Matty Sheets scrawled the note in blocky capital letters on a flimsy bar napkin as hardcore quintet Thieves for Jesus — the final act on the bill for the Nov. 18 Battle of the Benefits — thrashed through their set in the dark yet bubbly front corner of New York Pizza.
“This feels like when the election results were coming in,” the note read. “If the Humane Society wins, I wanna start a fire.”
Sheets — Greensboro’s musical gadfly — had played a solo set earlier in the night, delivering his alt-country through an Epiphone jumbo acoustic guitar, occasionally punctuated by distortion kicked in with a fuzz pedal.
But that night’s show wasn’t about the music. Sheets knew it. He made the crowd sure they knew it, too.
“In case you just got here, this is a benefit concert,” Sheets said early in his set, “and I’m on the team supporting human beings, not animals. It’s not like I don’t like animals, but the Humane Society… They have tons of money. They have high-dollar commercials all the time, asking for your money. They don’t need it from you tonight.”
His rhetoric intensified as his set went on.
“F*** animals,” Sheets said between songs. “Yeah, I’m sayin’ it. You could give your $5 to people who’re fleeing their countries because of war, gangs, other bulls***. We don’t even know how that feels… yet. Who knows in the next four years, you know? But those animals’ll be just fine.”
The Battle of the Benefits pitted two teams of three performers against each other in a contest to raise funds for either the Humane Society, one of the preeminent animal-rights charities, or Church World Service, which supports refugee resettlement.
Sheets, Thieves for Jesus and singer-songwriter Douglas Moore Jr. composed Team Refugee, and pop-punk band All My Circuits, singer-songwriter Josh Crocker and spoken-word poet Kevin Putnam — the event organizer — made up Team Humane Society.
Per Putnam, Sheets wasn’t on the original bill.
“Matty came to me and said, ‘Dude, I wanna play this show,’” Putnam recalled after Sheets’ set concluded. “I originally had two other spoken-word poets lined up, but they fell through, so it worked out.”
Putnam wanted something like Sheets’ tirade to happen.
“I hope people grab the mic and voice their own opinions,” Putnam said in an interview before the concert began. “People aren’t always vocal, and their voices need to be heard. We need a good stand against what’s been thrown at us.”
Putnam, a spoken-word poet originally from Schenectady, NY, has been organizing benefit shows around Greensboro almost from the moment he moved to the Triad five years ago.
“I want people to get involved, and people often don’t know how,” Putnam said. “Even if it’s putting five bucks in a bucket, they’re getting involved.”
His choices of charity for this concert came to him in the shower — “No real deep meaning behind it,” he said — and Putnam placed himself on Team Humane Society.
Yet, when push came to shove, even Putnam’s loyalty wavered.
“Even though I’m not on the refugee team, I want to say, ‘Go Team Refugee,’” Putnam said at the start of his set. “I hope you all vote for Team Refugee, because they need us the most.
“Here, your voice matters,” he added. “I know your voice didn’t matter in this election, which sucks d***. Now, we’re stuck with some f***ing fascist bulls***. Baby hands.”
The attacks against the president-elect didn’t end there.
One of Putnam’s poems, “Idiocracy,” was written about Trump before he won the presidency.
“Hook, line and sinker and we definitely swallowed it,” he spat. “Ready to build some walls to finish it. Mental footnotes of fascism. Skeptics sweating and stocking ammo. Apocalypse Now and Idiocracy no longer fiction stories.”
Despite the popular backlash opposing Trump’s anti-immigration stances, toward the end of the night, the Humane Society led in voting.
Then, Thieves for Jesus tore into their set, and frontman Rob Joyce launched into his own pro-refugee polemic.
“We’re here to fund some s*** that’s important,” Joyce said. “Some of you may be aware — you may not be aware — that these people are fleeing human warehouses, also known as ‘refugee camps,’ which sounds a lot better, right?”
Joyce lauded CWS’ efforts, pointing out, “Coming into a country you don’t understand because you’ve been in a tiny f***ing village your whole life is debilitating. No offense to the f***ing dogs or cats or the f***ing rabbits or whatever, but these are human beings who’ve seen the same s*** these animals have.
“I just put humans above animals,” Joyce quipped later. “That’s my thing.”
Tensions ran high. By the middle of Thieves for Jesus’ set, Sheets — who’d implored people to change their votes — kept screaming, “Go humans! Go humans!”
When Putnam finally tallied the votes the next day, the result came to a tie.
The fate of the $340 raised fell into the hands of the performers, who had not voted, like casting an electoral tie to the House of Representatives.
Brushing aside team loyalty, they elected to donate the proceeds to CWS.