In the day room at the Midnight Mission, a homeless shelter on Skid Row, a band called The Title Trackers is performing a soundcheck. Drums, an electric keyboard, mic stands and cables clutter one side of the spartan, olive-green room; rows of neatly arranged, stackable blue chairs line the other. As his bandmates vamp around a Stones-y blues-rock groove, Andy Hill gets up from the keyboard and circles to the back of the room, then comes down the center aisle, giving a thumbs-up sign. “It’s sounding good!” he yells.
As soon as the Trackers are ready to go, Midnight Mission staff open a heavy steel door, and in from a nearby courtyard files the audience. They are a mixed bunch: young and old, black and white, most wearing mismatched clothes but some as neatly dressed as if they’d just come from a job interview. Some flash gap-toothed grins of anticipation, some scowl as though they’re at a funeral. Most carry their belongings with them, stuffed into duffel bags, backpacks and black trash bags. Except for a few who wear tags reading “Participant,” identifying them as residents and members of the mission’s 12-step program, nearly all of them are homeless.
A rock concert at a homeless shelter may sound like a novel concept, but it’s been happening regularly at the Midnight Mission since 2010. That’s when Georgia Berkovich, now the mission’s director of public affairs, launched the “Music with a Mission” program, which also features everything from folk singers to jazz combos to string quartets. All performers donate their time, and many come back on a regular basis.
“I need music every day,” says Berkovich, who began volunteering at the mission after she herself got sober in 1993. “So my thought was, ‘What if you were essentially living your worst day every day – and you didn’t have music?’”
Wearing a royal blue dress and a big smile, Berkovich greets many of the attendees as they enter and find their seats. She leans down as an elderly man in a wheelchair asks her about the band. “They’re really good,” she replies cheerfully. “They do a little bit of everything.”
She's not kidding. The Title Trackers’ shtick is to perform “lost” title tracks from classic albums — a song called “The Joshua Tree” in the style of U2, another called “Morrison Hotel” in the style of The Doors. It’s a complicated mix of parody, tribute and classic-rock lover’s inside joke — and at first, it’s not clear how this audience will respond to it.
“What you’re gonna hear this afternoon is all original music, but hopefully it’s gonna sound like a lot of people you recognize,” Hill explains at the outset, as people shift restlessly in their seats. Then the band launches into their ersatz Rolling Stones number, “Exile on Main Street,” and any concerns about the Trackers being too high-concept melt away. A woman wearing glasses and striped stockings tied around her head like a bandanna gets up from her seat and starts to dance. Others are clapping and swaying like they’re in church. A staff member in a yellow safety vest does a little shuffle across the back of the room. For the next hour, this is going to be a party.
The Trackers blow through 50 years of music history in 12 songs. Hill, who when he’s not in character resembles the actor Thomas Haden Church, does mean impersonations of Johnny Cash and Jim Morrison. Russell Wiener does a convincingly sneering Mick Jagger, but he’s even more spot-on (despite a ridiculous black wig) as Billy Joel, and the crowd eats it up when he leads them through a call-and-response of the chorus of “Glass Houses” (especially the line, “Suck on the rock in my trousers”). David Tokaji, the band’s resident rock messiah, milks the rabble-rousing personas of Bruce Springsteen and Bono for all they’re worth. When he drops to his knees before a middle-aged woman in the first row during “Greetings From Asbury Park,” she plays along, squealing like a teenager.
They sprinkle a couple of straight covers into the set, as well, including a rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” that elicits the set's most enthusiastic response. Cries of “Woo!” and “Come on!” reverberate through the day room. Another front-row attendee, wearing polished black loafers and bouncing a bowler hat on his knee, is clearly feeling it. He gets out of his chair, arms raised, and does his best Soul Train shimmy.
After the show, Berkovich introduces Mr. Bowler Hat as "Black" Kennedy Lincoln. He was formerly homeless, but after completing the Midnight Mission’s 12-step program, he now has a roof over his head. But he still regularly attends almost every Music With a Mission performance. “I love it all, from A to Z,” he says of the diverse styles of music. “It touches my soul.”
Another attendee, wearing a Pantera T-shirt, is talking guitars with Wiener as the band prepares to load out. His name is Forest Young and he’s a musician and guitar maker who was left homeless when his apartment building burned down. He says he had been on the verge of starting his own guitar line, but all of his instruments except one were destroyed in the fire. “I’m definitely going to do it again,” he declares.
Wiener and his bandmates clearly enjoyed their set as much as the audience did. “It’s such a cool thing they do here,” he says. “Any situation where you’re looking out at an appreciative audience of people you’ve never seen before is like — how often do you get that?” So would the Trackers play the mission again? “If they’d have us back.”
Berkovich, for her part, continues to work with volunteers and colleagues to expand the mission’s in-house entertainment program. There’s now a stand-up comedy series, Laughter With a Mission, which doubles as a community open-mic, and Art With a Mission, at which attendees can create visual art through various media. On Dec. 4, a non-profit group of classical musicians called Street Symphony, led by L.A. Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta, will perform Handel's Messiah in the mission's gymnasium with a 40-piece orchestra and chorus.
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Over the years, Music With a Mission has attracted its fair share of noteworthy performers, including blues-rock guitarist Robben Ford and late bassist Rick Rosas, best-known for his work with Neil Young. But the musicians closest to Berkovich's heart are the ones who came from within the Midnight Mission's own community. She tears up as she tells the story of one former mission program participant, Ben Shirley, a heavy metal bass player (and member of the Skid Row Running Club) who began taking upright bass lessons at LACC while still in residence at the mission and was eventually accepted into the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Berkovich admits that the tangible benefits of Music With a Mission are hard to quantify. "I've had people say, 'So you have this music thing, it's an hour and a half — how is that gonna change anyone's life?'" But she's seen over and over again what an impact those 90 minutes can have. "We feel like if we can provide these moments of sweetness, it starts to build hope. And if somebody has hope, they may be more inclined to ask us for help. And if they ask us for help, the sky's the limit."