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POP REVIEW : Singers Perform in Benefit for Refugees

November 09, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

Everyone picking tunes Saturday at the Coronet Theatre sure was on friendly terms: Bob Neuwirth introduced lute player Sandy Bull as a pal of 28 years and said he goes back 11 with salsa specialist Ruben Blades; local folk singer Peter Case introduced close personal friend (and wife) Victoria Williams; and well, who hasn't been produced by, written songs with or at least been chummy with T Bone Burnett?

The neo-bohemian spirit of that easy musical networking had a special resonance of freedom after all the talk of non-freedom at the show--a benefit for Refugees International, an organization seeking to provide a voice for those forcibly separated from their homelands.

Following actor-monologuist Spalding Gray's serio-comic reading of "Swimming to Cambodia, Part II" and impassioned pleas for support from Gray's fellow "Killing Fields" alumni Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor, the second half was given over to acoustic songs from a gaggle of singer-songwriters gathered by event organizer Burnett.

Given the sober nature of the cause, the singers were perhaps wary of getting too freewheeling, and Gray's dynamism overshadowed the low-key musical portion of the show--in which each artist did only three or fewer songs. Anyone buying a $150 ticket not out of humanitarianism but looking for a lengthy musical hootenanny most likely went away feeling underfed.

But attendees got a promising preview of Blades' first English-language album, were exposed to new or unreleased material by the performers and heard Case and Williams separately turn in moving ballads about old men--Case's a forgotten working-class veteran, Williams's a wistful upper-crust gentleman in love with a prostitute.

And Burnett closed the show with "River of Love," possibly the saddest campfire gospel song ever written, and "The Wild Truth," an appropriate benefit song that asks: "Are we supposed to take all this greed and fear and hatred seriously? It's too consistent, like watching dust settle. . . . Mercy is inconsistent. Mercy is comic. . . . It's the only thing worth taking seriously."

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