One for the Ages
KISS THE SKY! The Orca Freedom Concert was a fabulous event that brought together some of rock & roll’s greatest stars along with a brilliant new voice and a haunting cello to wow a crowd of nearly 900 at Seattle’s Sky Church on Earth Day April 22nd.
The idea for an orca freedom concert surfaced on the Orca-live web site mid last December, after a flock of entertainers led by Bare Naked Ladies, Willie Nelson and Heart cancelled gigs at SeaWorld following appeals from their fans after the release of the documentary film Blackfish. Within days, a conversation started with Dolphin Spirit’s Michael Reppy, whose monumental trans-Pacific solo sails for whales inspired campaigns for Corky and Taiji dolphins, and legendary rock’nroller Country Joe McDonald of Woodstock fame and early Greenpeace save the whales campaigns. Both liked the idea, though the practical details made it a formidable task that would take time and energy to pull off. We needed a venue, a promoter, and artists willing and available to perform. Country Joe volunteered to perform immediately, as did Andrew Morse in New York. We tried but failed to get to Willie Nelson, didn’t have a clue about getting to Bare Naked Ladies, and then had the thought of contacting documentary film maker and orca advocate Michael Harris in Seattle, who had previously worked with Heart’s Ann & Nancy Wilson. Michael quickly got the sisters’ agreement to perform, and Ann & Nancy came up with the idea of doing the show on Earth Day. Michael volunteered to produce the event pro bono, and set about lining up a venue. His connections with Seattle’s Experience Music Project Museum (EMP) led to an offer of a donated venue, EMP’s Sky Church, which was inspired by a vision of Jimi Hendrix and features incredible acoustics along with a 60’ high LED screen to use as a backdrop to performances. We were off and running. A small group got together in weekly conference calls to plot and plan the details. In short order, LA guitarst Arielle agreed to perform; Ann and Nancy suggested Joan Jett, who came on board with her Blackhearts; then Heart came up with cellist Jamie Sieber and superstar Graham Nash. By March, the lineup was set, a poster and merchandise had been created, and tickets were being sold. In the realm of concert organizing, this one happened at lightning speed.
The evening of the event, we took the Monorail from our hotel, feeling like we were entering the maw of a giant as we passed through the unreal sculpture that architect Frank Gehry created as the EMP Museum, and wandered past the Space Needle in balmy sunshine, moving to the breathy beat of South American flutes as we made our way to the EMP entrance. We were greeted by the sight of a long lineup waiting to get in. A “Full House” sign stood in front of the line. What a thrill; it was all going to work!
Inside, the scene was already bustling. We passed a table laden with KISS THE SKY! bags full of swag ready to hand to VIP ticket holders,
chatted briefly with Mary Jo Rice, Michael Reppy and Shari Tarantino of Earth Island and Orca Conservancy who had put the swag bags together, then an enthusiastic teacher whose kids had created a great freedom banner and climbed the long stairway leading to Sky Church.
A big curtain hung in front but we could hear energetic sound checks underway – even outside, the sound was amazing. A short while later, we were at the meet and greet reception for VIPs, watching Joan Jett’s charming interactions with her fans, willingly posing for photos and not minding at all. We were delighted when Ian (Mac) McLagan joined us. Earlier at breakfast he had enthralled us with stories from the good old days when he was a member of Faces and Small Faces. Such a great person – hard to believe we were sitting with rock’n roll royalty!
The concert got underway with Country Joe McDonald coming casually onto the stage as if he was a stage hand, picking up a guitar and getting right into a rousing version of his classic “Save the Whales” with new lyrics about captive orcas needing to be free.
The audience loved it. As Country Joe performed, images of free orcas in the wild filled the huge screen behind him. What a start!
MC Norman B came on
and introduced Andrew Morse and his band, a great group of old time rock’nrollers from New York and Texas who proceeded to belt out “New York Times” and other tunes that got the crowd going.
Arielle, the young guitar virtuoso from Los Angeles brought a change of pace with her lovely voice, offering her newly released CD “California” and other songs, along with pertinent comments about the issues that brought everyone together.
I was standing off to the side behind the mixing board, waiting to go on, so caught a view of the audience from backstage and saw clearly that they were loving Arielle. Then it was me. Norman B made the introduction, and suddenly I was standing with a mic in my hand above a sea of faces.
I spent the next 5’ talking about Corky, impressed by how quiet the audience became as I spoke, and ending with a rousing “we want our orcas free!”. The applause told me the audience got it, so I was happy. I was also happy to have done my bit early and able to relax and just enjoy the rest of the concert.
In a word, it was fabulous. Country Joe came on twice more, tying the segments of the concert together masterfully. Joan Jett contributed a long incredible set with her Blackhearts, displaying unreal energy and poise, and inserting comments about the context of the event.
Joan gave the audience her greatest hits, including “I love rock and roll” which she had told SeaWorld it could no longer use. Helena and I stood in the wings of the crowd, transported back in time. Wow!
Earth Island’s Dave Phillips spoke about Keiko’s successful journey home and the disinformation about it spread by the captive industry;
And Ken Balcomb, whose Center for Whale Research has followed Southern Resident orcas for decades, spoke about the certainty that Lolita has family she can return home to.
A beautiful heartwarming performance by cellist Jamie Sieber set up the entrance of Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson and their band.
Heart gave us a wonderful performance, including their first big hit “Dog and butterfly” then “Baby Wild”, with Ann & Nancy adding eloquent comments about free orcas and ending the dark days of captivity; then a rousing version of Bob Dylan’s “Ring the Bells” that had us transfixed.
A brief interlude brought concert producer Michael Harris on stage to receive a plaque from Ann and Nancy, thanking him for his efforts.
Then the Wilson sisters introduced Graham Nash.
The Hall of Famer elevated the mood with his comments and joined perfectly with Ann and Nancy in a heart wrenching “To the last whale” as well as other songs that gave us and the audience a huge lift.
By the time the last note faded away we were mesmerized and just didn’t want the evening to end.
To repeat myself, it had been simply fabulous!
A happy crowd poured out of Sky Church, down the long stairway and out into the night.
Back at OrcaLab, Marie Fournier, who had kindly taken care of things while we were away, watched the show on line, as did 9,000 others from around the world. The image Marie sent us of me at the concert with OrcaLab and Blackney Pass in the background was to say the least, surreal.
At the beginning it had seemed a long shot. But thanks to producer Michael Harris and EMP, all the performers, and the diligent work of Earth Island’s Mary Jo Rice, Dolphin Spirit’s Michael Reppy, and Orca Conservancy’s Shari Tarantino, “we” had done it. We are hugely grateful to all of them, along with Jen McHarry who designed the poster and merchandise, MC Norman B, the crew who managed the magnificent video display, the stage and sound crews, Ecojoia who produced the merchandise (still available at http://www.ecojoia.com/index.php/stores/partner-all/sjd/eii), Charity Buzz who managed the successful silent auction, and everyone who donated and bid on auction items, NGOs and everyone who helped get the word out, and sponsors Guitar Center and the Pacific Whale Watch association.
Afterwards, when we were discussing sending our thanks! to the artists who had contributed their time and talents, we received this from Country Joe:
Congratulations to all involved in Kiss The Sky. I had a wonderful time and felt honoured to be part of the show. Do not bother sending me a letter thanking me for my participation, this is a cause that takes a team and the thanks we get is of course the hope, the hope, the hope, that some day, perhaps soon, humans will no longer enslave sea mammals for their entertainment. We no longer need captured animals as we all now have, thanks to the internet and media an ever growing body of words and images that give us so much more than a captured animal can ever do in a show. Save the Whales, Save The Earth, Save Ourselves. love, Joe
A perfect summation!
Later, as the reminiscences started flowing, EMP’s co-producer Andrew McKeag added:
It was One for the Ages.
by Paul Spong
May 31 2014
Many thanks to David Howitt and Baby Wild’s film crew for the images.