Just after Jan. 8, 2011, Tucson guitarist Mitzi Cowell wrote a song, "Shine From the Valley," that Ron Barber believes captures his vision for the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding. Cowell opened Sunday's concert with that song, with Sabra Faulk leading vocals, and members of the Carnivaleros, Odaiko Sonora and the Tucson Girls Chorus lending texture and weight to the refrain.
Songs continued to take center stage throughout the first half, if not for such a directly relevant message: Each offered a therapeutic reminder of the resilience and timelessness of creativity and artistry. The Silver Thread Trio, accompanied by John Convertino and Joey Burns—still possibly the best sidemen in the business—performed three originals from the trio's upcoming CD, Trigger and Scythe. Calexico, too, performed three new ones: "Fortune Teller," "Factory of the Disappeared" and the crowd-pleasing "El Burro."
Johnny Contreras of Mariachi Luz de Luna and Salvador Duran each performed songs they'd either composed or arranged for the Jan. 8 benefit recording, Luz de Vida. Burns dedicated the song "Luz a la Vida" to Steven Eye, whose Solar Culture Gallery continues to give birth to new music.
Ben Folds' mastery of musical dynamics put the power into power ballads. Many squeamishly feared he might break his fingers or the piano's keys; at one point, he even seemed to apologize that his abuse of the Yamaha may not have been true to the concert's theme. But by holding back absolutely nothing, Folds once reinvented pop music and smashed through the traditional role of the piano. He knows well the outer limits of both.
"It was a no-brainer for me to come play this thing," Folds said, adding, "If you have a microphone, or a blog, or a TV network, you have more responsibility." As if to prove that irresistible provocation is universal, he launched into a pop-song smack-down he wrote responding to a song he felt maligned him (probably Fleming and John's "Wrong"). Folds' response, "Brainwascht," is angry and insulting, but well shy of terms like "socialist" or "Nazi," let alone a bullet.
Point taken: You can be mad and push back, but for God's sake, tone it down.