Stars Came out in Brooklyn for Haitian Relief

Last night, The Bell House in Brooklyn was host to “Strength Through Unity,” a sold out benefit show for the earthquake victims in Haiti. Organized by music booker Jack McFadden, the diverse line-up ranged from comedians (Eugene Mirman, Jim Gaffigan, Todd Barry) to musicians (The Wrens, The Walkmen, Ted Leo), and from TV personalities (Jimmy Fallon, Pat Kiernan) to politicians (New York State Senator Diane Savino). Although we’re only a month in to 2010, I’m confident I won’t see a better show this year, nor one dedicated to a better cause. I rocked, I laughed, I (almost) cried. An inventory of highlights after the jump.

(‘DiggThis’)Rootsy openers The Wahoo Skiffle Crazies kicked things off with a spirited saw, jug and banjo inflected hootenany, after which emcee Eugene Mirman came out to introduce surprise guest Neil Young. Of course, it wasn’t the original grunge-ster himself, but rather Jimmy Fallon doing his now famous, spot-on imitation. He stayed entirely in character as he performed his version of The Fresh Prince theme song, then quietly left the stage and I’m betting, given his schedule, was home in bed before even half of the other acts went on. ‘Twas a long night!

The next big treat was Mirman’s set. Maybe I’m partial to the guy because he lives in my neighborhood and I regularly spot him at the grocery store, but damn he’s hilarious. He did a bit where he read from napkins that he scribbles messages on, then re-inserts into dispensers at various restaurants. My favorites read “Cheer up Fatty!” and “You’re an alchemist who can turn six beers into an awkward three-week relationship!” Who among us isn’t?

A couple of music acts followed—Freelance Whales, Sondre Lerche—though I confess I missed them owing to an extraordinarily long line for hot dogs. Luckily, I was fed and back in action in time to catch The Wrens. Despite their being the favorite band of a very music-savvy colleague of mine, I’d never listened to them before, and now feel quite stupid and deprived for it. These four gentlemen blew the fucking roof off with an impassioned set that, with one exception I’ll get to shortly, was the musical highpoint of the evening. I’m buying their album “The Meadowlands” as soon I file this.

Now, I could be getting the order wrong here, but I believe the next attraction was the all-star Seekers cover-band featuring A.C. Newman (The New Pornographers), Rhet Miller (Old 97’s), and Nicole Atkins, whose throaty, k.d. lang-ish vocals drove most of the kicking, rollicksome songs. She also, my girlfriend and I couldn’t help but notice, wore a fairly spectacular pair of tights that gets my vote for the evening’s best fashion statement.

Next up was comedian Todd Barry, whose studied, deadpan routine I never get tired of. His best gag concerned aggressive hookers in Barcelona. “Wow, if you’re like this in public, what’s it going to be like when I get you back to the youth hostel?” Priceless, by my churlish reckoning anyway. I missed funny man Jim Gaffigan (again, hot dogs) and most of Ted Leo (beer), but wended my way back to the stage to catch one more act that proved the other surprise highpoint of the evening.

Actress Lauren Ambrose, unbeknownst to me until last night, apparently fronts a jazz band called The Leisure Class. It must be a pretty new act—girl doesn’t even have a myspace page up—but you wouldn’t know it from the performance. They were tight as all hell, and Ambrose’s voice is fucking dreamy. She was clearly nervous that her olde-school cabaret style might not be the best fit with the night’s more rock-oriented acts (she said by way of disclaimer that she hoped everyone was up for a “slightly different sonic experience”) but she needn’t have worried. The crowd was thoroughly seduced by the band’s detailed, glossy arrangements of songs ranging from Dylan to, believe it or not, The Libertines.

I’m afraid that I couldn’t stick around for closers The Walkmen, but by that point I was exhausted. The whole event had the frenzied air of a breakneck lollapalooza, enhanced before, during, and after by the knowledge that all were there on behalf of oh-so-vital Haitian relief. 100% of the proceeds (not even the club took a cut of the $35,000 plus haul) will be divided evenly between Save The Children and Partners In Health. In short: great cause, great show, great night. Audience and performers alike are to be congratulated.

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