Whether music can change the world seems like a dubious proposition these days. It can, however, raise money — and maybe consciousness.
So the Lantern Tour, a five-city concert series starring a rotating cast of singer-songwriters, was organized in response to the Trump administration’s policy of family separation at the border between the United States and Mexico. Funds go to the Women’s Refugee Commission.
The tour stopped at the Orpheum Theatre Saturday night with Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Lila Downs, and dobro genius Jerry Douglas.
The musicians didn’t play familiar songs — no “Running on Empty” from Browne or “Copperhead Road” from Earle — and some fans may have been disappointed with that.
Instead, this was a purposeful show, and even songs that didn’t directly address immigration often included themes of exile, longing, and family.
The format is a familiar one in the singer-songwriter world. The four singers (and Douglas) sat on chairs, and each sang a song in turn. Sometimes they joined forces, such as a duet between Earle and Harris on “Goodbye,” but too often the other musicians just sat politely while one of them sang. Douglas, on the other hand, played on every song, and made them all sound better.
The high point of the night was Downs’s dramatic performance of “La Llorona (The Weeping Woman)” in Spanish, which won her a standing ovation. Downs, born and raised in Mexico, brought an important ethnic and language diversity to the show.
Browne could have used more fire in his performance, but he was the most politically specific. “Walls and Doors,” with lyrics translated from a Cuban songwriter, says there are two kinds of people in the world, those who build walls and those who open doors. Browne hardly needed to mention who wants to build a wall.
And Browne sang a moving version of Joel Rafael’s “Sierra Blanca Massacre,” which tells how 18 men attempting to enter the United States in 1987 died after they were locked in a stifling boxcar.
But it was Earle who stole the show. In this format, there’s always one performer whose turn you wait for more eagerly than the others, and Saturday it was Earle. He had more stage presence, more humor, more power in his big gruff voice than anyone else.
He had fun with the idea of home in a rowdy “Hometown Blues,” with its refrain of “Nothing brings you down like your hometown.” And he had everyone, onstage and in the audience, clapping along to “Tell Moses,” an updated spiritual he wrote with Shawn Colvin.
Earle was born in Texas (which he referred to as “occupied Mexico”) but now lives in New York City, and he paid tribute to his new home with “City of Immigrants.”
The show ended with “The Pilgrim,” a country gospel tune. Originally written for a funeral, it took on a different meaning here: “I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys/ This ain’t never been my home.”
THE LANTERN TOUR
With Steve Earle, Jackson Browne, Lila Downs, Emmylou Harris, and Jerry Douglas. At the Orpheum Theatre, SaturdayEmail Andy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.