Jesuit Refugee Services sponsors programs for refugees internationally, and have a particular interest in Lampedusa in Italy. That is because this island serves as a common entry point to Europe for many individuals that have suffered unimaginably because of their unfortunate status.

But what does this important organization have to do with Nashville’s Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris, the Los Angeles duo, the Milk Carton Kids: Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, Texas troubadour Steve Earle, Ghanaian singer/songwriter Ruby Amanfu, golden-eared instrumentalist David Polkingham and the legendary Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin, Band of Joy, The Sensational Shape Shifters)?

Well, actually, plenty. The eleven-show concert series came to be mostly because of Ms. Harris’s gentle persuasion, consciousness raising and unwavering commitment to the refugee cause, a cause which has been marginalized during America’s current election year. So if there were ever a time for musicians and socially aware types to mobilize, it is now.

The multiple Grammy winner knows first-hand the challenges that refugees are facing, as she has visited those with such status in Ethiopia. By opening her heart to their dreams, Ms. Harris was then able to relay their challenges and to enlist the help of other entertainers. Those performing at the concerts donated their talent for free, but, Ms. Harris reminded us early on,the effort also involved hundreds of others.

So the topic was not only about building awareness and conveying information, it was about presenting first-class entertainment. Chicago audiences knew they were in for a special treat. Of the seven empty chairs on stage, one would be filled by rock giant Robert Plant, who, although not originally scheduled until Milwaukee, generously agreed to fill in for under-the-weather entertainer Patty Griffin. Her alliance with Ms. Harris goes back to raising money for Concerts for a Landmine Free World; Ms. Griffin also witnessed refugee struggles in the border town of Nogales, Mexico.

Ms. Harris warmly introduced the performers, who then took turns introducing each other, filling in instrumentally and harmonically and singing some of their best material in a round-robin fashion. Most importantly, they left their egos at the door and showed tremendous respect for each other and for the fans.

Miller, dressed up in true Americana garb, introduced ‘Gasoline and Matches’ as a song he co-wrote with his wife, Julie Miller. His vintage guitar boasted country twang, whilst his fierce and distinctive snarl tore down the house.

Baritone Earle fused humour and admiration when recalling the kind Korean grocer in his old neighborhood. The culturally sensitive and hard-working Mr. Kim acquired Spanish in his later years, in an effort to relate better to his clientele. Earle’s story led right into the relevant ‘City of Immigrants’ After a positive audience reaction, he paused to survey the first few rows. Resting his acoustic guitar on his lap, he seemed genuinely moved and whispered: “We are all immigrants.”

Plant pleasantly surprised Led Zeppelin fans by singing ‘Going to California’ from Led Zeppelin IV. Even Jimmy Page worshippers would admit that the instrumentalists did a stellar job. Pattengale’s rich lap dobro alone was swoon worthy, and Miller’s driving progression added exactly the right kick.

Milk Carton Kid Joey Ryan injected levity vis a vis a stone-faced monologue before the duo performed ‘Charly’. They seamlessly switched tempo and mood when playing the gorgeous, bittersweet ‘Memphis’. Their tender harmonies triggered memories of Simon and Garfunkel and early Lennon/McCartney.

All eyes were on Plant as he lured us into his sonic time machine. The ballad ‘Don’t’ is widely associated with the Elvis recording of the 1950s, but it was incredible to witness Plant’s creative spin. He demonstrated cool restraint between phrases, and much like a savvy crooner of that era, conveyed strong emotion with every single word. But the absolute stunner was his interpretation of ‘Nature Boy,’ which brought Nat King Cole huge success in 1948 and was written by Eden Ahbez.

This classic ballad is a tough one to perform, with a melodic leap to the next octave at the start and then a succession of quick chromatic changes. Plant savored every phrase.

And what lyric could better describe the grueling trajectory of the refugee?

“They say he wandered very far, very far, Over land and sea / A little shy and sad of eye, But very wise was he…”

Mr. Plant also chimed in with his own reactions. He talked about how much he appreciated being amongst his American friends, his eyes lighting up as he spoke. “An embarrassment of riches,” he exclaimed.

When petite Ruby Amanfu crept downstage and quietly relayed her own story about coming to Nashville as a stranger and finding quick acceptance, you could hear a pin drop. Ms. Amanfu has a beguiling stage presence and an evocative voice. David Polkingham did a wonderful job echoing her rhythmic voice with subtlety and skill. Ms. Amanfu has worked with Beyoncé (‘Lemonade’) and Jack White and is a much sought-after performer. She brought an additional sense of elegance and calm to the stage.

Ms. Harris touched the audience deeply, too, with her ballad about 14-year-old civil-rights worker, Emmett Till (ironically, from Chicago) who was slain in Money, Mississippi in 1955. Her expressive guitar playing and sonorous voice truly brought the heartbreaking story to life. During a lighter moment, she sang an original dedicated to her dear late friend, Gram Parsons. She took time to speak genuinely to the audience in between her other songs and, like Plant, helped out with light percussion.

Essentially a beautiful and casual flow prevailed over the course of the near three-hour concert. We were educated, entertained and encouraged to cast our socio-political nets wide. The impromptu set list added to the fun and sense of intimacy.

Then again, it was a work night and some people had long expressway rides home. Bones creaked from sitting in metal, folding chairs. But those obstacles didn’t disrupt the joie de vivre; the feeling that supporting a worthwhile cause, making new friends and hearing great music offers us tremendous hope, even in these trying times.


Photos by Jim Summaria
www.jimsummariaphoto.com















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