Annual Benefit For NYC's Homeless Changes Gears For 24th Year
Every year since 1997 the organizers of the New York City-based annual Benefit, Blank-Fest have followed the same tried-but-true formula: assemble a group of talented and generous musicians of all ages, background and genres, arrange for a 12-hour live show, play for a packed audience on the stage of a hip NY club.........
.....and "charge" one blanket, any condition, as the suggested price of admission at the door.
These blankets, collected at each and every Blank-Fest show since inception would then be driven around the City on Christmas Eve and handed - directly - to anyone the steadfast volunteers could find living and sleeping on the streets of the "greatest City in the world".
It was a formula that worked for nearly a quarter century. Over 15,000 total donations at these shows, here and around the world have found their way into the arms of countless less fortunate. In addition to live shows happening in New York, Blank-Fest also took root in neighboring New Jersey, as well as Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia, Nottingham, UK, Montreal, Toronto and Calgary in Canada; each of these shows not only helped devoted Samaritans distribute coverage for those in need, but likewise helped advance the still-needed dialogue that kept the plight of those without shelter front and central.
And then 2020 happened. In a word: Covid - and all the ancillary ugly realities that came with it, including loss, depression and forced lockdowns. Social distancing. All of the above and more.
Kenn Rowell first collected blankets from friends in 1996, almost on a whim, and drove around his home City, looking for people that needed a break from the elements. When faced with a lack of donations the following year, he marshalled his post-Ramones punk band, The Baghdaddios to host this ongoing event, year in and year out. The talent that graced their stage was impressive: punk rock legend and former Misfit, Bobby Steele, EMI rocker Patti Rothberg, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked, pioneering rock DJ Meg Griffin (whose band featured equally-legendary pedal steel-guitarist Buddy Cage!), metal giant Marc Rizzo of Soulfly, NY Blues Hall of Fame inductee Beki Brindle; these and many, many more - too many to name here - helped propel this grass-roots indie festival, devoid of corporate muscle but nonetheless as sincere as any major label assembly, through the better part of two and a half decades. But in a year that saw concert after concert cancelled as more of the U.S. was forced to shut down, the group and the rest of the Benefit's organizers were faced with a big decision to make.
"When word reached me that the New York City Marathon had been postponed", recalled Rowell, "I seriously wondered if it'd be better to take the rest of the year off. We hadn't played a show since last December's Blank-Fest, and we never knew any other way to do this."
"But then it occurred to me that the homeless wouldn't be 'taking the year off'. And that pretty much made it clear."
And so, after 23 yearly productions and 24 winters of handing blankets to those in need, Blank-Fest is moving in - what for them is - unchartered territory: Blank-Fest XXIV will be "Virtual".
In producing this year's show, scheduled for Sunday, December 20 (as it is nearly every year, the last Sunday before Christmas) there are still many hurdles to clear. Most technical issues have already been worked out. Not only are most of the Show's past regular acts returning, but there have been some new additions, including multi-talented Bongos' front man Richard Barone and Hawaiian slack-key guitar virtuoso Jim "Kimo" West (who has also proudly held the lead guitar position for Weird Al Yankovic for 37 years). "With Richard, we've been trying to get him to be a part of this for almost 20 years", explains Rowell, "but he's always had something going on in December, between his Downtown Messiah shows - which became a New York City tradition for years - recording and relentless touring, he's just so in demand that we could never work it out to have him on board. With Jim, well, he's on the other side of the country, normally, when he isn't touring or recording and I never even dreamed of asking him to fly in just to play a 20 minute set. But now, with videos being recorded and added by the day, both these giants can contribute from the safety of their living rooms and finally join us. To say that we're all thrilled to have them this year wouldn't even do the feeling justice!".
Rowell also adds that while they are accepting pre-recorded videos for broadcast as the heart of the show, they haven't ruled out the possibility of streaming other performances, live, as well. "This is the first time we're doing something like this so we're really feeling our way through the process. We're still in the middle of approaching artists - yes, even this late in the game - mostly because with video submissions, we found that we can fit in a lot more material. We got back all but two of last year's acts and have added about a dozen more artists on top of that and we're still approaching musicians that in the past we could only dream about. Chances are we'll be nipping and tucking right up until showtime!".
When asked about blanket donations, again Kenn admits that they're breaking new ground. "In the past, our mantra always was that if we made 'dime one', then we failed, somewhere. But since everything is going on via the 'net, we had to pretty much do a 180 on that". This year's Blank-Fest show, for the first time ever, is accepting cash donations through PayPal, which will then be used to purchase blankets, which would then be shipped to select homeless shelters in New York. This decision did not come without deliberation. "I always had a real 'hippie' attitude toward donations that money corrupts and you can't take a percentage of a blanket - which works when you're in direct contact with your audience. But this wasn't an option this year, so we had to fill out all the official paperwork to make sure all our bases are covered and we are committed to the concept that every penny donated will go for blankets, period!". Suppliers of blankets are already being canvassed and a short list of shelters are under consideration.
All information, including links for donations and Blank-Fest XXIV's 12/20/20 broadcast can be found on the Benefit's official website: www.blankfest.org.
Regardless of virtual turnout and what that will translate to in helping those in need, everyone involved agrees that this uniquely 21st Century approach will be in play in subsequent years, even with future shows returning to a live venue. "We all can hardly wait until we're all back up on that stage", concludes Rowell, "but even when that happens, the idea of dialing in artists from around the world - and appealing to a global community to pitch in is just something that's here for good. If that helps bring us all closer as human beings, then all the better!" One thing is for certain: whatever the format is, one thing will never change.........
Just like their mission statement has been from the beginning: It's about the homeless - nothing more, nothing less.
Tune in on Sunday, December 20 for Blank-Fest XXIV at www.blankfest.org, from Noon until Midnight (Eastern Standard Time). Any amount donated will go for the purchase and shipment of blankets, which will be distributed, directly, to the homeless in New York City.