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Live Review: David Lynch Foundation Benefit Concert Change Begins Within at New York City’s Carnegie Hall (11/4)

Sting, Katy Perry, Jim James, Jerry Seinfeld and more come out to support Transcendental Meditation

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    When someone tells you something is “not a cult,” it’s usually a cult. Admittedly, there were moments during the David Lynch Foundation Benefit Concert Change Begins Within that kind of gave off a Scientology vibe. A bunch of big-name musicians and celebrities had gathered together to support and promote transcendental meditation, otherwise known as TM. They spouted off about the health benefits, both mental and physical, and all their scientific evidence that had been gathered recently. The whole thing was hosted by George Stephanopoulos, who, if you look at him the right way, totally looks like a Hollywood cult leader.

    But after some solid performances broken up by informational videos and messages about what the DLF does, particularly for the Meditate New York initiative, there really wasn’t anything negative to say about the program. In fact, I almost wish I had donated to get in instead of just sticking on a press badge. Sure, there was some hyperbole (“Stress is the black plague of the 21st century, because modern medicine has no way to cure it and no way to prevent it”), but the overall point was still valid.

    Anyone who’s bought a Groupon for a yoga class knows how effective meditation can really be. Now, the event didn’t go into the details of exactly what TM involves (the closest we got was three minutes of silence), but how it’s used is the intriguing part. One video showed TM teachers going into schools, homeless shelters, and military camps and working with groups of people to reduce stress and improve mood. There were facts about how TM increases graduation rates among at-risk youth, reduces flashbacks among victims of domestic violence, and cuts back PTSD and insomnia among veterans by 55%. Considering the low-impact, low-cost nature of something like TM, results like that have to be taken seriously.

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    Despite the “sucker” feeling of it, there is something even more convincing about the idea of the practice when you learn a guy like Jerry Seinfeld, still a massively successful comedian years after his show has left the air, has been practicing for 43 years. Seinfeld opened the evening as observationally funny as ever. It’s amazing how a comic can stay so unchanged in their delivery for so many years and still nail their routine time and again. He prodded at the entire idea of going out for a night in New York City (“Where is it? How do we get there? It’s at Carnegie Hall, but there’s no way to get there!”); how calling e-mail “e-mail” is disingenuous to the post office; and how people now have two lives, theirs and their cellphone’s battery. His best bit came at the end, one about how people love doubling words because it makes them feel more confident. It was hard to write down all the words he said between bouts of laughter, but it was something along the lines of, “As long as we talk the talk and go in there knowing who’s who and what’s what, then it is what it is.”

    Next out was Grammy-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin, who performed some classic guitar pieces perfectly suited for meditative moments. She displayed wondrous talent throughout, but perhaps nothing was more gripping than the moments of silence that hung in the air after her fingerpicked solos.

    Following Isbin was her exact opposite in Angelique Kidjo. The “undisputed Queen of African music” came out full of energy, and you wonder how much her years of TM practice had to do with it. She only got to play one song, “Mama Africa”, but made the most of it. She spent the majority of her stage time in the aisles, high-fiving audience members as she got them to sing the song’s rhythmic hook. Her utterly positive vibes and dance moves provided the highest energy among any of the night’s performers — a bit odd for a concert about meditation, but not so out of place as what would come later in the evening.

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    Jim James tagged along specifically at the request of musical director Rob Mathes. It’s no surprise that James, overtly spiritual as he is, practices TM, nor that he’d be a perfect fit for a show such as this. That’s why it was a bit of a bummer that he only got one song. Still, it was a great one, as Mathes had put together his own arrangement of “State of the Art” from Regions of Light and Sound of God. For the intricate and subtle opening, James stood with his back towards the audience, watching the orchestra do their thing. When he finally came in, it was with a voice as transcendental as the meditation he practices. Arranged with a full orchestra instead of the electronic doodads used on the album, the song took on a more grandiose vibe as it rang out in the famed Hall.

    But in the end, Sting was all the mediation I’d need on the night. Arriving a bit like a grizzled Kelsey Grammer, the man’s voice was simply impeccable. He opened with a dramatic performance of “Englishman in New York”, which received warm applause from the crowd. It was a performance fit for Broadway, really, even without a ton of spectacle; his simple movements and powerful presentation were enough for a Tony. When he welcomed out Isbin to perform on “Shape of My Heart”, he said, “I loved that piece you played,” to which she responded with what looked like starstruck shock. The two were a fine complement on the song, easily another highlight of the evening.

    After “Fields of Gold”, Sting sat on the same chair as Isbin had to play guitar for “Fragile”. He confessed nerves at having to follow Isbin, but thankfully he meditates, so his stress was calmed. Following up such a gorgeous performance is a tough job, especially when considering how easily connected Sting is to something like TM. Which made Katy Perry‘s performance a bit of a mixed bag.

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    In a video that played before her entrance, Perry talked about what TM has done for her, though why she didn’t just come out and say those things herself isn’t really clear. It was an example of how her presence almost did a bit more harm than good for the cause of TM, as she looked pretty goofy rubbing her temples like a psychic talking about how she feels meditation does something “scientific” to her actual neurology. (Not to say it doesn’t, but a bug-eyed Katy Perry doing her best Professor X impression might not be the best sell.) Later, she’d make joking remarks about how she doesn’t do the morning part of the TM routine because it would force her to “cut my social media time in half.” She was just being cute, but the audience’s tepid laughter showed how weird it was to joke about the whole reason people were there. I’m also not sure performing “Teenage Dream”, a song clearly about teen sex, at a Carnegie Hall benefit show was the best idea, especially in the jarringly repetitive way it was done, with the punchy string section and deep bass coloring it intimidating and creepy.

    Besides those questionable choices, Perry put on a wonderful show. Her “Roar” was strong, and watching her square off against an equally elegant-looking violinist during “Perfect Storm” was powerful. It all came to a gentle conclusion when four ballerinas danced out from side stage and the orchestra slowed down “Fireworks” to its prettiest speed ever. Without the bombast of the radio version, the track’s positive message was elevated to a truer emotional point. It was certainly a better reworking than “Teenage Dream”, and, for all I know, her best performance of the track to date.

    The evening ended with a typically Lynch-ian video from the director on the set of Twin Peaks. He stood completely in shadow under dark skies in the middle of a long dirt road with telephone poles stretching along one side. Whether or not you were convinced to practice TM thanks to this honestly random assortment of performers is rather irrelevant. The tickets went to benefit Meditate New York, and from the sounds of it, that’s an incredibly powerful and helpful program. So in the end, even though the people who will likely reap the rewards earned from the event weren’t in attendance, it just may go on to be the greatest concert of their lives.

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