12.12.12 Concert for Sandy Relief Recap

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Born to run ’cause I’m a cowboy wanted dead or alive

Last night, along with seemingly every other twitter user, I watched much of the 12.12.12 Concert for Sandy Relief on television, where it was carried for some bizarre reason on a bunch of random cable channels but not on any broadcast network.

Much like the Super Bowl halftime show, the concert was one of those now rare moments in our increasingly fragmented American pop cultural landscape when a show needs to be put on which will somehow appeal to all age groups and tastes at once.  The result, as it always is on such occasions, was that the concert was a bit of an unwieldy mess and several of the performances were quite polarizing.

In particular, one of only two non-white performers and the only hip-hop act on the bill, Kanye West was singled out for much opprobrium on twitter. Meanwhile, the rest of the bill skewed overwhelmingly old, white, and rock-oriented (and English for some reason) and mostly escaped similar online mockery, aside from a lot of commentary about 68 year old Roger Daltrey’s open-shirted performance of “Love Reign O’er Me” which revealed a perfectly bronzed, sculpted torso of crocodile leather skin that scarcely seemed real.

This epic recap by Kyle Anderson at EW is a good, thorough rundown of every performance and also opens with this important sentiment:

Wednesday night’s 12-12-12 benefit concert for Sandy relief was an unqualified success: Before even a single note was played on stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden, more than $30 million had already been raised for the Robin Hood Foundation through ticket sales, merchandise, and corporate pledges.

As a charity event, 12-12-12 was a slam dunk. As a musical entertainment endeavor, it was more of a mixed bag, full of plenty of glorious, triumphant moments for sure, but also bloated with curious choices and inexplicable performances.

Bruce Springsteen opened the concert for some reason when it seems to me it would have been more appropriate for him to be the finale, given his enduring popularity with multiple age ranges, his association with Sandy-ravaged New Jersey, and the appropriateness of the themes of community and struggle in his work. He of course sang “My City of Ruins,” a song which was originally conceived as an ode to Asbury Park, NJ, which after 9/11 became an anthem about New York and has since come full circle as an anthem for Jersey shore towns (like Asbury Park) many of which literally are in ruins now after Sandy.

Bruce and the E Street Band’s set closed with New Jersey’s far less critically acclaimed favorite son Jon Bon Jovi joining him for “Born to Run.” The next act was Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, continuing the overwhelmingly “classic rock” orientation of the show. Somehow, hearing a bunch of slow tempo songs about paranoia and insanity didn’t continue the galvanizing momentum of the Springsteen performance.

This this happened:

Yes, Adam Sandler and Paul Shaffer sang (terribly) a goofy, Sandleresque comedy version of the once obscure now cliché Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” Depending on who you talk to this was either the final nail in the coffin or a way of breathing new life into the now over-covered song. (SPOILER ALERT: It was the former.)

This was followed by Bon Jovi’s crowd pleasing set, which ended with another Springsteen/Jovi collaboration on Bon Jovi’s latter day countryish hit “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” Next up was Eric Clapton, who played a non-flashy set of the sort of straight ahead blues-rock he’s been known for since the days when graffiti artists asserted he was God for some reason.

Then it was time for the Rolling Stones, who Anderson asserts were added to the bill late only because they happened to be in New York City playing a few insanely high-priced shows celebrating their 50th anniversary of existence as a band. Their set was surprisingly short. This post by Andy Greene on Rolling Stone  claims it clocked in at only ten minutes. And it was generally thought to be less energetic than the usual efforts of the seemingly immortal touring act.

The came Alicia Keys, a fixture at these sorts of events as she’s one of a handful of contemporary R & B artists who’s not threatening to older white people. She did two songs totally unaccompanied at the piano, which brought the momentum down just a bit more.

Then came the two most polarizing, and therefore most memorable, performances of the night. Unlike the Stones and Keys, the Who played a long set, what Anderson calls “a ghastly half hour of music that contained many of the evening’s musical low points.” Their song selection was a bit odd, eschewing crowd pleasers like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” etc. for songs like “Who are You?” and most bizarrely, the Quaudrophenia  era obscurity “Bell Boy,” a song which used to feature vocals by drummer Keith Moon, who has been dead for over 34 years. They performed the song with a video of Moon’s singing while Daltrey kept his back to the audience. This is perhaps what led to host Brian Williams making a comment to the television audience that seemed to imply he thought that Moon was still alive, another bizarre moment.

Then came what both Anderson and I agree was the low point of the entire evening, a seemingly interminable version of “Love Reign O’er Me” accompanied by Daltrey’s distracting pecs throughout. The song is somewhat overwrought and hard to pull off to begin with, and this was not a good performance of it, leaving aside that singing a reign/rain pun over and over is an odd choice at a benefit for hurricane relief.

Then came Kanye West’s set, which seemed to annoy all the old people/people who weren’t familiar with Kanye or with the conventions of contemporary hip-hop both in the Madison Square Garden audience and on twitter. Before he even opened his mouth, there was already a huge backlash over his choice of outfit. He paired this piece of extremely high-end “street wear” with a black leather kilt over a pair of black leather pants. His sartorial choices were only a surprise if you missed the fact that he’s been dressing similarly for the entire worldwide “Watch the Throne” tour with Jay-Z.  Not to mention the fact that men wearing kilts/skirts has been a trend within high-end fashion for so long now, that it’s almost passé by this point.

While I defend Yeezy’s fashion choices, in truth his performance wasn’t great. Live hip-hop is famously hit or miss and is difficult to pull off with zero hype men or other rappers to play off, which was the situation Kanye was in last night. The lack of other rappers to contribute their verses to some of his more recent work led to him simply performing a quick medley of just his verses on what seemed like dozens of tracks. He spit his rhymes with conviction and stage presence, but seemd to be hampered by some sort of sound problems with the backing tracks.

Then came Long Island’s favorite son, Billy Joel, who was much better received by the crowd in the stadium and on twitter. He performed vigorously and gave the crowd what they want, playing “Movin’ Out” and “New York State of Mind” etc. etc. This was followed by another strange interlude in which Chris Martin came out, without the rest of Coldplay, and performed one Coldplay song and then brought out Michael Stipe for “Losing my Religion.”

Then it was time for the other big hyped event of the night, a performance by Paul McCartney, first solo and then with the remaining members of Nirvana. McCartney started by performing a selection of Beatles, Wings, and solo material, including bringing Diane Krall out for a duet of a song off his most recent album.

Sir Paul then brought Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear on stage. This had been perhaps overhyped as some sort of “Nirvana Reunion” or “Beatlevana”. It seemed more like a one-off jam session but the new song they played, a heavy Zeppelinesque effort called “Cut me Some Slack” was really quite good.


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