Bruce Springsteen, the Who, Billy Joel, and Beatlevana: On the scene at 12-12-12

12-12-12-concert

Image Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

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 had the honor of kicking the show off, beginning his band’s brief set with “Land of Hope and Dreams.” As Jersey’s greatest ambassador for well over three decades, Springsteen sweated and howled through the opener’s anthemic refrain, only to raise the stakes on “Wrecking Ball,” a defiant anthem of hope from the album of the same name.

“Wrecking Ball” started a running theme of transformation through out the night: Familiar songs became re-packaged and recontextualized, and themes of renewal and rebirth crept up during the finest performances.

Such was the case with Springsteen’s “My City of Ruins,” which was originally meant to be an ode to the E Street Band’s adopted hometown of Asbury Park but morphed into something different in the wake of 9/11. The song has circled back again now that parts of Asbury Park are literally in ruins, and Bruce’s insistence that we “rise up” has a whole new meaning this time around.

After closing with “Born To Run” (as E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt said later, “We had to play a fun one”) with the help of Jon Bon Jovi, Springsteen made way for Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. It was an awkward transition from Springsteen’s blue-collar concerns to Waters’ paranoid future fantasies, and the energy level was taken down considerably.

The appearance of a strange dance troupe wearing T-shirts that read “Fear Builds Walls” during “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2″ further confused things. Only the appearance of Eddie Vedder, who sang the pretty parts during “Comfortably Numb,” saved Waters’ set from completely 86’ing the momentum that Springsteen had built up.

Bon Jovi hit the stage next, though not before Adam Sandler came out to sing a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (with the assistance of Letterman‘s Paul Shaffer) that included the line, “Hallelujah/ Sandy, screw ya/ We’ll freakin’ kung fu ya.” Luckily, the crowd-pleasing “It’s My Life” won the crowd back.

Delivering one of the most applauded sets of the night, Bon Jovi also managed to elevate the faux-country of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” into an anthem of community and brotherhood (it helped that he brought out Springsteen for that one, which highlighted just how much that song owed to his legacy).

“Livin’ on a Prayer” delivered the same message of hope it did post-9/11, and “Wanted Dead or Alive” is simply one of the best songs of the ’80s—along with “Shout at the Devil” and all of Appetite for Destruction, it’s the best reason for hair metal’s existence.

Eric Clapton joined the fray next, dealing out some good old-fashioned power-trio blues that included Cream’s “Crossroads.” Never much of a talker, Clapton went about his business as though he wasn’t playing a massive benefit show in the world’s most famous arena. Rather, he merely jammed with his rhythm section and treated MSG like any other juke joint—an inspiring approach that honestly didn’t play all that well in a cavernous basketball arena but was almost certainly killer on TV.

Then the weirdness began. Jimmy Fallon introduced the Rolling Stones, who were added to the bill relatively late but who happened to be in the area for a set of 50th anniversary shows. Set opener “You Got Me Rocking” felt a little bit sluggish—swampier than usual, perhaps, with Keith Richards laying on everything just a tad thick. Perhaps they just needed to get warmed up?

But then the usually spry “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” suffered the same fate, and that was it. Despite the enthusiasm for their appearance, Mick and the boys delivered the evening’s first true disappointment.

Things only got weirder during 12-12-12’s middle stretch. Alicia Keys performed by herself at the piano, cooing the breakup ballad “Brand New Me.” It was lovely, though thematically a little wonky for this type of concert. She followed that with “No One,” which allowed her to riff on common themes of love and togetherness but lacked the rhythmic punch the album version packs. And just like that, she was gone too.

The short performances by the Stones and Keys suggested that the show was already pressed for time. But if that was the case, the Who didn’t care. They took their time doling out a ghastly half hour of music that contained many of the evening’s musical low points.

They opened with an extended version of “Who Are You,” easily one of the worst songs in the band’s catalog (though also one of their best-known hits, thanks to CSI). They followed that with “Bell Boy,” a confusing tribute to long-dead drummer Keith Moon that found a video of Moon taking the lead vocals while Roger Daltrey had his back to the audience.

Daltrey should have used that time to rest—while Pete Townshend does his best to anchor the songs with his still-muscular guitar work, Daltrey often seemed like he was having trouble catching up to himself (especially on “Baba O’Riley”). “Love, Reign O’er Me” represented the entire concert’s low point, as Daltrey reduced an otherwise pretty (if esoteric) melody into a meandering dirge. If he worked on the rest of his presentation as much as he did on his pecs (which were exposed throughout the second part of the group’s set), he might have had something.

Next up was Kanye West, who undoubtedly had the most polarizing performance of the night. Clad in a leather skirt and a hoodie that read “Pyrex 23″ on the back, West darted across the stage by himself with a singular intensity, spitting a seamless medley of most of his biggest hits (including “Mercy,” “Power,” “Gold Digger,” and “Stronger”).

He tossed in his remix of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” specifically to spit that lyric about a hurricane, and he turned the self-centered “Runaway” into a tone poem about reaching out to the ones you love.The people occupying the VIP seats seemed to be using Kanye’s set as a bathroom break, but they missed out on one of the most invigorating live performances of 2012—the dude absolutely killed it. Take notes, Daltrey.

Following a guy like West can be difficult, but Billy Joel was up to the task. The veteran piano rocker put forth the evening’s most thematically consistent and aesthetically pleasing performances: “Miami 2017″ featured all the lyrical modifications he made when he played it at the last Sandy telethon a few weeks back, and the inclusion of “River of Dreams” was a nice nod to Sandy-affected Connecticut.

The centerpiece was the one-two punch of “Movin’ Out” and “New York State of Mind,” both of which sum up the powerful defiance that Joel hoped would stick with the hurricane’s survivors as they start to get their lives back. “We’re just too mean to lay down,” Joel joked from the stage.

Chris Martin has never been accused of being too mean, though he is one of many Englishmen on the bill who have adopted New York as a second hometown. His solo acoustic set was dedicated to a man who worked in his building who passed away in the storm, and it was a brief but lovely run through some of his band’s most indelible (and recent) melodies. The big surprise came when Martin introduced Michael Stipe (another adopted New Yorker) for a spin through R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” which somehow sounded both gentle and forceful. Martin’s performance was kind and open and playful—a spirit he should adopt more often to counter-balance the seriousness of his band’s tunes.

Finally, it came time for Paul McCartney to send everyone home. Though Martin had referred to him as “the Beatles” earlier, Macca used his set to prove that he was more than his most famous output. After opening with “Helter Skelter” (still one of the five best riffs ever constructed on a guitar), he spun through a pair of Wings tunes (“Let Me Roll It” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five”) before introducing the first of his special guests: Diana Krall, who played with McCartney on his recent solo joint “My Valentine.”

Then it came time for his other special guests. There was a lot of hand-wringing all day about McCartney’s team-up with the surviving members of Nirvana, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear. Would they really make Sir Paul sing “Here we are now, entertain us” through a marble-mouthed warble?

It turns out the concerns were unfounded. But the foursome didn’t just bust out a Beatles song, either; instead, they played a brand new tune that wasn’t given a title but did have a twisty Zeppelin-esque edge to it. (UPDATE: Turns out the song is called “Cut Me Some Slack.”) It didn’t have much of a melody (nobody in the press room could remember much about it four seconds after it ended), but it did allow Grohl to absolutely pound the stuffing out of his kit. He’s a great frontman, but the drums will always be his true calling.

McCartney sent Grohl, Novoselic, and Smear back to the dressing rooms to finish out his set, which consisted of an extra-epic “Live and Let Die” and a collaboration with Alicia Keys on her “Empire State of Mind Part II.” The end was a bit of a comedown, partially because of the hugeness of “Live and Let Die” and partially because Keys’ version of “Empire” pales in comparison to the Jay-Z-centered original.

But it did get the thousands in attendance shouting “New York” as they walked to the exits — a fitting finale that, despite the overwhelming presence of old English gentlemen, was all about rebuilding and re-establishing the neighborhoods hit hardest by Sandy. It was a chant birthed in the spirit of defiance and transformation, and it echoed into the New York night.

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