Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Rainforest Benefit 2002

I've not written a long email to a group of friends since returning from London. I had planned to write a report of our trip to Italy last September; but the crimes committed at the World Trade Center made my travelogue seem inappropriate. In a nutshell: We saw David in Firenze, shopped for shoes, handbags and gladrags in Milano, dined in Siena and loved every minute of our time in Tuscany.

Many times since moving back to Herald Square, I have thought about writing to you all about being back in New York, but everything came out seeming so trite; and my political analyses have infuriated so many of my friends that it's been difficult for me to find an agreeable way to talk about life. Even a report and/or review of attending the Tibet House Benefit was scrapped, because mentioning the Tibetan issue feels uncomfortable in these brave new times where supporting military attacks is progressive and speaking out against war is despised.

Well, last Saturday, Anne and I attended the 11th Annual Rainforest Benefit at Carnegie Hall. The Rainforest issue does not feel uncomfortable to discuss! Even us bad guys want to save the Rainforest.

I did not know beforehand that this annual benefit was the largest environmental fundraiser in history. Record-breaking. The fact that $275 gets you a seat in the Dress Circle and you need to spend ten grand to get to the orchestra explains why.

Elton John, Sting and James Taylor have done all eleven of these benefits.

Mrs. Mac is a fan of Sting and we take in at least one Sting performance each year. The last Sting show we saw was "The Road Of Kings" in Hyde Park, last Summer. It was at that show that my defenses were finally worn down and instead of insisting that Sting is (at best) dull, I have come to accept that every generation has a balladeer and Sting is a very good balladeer. That I think balladeers are uninteresting is tertiary.

I dreaded the notion of listening to Sting sing a bunch of ballads and a couple of Police songs, followed by James Taylor rehashing all that Sweet Baby crap (hate me if you will, but I still find it boring), and Elton John tearfully rendering Candle In The Wind and screeching through Bennie And The Jets. It just seemed like a serious waste of six hundred bucks!

Right through until 4:00 Saturday afternoon, I was wondering if there was some way I could get out of going. Deep down, I knew I would be unable to wiggle out of attendance, but I was fantasizing.

The event was titled "Give Me Love, Give Me Peace on Earth" and the first half of the show was a tribute to George Harrison.

The nice thing about seeing a show at Carnegie Hall is that the sound is spectacular and there really are NO bad seats. So, after we climbed to the Dress Circle (which in a less pretentious theatre would be called the First Balcony) and took our seats, I caught my breath and read the program.

Imagine my surprise when I read:

"Give Me Love, Give Me Peace on Earth"
Performances by:
James Taylor
Elton John
Anoushka Shankar
Jeff Beck
Han-na Chang
Rebekah Del Rio
Wynonna Judd
Patti Labelle
Smokey Robinson
Narada Michael Walden
Dr. Nina Simone

Wow! The orchestra was conducted by Walden on drums and included Hiram Bullock and Nile Rodgers on guitars, Nathan East on bass, Jim Horn, Andy Snitzer, Lew Soloff and Tom Malone on horns, Greg Philliganes on piano, Frank Martin on keyboards, Chris Plamaro on organ, Bashiri Johnson on percussion, and Janis Pandarvis, Cindy Meisel, Ada Dyer and Tabitha Fair as singers.

The show opened with the three boys (Sting, John, Taylor) performing "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)." The first thing I noticed was how friendly Elton John was being. Since announcing his membership in the Judy Garland Fan Club, he has gained the reputation of being a bit of a priss and a prick to work with. During this opening number, he made no noticeable attempt to be the center of attention or display any ill-temper. The three of them seemed to genuinely like one another and enjoy each other's company.

Ravi Shankar took the stage to talk about George Harrison's work for peace, harmony, and equity in the world. He told stories of teaching Harrison and working with the Beatles, and described the process of writing a new raga in Harrison's honour.

The only time I saw Shankar perform was at Boston Garden during the 1974 George Harrison tour. Shankar was remarkable and I looked forward to seeing him again. Sadly, his advanced age prevents him from performing, so his daughter Anoushka played the piece. She was as good as her father (maybe better, certainly more energetic than I remember him).

Elton John then explained that he was going to sing the song that all songwriters wish they wrote themselves. "Hmmm," I thought to myself. "He's going to sing 'Tears Of A Clown,' that's odd." He then sang "Something." I was mistaken. Still, I'm certain that it's "Tears Of A Clown" that all songwriters envy!

Sometime in the late 1980s, or so, I saw Nina Simone perform at Boston Symphony Hall. She was remarkable. I have always been a fan. Tonight, no preconceived ideas about Simone mattered and I could not be prepared for what happened next. The Boys escorted the elderly Dr. Simone to a grand piano and she sang "Here Comes The Sun." I was floored. I cried like a little girl, worse, like a little boy. She was absolutely POWERFUL. She was helped off-stage with the promise that she would be back for the second half.

Jeff Beck then joined Sting on stage and they performed an average of an average song: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Jeff Beck is an amazing guitarist, but he seemed unrehearsed, or the mixing was bad. Sting sang as Sting sings and I am not any more impressed by the song this night than I had been (or not been) in the past.

Taylor then joined Sting onstage and explained how happy he was when he learned that Harrison had written "If I Needed Someone," because it meant he could sing it tonight. They pulled up a couple of barstools and acoustic guitars, started to perform and I found the bar thank you. Here was the performance I feared. Can you spell dull?

The bar was full and their rendition of the song was long. The crowd settled, and speeches began.

Finally, cellist Han-Na Chang performed a piece that was unfamiliar to me. She was remarkable and the music was beautiful!

Rebekah Del Rio then sang a Spanish version Roy Orbison's "Crying" ("Llorando"). It was beautiful. Not sure of the Harrison connection here. Were they in the Traveling Wilburys together? Maybe that's the connection.

The first half wrapped up with Sting and Taylor singing a very subdued "My Sweet Lord." They were joined by Wynonna Judd, Anoushka Shankar, Rebekah Del Rio, the New York Children's Choir and a throng of representatives of indigenous people who receive assistance from the foundation. The song started rocking. Nice.

Having visited the bar, I knew to make a quick break from our seat to get in line for the intermission. We were second in line and had drinks and candy in no time. After making some calls to tell people about the line-up, we took our seats for Part 2.

Sly & The Family Stone's "Dance to the Music" by Patti Labelle, The Boys, Lulu and Rebekah Del Rio opened the second half.

Elton John and Lulu then sang "River Deep, Mountain High" with Elton singing the 'girl part' splendidly.

John left the stage and Lulu sang "To Sir, With Love"! Yep! She sang it. Right there on the stage in front of me was Lulu, looking fantastic, singing one of the best songs of all time! I really couldn't believe it. Still can't really. I saw Lulu sing "To Sir With Love." Live. In person. At Carnegie Hall. Wow! Cool!

Sting returned to the stage alone and sang "King of the Road," Roger Miller's sixties hit! I was impressed. Unlike some of the other songs, he had rehearsed this enough to carry it off admirable. What fun! It was a sing-along at this point. Who could shut-up? Prior to "King Of The Road," I had settled for moving my lips to these songs of my childhood, but during this song, you could hear voices throughout the hall singing along.

At some point (maybe at this point), Elton John announced that this was the part of the show where everything sunk really low and he sang "Then He Kissed Me"! Irrespective of what I think of his catalogue over the last two decades, the man IS an entertainer. Tonight he was humble, self-deprecating, amusing and fun! And who taught him to dance? He can dance!

I know that James Taylor adores American R&B music. He talks about it, he has covered some famous songs. He gets genuinely excited about it. Taylor is a survivor, like so many of his peers. He has gone through the wringer and come out the other side a little worse for the wear, but alive. However, does survivorship provide carte blanche? Taylor's rendition of "On Broadway" was listenable only because of the four girls singing back-up.

Things quickly picked up when Patti LaBelle sang "Lady Marmalade." What more could I ask from Patti Labelle? Well, she could have sung "I Sold My Heart To The Junkman," but that is really pushing it, I think.

The opening notes of "Tracks of My Tears" are distinctive to me. I think it is one of THE songs of the sixties (I know you are mostly appalled that I have no Beatles songs on my list of best songs of the sixties, but ya gotta admit, Motown was much more fun to dance to). When those chords were played on a blackened stage, I got goose bumps. When the lyrics started, a baby-spot caught Smokey Robinson slowly strolling from stage right. He looked great! I think he tied Lulu for the They-Are-How-Old-?-And-They-Can-Wear-That-And-Look-So-Good Award. When Tracks ended, The Boys joined Robinson onstage dressed in sequined jackets (more O'Jays than Miracles) and sang back-up for a medley of Robinson-penned tunes. John stole the show (again without being over-bearing, mean or offensive) when he suddenly donned a string of pearls over his simple black outfit and sang the Mother part of "Shop Around"! Later, John had Robinson giggling and the crowd roaring when he took over on "My Guy"! Splendid! The medley was: "My Girl," "Oooh Baby Baby," "Shop Around," "Really Got a Hold of Me," and "My Guy." Pretty amazing!

Wynonna Judd took the stage and meekly asked how anyone could follow THAT! She did a remarkable job! I never knew she had that voice. The song she was to sing was not announced, I could not put my finger on it. It certainly sounded like a Dusty Springfield song and Judd's rendition of it made it sound like a Dusty Springfield song; but, then it sounded like a Dionne Warwick song. STOP! You're both right! Judd's version of "Anyone Who Had A Heart" was beautiful.

Next, she was joined by Sting and they performed "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." Sting got down on his knees at the appropriate point of the song and sang to Judd who looked to the audience and begged: "Someone get a picture of this, please." The photo is somewhere on Yahoo.

James Taylor then tried to sing "Working in a Coal Mine."

After a long moment, Sting told the story of Stevie Wonder writing the song "Superstition" for Jeff Beck. When Berry Gordy heard the song, he insisted it not be given to a British rock star, because it was hit material. The rest is history. This night, Sting and LaBelle sang while Jeff Beck played the song written for him thirty years ago.

Labelle left the stage and Jeff Beck roared into the opening chords of "Purple Haze." Sting did his very best trying to sing this psychedelic anthem. It would have been best as an instrumental. I don't think Sting knew the words.

Rebekah Del Rio followed with a wonderful version of "La Bamba" with The Boys and all the rest.

The stage emptied and Dr. Simone was escorted back to perform Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (Do Not Leave Me). Next she banged out, and I mean really banged, out an old Jazz number that I thought was "Everyday I Have The Blues," but others say was "Baby Don’t Care." Irrespective, it was grand!

Patti LaBelle walked Dr. Simone to a chair front and center and talked about how important Simone has been to American music and to her personally. The two of them began an a capella rendition of "O! Happy Day!" and were eventually joined by the orchestra and entire cast. Simone rose to her feet a couple of times to swing to the music. The audience was on their feet! It was another remarkable site!

And I guess that's it!

Reza was waiting for us on 57th Street. We were ensconced in the back seat just as the rain started. The ride home took us through Times Square which gets brighter, more high-tech, busier and cleaner by the hour, and will never cease to amaze me. If you haven't seen Times Square at night in the past few years, add it to your list! We were home and changed out of our evening clothes by 10:45!

(BTW, the Tibet House benefit was a concert at Carnegie Hall by Philip Glass, David Bowie, Ray Davies, Chocolate Genius, Kronos Quartet, Patti Smith and others, back in February. Brilliant!)

(PS: Please let me know if you want to be removed from these group mailings.)

Peace and love,