The Ally Coalition, founded by Bleachers frontman/producer-to-the-stars Jack Antonoff and his sister Rachel, is a not-for-profit organization that, according to its mission statement, aims to “end discrimination against LGBTQ people by highlighting systemic inequality and LGBTQ-serving organizations and creating opportunities for fans and entertainers to advocate for equality.”
Its annual benefit concert, held at New York’s historic Town Hall, has become a kind of family gathering for Antonoff’s musical and comedy social circle, and the artists use the show as an opportunity to premier new material, play covers and collaborate. Throughout the evening, Antonoff acts as host, performer and occasionally as accompanist, repeatedly thanking the crowd for their support — this year’s event raised $200,000 — and making sure they get their money’s worth in the form of unique performances.
The format features semi-acoustic sets of three or four songs by each artist, with brief sets from comedians acting as a kind of palette cleanser between acts. At the last one, held during Grammy Week in January, Kacey Musgraves broke out two songs from her then-unreleased “Golden Hour” album and Lorde and Antonoff teamed up for four numbers, including a Carly Rae Jepsen cover.
This year, the show was shorter and had less of an ensemble feel — but the audience was treated to four new songs from Lana Del Rey, blazing performances from Regina Spektor and Mitski along with Rostam and Fun’s Andrew Dost, and, oh, and a surprise appearance from Taylor Swift at the end of Hayley Kioko’s set.
Kioko, who delivered semi-acoustic versions of three songs from her album to a rapturous reception from the crowd, deserves serious props for her setup: “So I’m gonna bring out a friend, she’s really talented, she just got off tour, she just signed with Universal, and she’s really nervous.” Four of the five statements were true: The already fevered room erupted when Swift came out.
“It’s so great to be at this incredible show,” she said. “Hayley is killing it,” then added, “Her family’s in the audience, so Haley’s killing it, RIGHT?”
The pair then duetted on Swift’s hit “Delicate,” with the crowd singing along loudly. After some hugs and bows, they were off.
The evening began with a song and some chatter from Antonoff, who then ceded the stage to Dost. He was followed by Rostam, who opened with a song from Van Morrison’s classic “Astral Weeks” before breaking into two of his own numbers, accompanied by a cellist.
Spektor was up next, leading with “Ballad of a Politician,” which she introduced with a series of sarcastic cracks about the benevolence of today’s government leaders. She then roared into a blazing version of “Apres Moi” that found her showing off her tempestuous piano playing, some percussive mid-verse vocal pops, and the higher end of her range — it was like watching a fiery performance from a world-class classical pianist. She then took center stage and did a coquette-ish, a capella version of “My Man” that may have been even more sarcastic than “Politician.”
Next up was Mitski, demure in a white shirt, black skirt and heels, who played a song from her latest album “Be the Cowboy” — already near or at the top of multiple critics’ lists for 2018 — before dipping back to 2016’s “Puberty 2” for “A Burning Hill” and the punky and distorted “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” which found her wailing into the microphone and coaxing feedback out of her amplified, detuned acoustic guitar.
After Kioko and Swift, Antonoff took the stage — quipping, “I’d like to thank Taylor for opening for us!” — and introduced Lana Del Rey, who came onstage wearing high black boots tucked into jeans and a black sweater. She said “Me and Jack are almost done with my new album,” which he is co-producing and she has said will be called “Norman F—ing Rockwell.” He accompanied her on piano for slightly uncertain renditions of the two songs from the album to be released so far, “How to Disappear” and “Venice Bitch.” Antonoff then picked up an acoustic guitar as she said, “Me and Jack wrote a couple of country songs just for fun, so we thought we’d play ‘em.”
While the songs could probably more accurately be described as faux country, they were actually stronger than the two that preceded them. Del Rey’s novelistic lyrics and breathy melodies suit the traditional country format well: The first song, possibly called “Making Me Blue,” mentions Hank Williams and whisky in the first verse, and features a soaring chorus that leads Del Rey to the top of her range. The second is a little hokier and is called “I Must Be Stupid for Feeling So Happy.”
“All my friends say my life’s like a bad country song/ I smile and say, ‘I know,’ and sing along,” the chorus goes.
Antonoff then finished off the night with the Bleachers hit “I Wanna Get Better,” thanking the crowd and all of the performers profusely as the crowd shouted along.