After Glen Hansard powerfully strummed his acoustic guitar while singing a resounding version of Van Morrison’s classic song “Astral Weeks,” it was apparent to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall March 21 that Michael Dorf’s annual benefit concert saluting a legendary musician was another success.
Hansard unplugged his guitar near the end of the song and sang without a microphone on the edge of the stage, bringing the appreciative audience who came to celebrate Morrison’s music to their feet for a standing ovation.
“The Music of Van Morrison” was the 15th concert of Dorf’s “The Music Of” series which began with a tribute to Joni Mitchell in 2006. All proceeds from the concerts are given to various music-education programs for underprivileged youths.
The tribute to Morrison was another feather in the cap of Dorf, who founded the avant-garde rock and jazz club the Knitting Factory in New York in 1987 and, 21 years later, the City Winery. Dorf is no longer affiliated with the Knitting Factory, but both of his creations operate today at multiple venues in various cities.
Dorf tells me he remembers the genesis of the tribute series — an idea he raised at a board meeting of the charity organization Music for Youth. The meeting was attended, he says, by a large group of music industry bigwigs.
“I raised my hand and suggested we put on a show, but they all started to say it was too risky,” Dorf says. “I thought: ‘Really? You guys have the largest talent pools and connections in the world.’ So, I offered my idea: Honor Joni Mitchell, have her attend and sit in a booth while 20 great artists do one of her songs. This had to take place at Carnegie Hall, which did infrequent rock/folk/pop shows, and be an elegant high-priced ticket affair.
“Everyone at the meeting said no, so I offered to produce the show, give 100% of the profit to the youth organization and cover 100% of a loss if it occurred. Anyway, it was a great show that sold out and made $100,000 net for the night. The organization loved it, it got great attention, and it started this thing.”
Dorf will never forget his subsequent intimate conversation with Joni Mitchell in 2006.
“I had never met her, loved her records and music and was so excited she planned to attend,” he recalls. “We had arranged her flights and hotel, but, the day before the concert, her management called to say, unfortunately, something had come up. It was vague, and I was a bit upset. We had sold out, but I was so looking forward to meeting her.
“At 5:55 p.m. the day of the show, we had finished the sound checks, and I walked out the stage door to the stage to take a call from her,” Dorf says. “At 6 p.m., the hall was set to go dark for a 60-minute dinner break because of very draconian union rules not allowing anyone on stage. I was told to go into the seating area, and the stage door was locked. I was alone in the vastness of Carnegie Hall talking on the phone to Joni Mitchell, the woman I idolized.
“She started talking about her cat who was sick and had a serious condition that the vet said was likely terminal. She said that she, as a child, also had some medical issues, and her doctors were not good at being positive. If not for the optimism and positive vibe of her mother, she said perhaps she wouldn’t be alive. Thus, she said she felt she couldn’t leave her cat alone at a critical time. She kept talking while I was pacing alone inside of the vast hall. It was way more than surreal — it was the stuff of movies. She was going into such detail about a cat, and I’m a dog guy, so it was hard for me to fully get it.
“After 20 minutes, I realized I had a bunch of things to do and she was still talking. So I politely explained I had a show to produce and had to say goodbye. At about 7 p.m., an hour before showtime, 75 yellow roses showed up — each one with a card saying, ‘Thank you, Joni.’ I was to give them to all the artists, which I did as they came off the stage after they played their song. I’ve continued the yellow rose tradition every year now, handing the rose to the artists as they exit the stage after their song. No one really knows that Joni Mitchell started this tradition.”
The Mitchell tribute show was 13 years ago, and shows since have honored such artists as David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, R.E.M. and David Byrne and the Talking Heads. So I ask Dorf, after seeing so many “The Music Of” concerts, which one was the best?
“I love all my children the same.” he responds. “Of course, when the honorary attends, it takes up the buzz a few notches. Bruce Springsteen came to his concert and stood on the side of the stage with me the whole time. He even helped me pass out yellow roses and then played a few songs solo for the encore to the surprise and delight of the room. Holy shit! That was amazing!
“David Byrne brought a marching band down the middle of the hall from the lobby to the stage for his encore. R.E.M. played their last few songs as a band in New York City, and Michel Stipe held my hand as he walked me to the front of the stage to take the final bow with him. Wow! Goose bumps again. The David Bowie tribute was approved by Bowie but took place just after he passed. Michael Stipe took part in it, and I can never forget the moments he sang ‘Ashes to Ashes.’ ”
Besides many unforgettable performances during “The Music Of” series at Carnegie Hall, Dorf has seen numerous other incredible concerts during his long career in the music industry. So I ask him which concert was the best one he ever experienced.
“The best show is easy,” he responds. “It was Prince at City Winery in New York City. I had hoped that, after the Music of Prince at Carnegie Hall, he would come back to the City Winery and do one of his famous after-parties, but that was not the case. We got teased but … nothing.
“Then we had the opportunity a year later to do a run of four nights, and he said he would do at least one and maybe more. He ended up doing two of the nights, and they were not spectacular performances. But the Sunday night of the run, he went on at 3 a.m. and finished at 6 a.m., playing the hits — big band and huge horn section. It was amazing — powerful, fantastic and intense music and he was dancing hard.
I just loved it.”