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Matthews Fights Hunger

The September 11th terrorist attacks pulled dozens of high-profile musicians into spirited rounds of fundraising and flag waving. But Groundwork 2001, a benefit to alleviate hunger, began Sunday night, showing that such charity existed before the attacks and will presumably continue after the furor dies down.

The opening show was suitably eclectic, featuring Daniel Lanois, Philip Glass, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Emmylou Harris and Dave Matthews. After four smaller shows during the week – featuring Joe Strummer, the Wallflowers, Heart and others – next Monday’s grand finale boasts R.E.M., Pearl Jam and Alanis Morissette, with Gwyneth Paltrow as the emcee. Organizers for the event hope to raise $1 million.

The Groundwork shows sold out before high visibility benefit shows in New York, Washington and on television were scheduled. But there was never any discussion of modifying the cause. “We are focused on something that is germane to what’s going on,” said Melanie Ciccone, who is producing the event along with Groundwork. “Providing a solution to hunger directly addresses the issue that terrorism speaks to. Poverty is the cause of so much dissatisfaction.”

Aside from the assurance that all the money will get to the intended, Groundwork’s little-bit-at-a-time process makes ultimate sense. Instead of sponsoring power plants or computer literacy incentives, the organization seeks to support small projects. It may supply a bicycle in order for a farmer to carry goods to market more efficiently. So a million dollars channeled in this way stands to do a world of good.

The Groundwork festivities follow a proscribed path. There is the obligatory souvenir assortment CD, but this one is actually worth owning. “When you do something like this you just call everyone you know,” said Ciccone. “And you never know what you’ll get. But we got a beautiful cross section of artists here.” Included are B-sides from Madonna and Moby, live tracks from Sheryl Crow and David Gray, along with a stunning remix of Emmylou Harris’ “One Big Love.” The collection is available at Starbucks, and Groundwork will receive $12 out of the $16 purchase price.

After a speech and a prayer, Lanois sauntered casually onstage. While the heavy tones of his electric guitar often drowned out his light voice, a larger problem was that not everyone knew who he was. But Lanois was aware of Seattle law, which mandates a tribute to hometown boy Jimi Hendrix at every rock-oriented public gathering; in this case it was a sparse collaboration with Harris on “May This Be Love.”

After an intricate, ephemeral solo piano piece from Glass, the Blind Boys raised the rafters, though they played only three songs. Of these, “Amazing Grace” had the same arrangement as the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun,” an interesting if not ironic juxtaposition. And what began as “If I Had a Hammer” entered the gospel stratosphere as singer Jimmy Carter carried a wireless mike into the audience, sending his wails from out in the crowd.

Harris shifted gears with her set, accompanied only by Buddy Miller on guitar and Julie Miller on vocals and percussion. Their set had a low-buck flavor, as Mrs. Miller tapped brushes on a priority mail shipping carton, and Harris steered away from the crowd pleasers, focusing on last year’s Red Dirt Girl. There were some surprises, she segued from “The Pearl” into Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” using the same open-tuning guitar. Less of a surprise, the final song of the set was “My Antonia,” during which Matthews strolled onstage to deliver the same part he recorded for last year’s album.

Matthews carried a lyric sheet and acted shy and self-effacing, later admitting extreme nervousness. He made apologies throughout, such as, “This is the first time I’ve played this song, so if I fuck it up you can forgive me,” and “Every song that I played tonight is in D. So if you’re bored it’s not me – it’s the key.”

The humility wasn’t false, but was entirely unnecessary. By his fourth number, an extended reworking of “Bartender,” he brought the large crowd into a small sphere. You might imagine going over to Matthews’ house to hear him play these songs, and conclude that it would be much like tonight.

Groundwork broke some rules. There was no the-world-shall-be-released collaborative encore, with all artists joining hands to support the cause. Instead, Lanois and Harris joined Matthews for a low-key version of “The Maker.” And Matthews closed the show with Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” turning it into his own political pitch.

“This is a song by another one of my heroes,” Matthews said without mentioning Nelson’s name. “And if he should ever run for president, we should all go out and vote for him.”

Notwithstanding the tendency to inhale, President Willie sure would do something about hunger.

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