evening's prettiest sounding performer while Prine -- the Godfather of this collection of folk-country artists -- was definitely the sentimental favourite.
Harris opened the show by reminding the sold-out crowd that it was Canada who initiated the global treaty to ban antipersonnel landmines three years ago. (This same group commemorated the treaty's third anniversary on Sunday night with a show in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre.)
After giving ourselves a warm round of applause, the performers got down to business beginning with Harris' The Pearl on which Cockburn kicked in on guitar and Carpenter and Griffith harmonized sweetly.
In fact, Cockburn proved to be the evening's most consistent collaborator playing on virtually everyone else's tunes and even furnishing a guitar solo here and there. (He also forget some of the words to one of his own songs but later redeemed himself during The Mines Of Mozambique and World Of Wonders.)
Surprisingly, there wasn't more of this sharing of talent throughout the night which stretched over two hours and included a half-hour intermission during which patrons were encouraged by Harris to buy brightly coloured silk scarves made by some of Cambodia's female victims of landmines.
Earle, meanwhile, referred to himself as "the designated loud guy."
And while it's true he provided the most noise of the night, other than Griffith when she got everyone to join in on Pete Seeger's If I Had A Hammer, he also snuck in the heart-wrenching ballad, Goodbye, with Harris trading verses.
"If I write more pretty songs, then my audience is a lot less hairy and ugly," he joked.
Meanwhile, Earle's other tunes, You Know The Rest, and The Truth -- the latter played on banjo -- had the most kick of any played last night and certainly came across better than his outing at Convocation Hall this summer which was marred by a lousy sound.
The evening's biggest emotional moment came during Griffith's Travelling Through This Part Of You, a new song she wrote for her ex-husband, a Vietnam Veteran who served in 1969, after she visited Vietnam and Cambodia this past January.
Politics were kept to a minimum, however, and a brief appearance by Bobby Muller, the co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, only provided a startling reminder on how lucky we are to live in Canada as he recited horrifying statistics about landmine-plagued life in Cambodia.
Providing the most fun was Prine as he made his way through such classics as Angel From Montgomery and It's A Big Old Goofy World with all the women jumping in on background vocals.
Still, it was Harris' deeply personal material which really connected with the crowd, whether it was Hour Of Gold, a song about "old love," inspired by her parents relationship, or Bang The Drum Slowly, a tribute to her late father.
Lifting an audience's spirits, while forcing it to confront a gruesome reality, is no mean feat.
In all probability, people in places far from our peaceful shores were maimed or killed by landmines during last night's sold out Concert For A Landmine Free World at Massey Hall.
Some of the victims, judging from figures provided by Bobby Muller of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which has been lobbying for landmine awareness since 1991, were probably in Cambodia, where in 1995 roughly 500 people lost their lives and limbs to unexploded devices every month.
Muller's account of these horrors, delivered from a wheelchair at the end of the show's opening set, was as affecting as any of the songs played by a star- studded lineup led by Emmylou Harris and featuring Bruce Cockburn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Steve Earle, John Prine and Nanci Griffith. The performers signed a silk scarf, woven by a landmine victim in Cambodia, that sold for $1, 400 at a silent auction during intermission.
The series of five concerts, including stops in Ottawa, Stamford, Conn., and two nights in Burlington Vt., marks the third anniversary of the signing of the Ottawa Landmines Treaty which, at last count, has been inked by 138 countries and ratified by more than 100. The United States, China, Russia, India and Pakistan, however, are not among them.
The efforts of former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, honoured at Sunday's Ottawa event, were lauded by both Muller and Harris for refusing to cave in to American pressure.
"I want to say how much the world owes the leaders and the people of Canada for showing the rest of the world the right thing to do," said Harris.
The musical thrust was suitably casual and low-key, favouring acoustic virtuosity and charming by-play over anthemic posturing.
The six performers sat on stage throughout, taking turns delivering tunes, with pianist James Hooker providing accompaniment. Cockburn, in addition to performing in sequence, picked away in the background through most of the show, while others occasionally joined in with guitar and vocal support.
Cockburn introduced his song "The Mines Of Mozambique" by describing a visit there. He recalled gazing out his hotel window at a landscape that looked beautiful but was not safely traversable by foot.
"Sometimes," he said, "you see things that your mind cannot encompass or grasp."