Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 23, 2014
The city of Austin has a special significance for Playing for Change, one of the group’s road managers said from the stage Sunday night at the Belmont. The nine-piece touring ensemble is just one wing of a multimedia project that explores the unifying power of music. The project started with a documentary called “Playing For Change: Peace Through Music.” A powerful clip from the film mixed the voices and instruments of street musicians from around the world playing Ben E. King’s 1961 hit “Stand By Me.” In 2008 the video was a viral Internet hit and the next year the filmmakers introduced a live ensemble, featuring many of the performers from the video. They made their live debut in Austin during the 2009 South By Southwest Music Festival.
Since then the group has toured internationally, released a popular CD/DVD compilation and started a nonprofit foundation that has built nine music schools around the world. At the root of the project is joy, and the jubilant mood that the ensemble brought to the stage on Sunday was magnificent and contagious. If anyone walked into the Belmont in a bad mood it surely evaporated.
Members of the ensemble hail from around the world and representatives from New Orleans, Tokyo, Cape Town, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were present. Musically, the program consisted largely of soulful, dynamically arranged covers of reggae, soul and blues songs. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” was handled with beautiful reverence as was a tribute to South African singer Miriam Makeba. The music of Bob Marley meshes so well with the ensemble’s core message of peace through music and energetic, polyrhythmic covers of “Exodus” and “Get Up, Stand Up” were big hits with the crowd. The group also played several original songs, one of which was a salsa-drenched number that they joked “proved the best Latin music is coming from Africa.”
Throughout their 90-minute set the ensemble played with a sense of true camaraderie, taking turns to showcase each artist’s talents. The climatic grand finale built from a soaring rendition of “Stand By Me” into a 10-minute instrumental breakdown that included wailing guitar solos and gymnastic African dance moves. As the final song segued from the Mardi Gras classic “Iko Iko” into Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” the sense of collective uplift was palpable. At the moment it was incredibly easy to believe that “every little thing’s gonna be all right.”