‘John Lennon Tribute’ Q&A

(Above source: Annual John Lennon Tribute Facebook page)

New York’s Annual John Lennon Tribute charity concert goes free and virtual this Friday, October 9, at 7 pm ET via LennonTribute.org. That day would have been Lennon’s 80th birthday had he not been murdered 40 years ago this December at the age of 40.

This year’s show, consisting mostly of previously unreleased performances of Lennon and Beatles classics from past concerts, will include Jackson Browne, Patti Smith, Natalie Merchant, Taj Mahal, Rosanne Cash, Jorma Kaukonen, Joan Osborne, Bettye Levette, Shelby Lynne and others.

After its premiere, the show will be available to stream through Monday, October 12, at midnight.

The concert supports the John Lennon Real Love Fund, which provides free programs on such subjects as songwriting, art and meditation to children and teens who have lost parents to cancer, and to cancer patients, survivors and their families. In lieu of ticket sales this year, donations are invited by texting TRIB40 to 41444.

The Savvy Screener recently spoke with Joe Raiola, both artistic director of Theatre Within, the nonprofit behind the Lennon Tribute, and the concert’s longtime producer:

Joe Raiola, John Lennon tribute concert
(Joe Raiola, who will be appearing in the Tribute for his 40th consecutive year)

TSS: This year’s Tribute sounds like quite an undertaking. How long was the planning process for a virtual event compared to an in-person event? What were some of the challenges?

Joe Raiola: Time moves faster online. Planning for a multi-artist live concert like the Tribute kicks into gear about six months out. This was more like six weeks. The biggest challenge, without question, has been the learning curve in all aspects, by which I mean the essential work of creating, delivering and promoting the Tribute for the screen as opposed to the stage. 

TSS: Will portions of the Tribute be live or is it entirely recorded?

Raiola: The program consists mostly of performances from past Tributes that have never been released. For most people watching, these will be revelations.

For example, we have unearthed performances by Jackson Browne and Taj Mahal that are a decade old. The Natalie Merchant, Patti Smith and Rosanne Cash performances are more recent.

While the Tribute is entirely pre-recorded, it does include some brand-new performances, including one from Jorma Kaukonen. 

TSS: What will you miss most about doing an in-person concert?

Raiola: There is something remarkably powerful about gathering to celebrate Lennon. For some years now, I have  thought of the Tribute as a musical seance. Being there is a moving emotional experience.

That tribal human element will be lost online. However, we now have the opportunity to share the magic of the Tribute with Lennon fans who have never seen it — and that’s a wonderful thing. 

TSS: What are some of the greatest moments from four decades of Tribute concerts?

Raiola: Many are included in this year’s program. Joan Osborne’s take of “Tomorrow Never Knows” is hauntingly beautiful. I adore Rosanne Cash’s sexy cover of “I’ll Be Back.” Taj Mahal’s version of “Come Together” is pure fire. For a Lennon fan, the entire program is compelling. 

TSS: Is there a particular video from a past show that you’d like to share with our readers?

Raiola: One of my favorite Tribute performances that is not included in the 40th is Ben E. King doing “Stand By Me,” which of course Lennon loved and famously covered. Having one of Lennon’s music heroes with us to honor him was a genuine thrill.  

TSS: Have the concerts always supported workshops for those impacted by cancer? How did your partnership with Gilda’s Club come about?

Raiola: For its first 20 years, the Tribute was a small Theatre Within workshop production produced by me and workshop founder Alec Rubin. When Alec retired in 2001, I turned it into a charity event. For the next 14 years, we donated all the proceeds to nonprofits like WhyHunger. By 2014, we had our own charitable mission, which is to provide ongoing free workshops in creativity and mindfulness to communities in need.

Since then, all of the proceeds support those life-affirming programs.

Our partnership with Gilda’s Club NYC started in 2015 with a phone call from me to Gilda’s CEO, Lily Safani. We started that fall with four sessions of our John Lennon real Love Project songwriting workshop.  

This year, in partnership with Gilda’s Club, Theatre Within is providing over 100 free workshops — in songwriting, art, meditation and more — for children and adults impacted by cancer. 

TSS: If he were still alive, what do you think John would have made of the current situation, i.e., the pandemic, calls for racial justice, the critical upcoming election?

Lennon went through a well-known period of political outspokenness and protest. But he came to the realization that he needed to get his own house in order, which is why he withdrew from the extroverted life he had always known. After five years, he was vibrantly reemerging, which made his death all the more tragic.

It is not difficult to imagine what Lennon would have thought about Trumpism, but perhaps by now Lennon would have retreated to a cottage by the sea and would be living out his remaining years with Yoko making art and writing poetry. After all, he had already given the world so much. 

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