The poignancy of Pakistani performer Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's half-hour set Sunday evening at the first of two "New Yorkers Against Violence" benefit concerts may have been somewhat lost at first on an overly-eager Beastie Boys-obsessed crowd.
Fellow musicians (most visibly Sean Lennon) gathered on both sides of New York's Hammerstein Ballroom stage, curtains conspicuously parted to watch and clap along to the premiere Qawwali singer's powerful range and dynamic delivery of complex chants, accompanied only by a hand-pumped mini-organ (harmonium), a small Indian hand drum (tabla), and the hand-clapping of two or three others in his group. In this case, the scene was not unlike one of the many highlights in D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary Monterey Pop, in which an historic performance by a similarly seated world music musician, Ravi Shankar, includes reaction shots of the attentive and overwhelmed audience, including an enrapt Jimi Hendrix.
Unfortunately, Ali Khan and company, like all of the evening's guests, weren't adequately introduced until the Beastie Boys took the stage around midnight and began to thank the many people who made the evening possible, revealing then who the group was and emphasizing that they had flown in from Pakistan especially for the show. Unfortunately, more than a few members of Sunday's young audience viewed Ali Khan's set -- less than half-way through the show -- as a conversation or bathroom break. But audience members had to break some time, because if you count the fully billed DJ Stretch Armstrong -- who set up shop in one of the VIP boxes to the left of the stage during the breakdown and set-up of each set -- the six-hour show was non-stop, moving seamlessly from act to act.
Splicing cheesy mainstream selections from Seventies arena rock to Eighties New Wave with a little reggae, rap, and R&B (imagine the corniest club you've ever gotten nostalgic in) during those fifteen-minute spurts, it was unclear whether songs were being chosen for their ability to make people dance ("Tainted Love," "Don't You Want Me"), their not-so-subtle lyrical meaning, ("War," "War Pigs," "Sunday Bloody Sunday") or for the tidbits of musical content that appeared as samples in B-Boy songs ("Back in Black," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"). Armstrong managed at times to create a fun montage of partial tunes, but more often than not, his tendency to either start in the middle of a song or cut out of a record mid-song was jarringly ugly and ultimately annoying.
Poet/spoken word artist and co-author/actor in the film SLAM, Saul Williams took the stage practically on time at 7:05 p.m. with a band consisting of guitar, drums, cello violin, and keys, opening the show with twenty-five minutes that alternated between delivering rhymes over pounding rock rhythms a la the Bad Brains, Living Colour and Tricky and musically un-enhanced, politically driven solo lyrical flow. Songs like "Om Ni Merican" combined the two, and called upon the audience members to evaluate their own sense of responsibility that comes with power.
Not all bands' content was so charged. Five songs into their set, Rival Schools singer/guitarist Walter Schreifels (an alumnus of old-school New York hardcore bands Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand and Youth of Today) referred to the show's purpose as a "righteous cause," disclaiming, "I don't know if we should be at war or not" before a newly converted RS fan eagerly interrupted to ask for a reminder of the band's name. Schreifels bragged about running into Iggy Pop and Lou Reed in the same day, incredulously asking, "People don't want to move to New York?!" "As long as Iggy's down, I'm down," he added before launching into "World Invitiational," another tune from the band's indie-edged debut album United by Fate.
Cibo Matto made no statements at all, unless you think a slowed-down, tripped-out version of Guns n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" has hidden meaning or consider subversive the New York-centric lyrics of "BBQ" (which calls out Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx), "Sci-Fi Wasabi" ("Don't give me chase/I'm at St. Marks Place/Feeling stromboli, not ravioli..."), or percussionist Timo Ellis' post-Wasabi rap "Earth Threat." Otherwise, the band delivered a shortened version of a normal gig, including other food favorites like "Beef Jerky" and ending with the metal-heavy "Birthday Cake."
The Strokes, who are only days away from headlining the same stage on Halloween, slammed through eight of the 11 songs that have critics announcing that rock is no longer dead and that this band is its savior. Opening with the album opener/title song "Is This It" and closing with the album closer "Take It or Leave It," the band went to work on the crowd. Singer Julian Casablancas kept the set straightforward, barely moving during songs and staying silent aside from the lyrics.
Where the Strokes may have looked like detached minimalists, the B-52's came on like a cosmic hurricane, no minor thanks due to the Beastie Boys' lighting director Mike Hosp. Hosp ran lights for the entire show, managing to make every set look completely unique and perfectly matched to the band's style and complimentary to the sound, even for bands he says he'd never even heard of before.
The B-52's lights hit just as hard, flamboyantly, spastically, brightly and energetically as the band. Opening with a newer number like "Is That You Mo-Dean," ending at the beginning with "Rock Lobster," and filling the space between with the best of their groovier dance numbers like "Strobe Light" and "Lava," the band remains one of the most entertaining out there. Still the crowd was, for the most part, immovable. A handful of hardcores at most tried to make it "down down" to the floor during "Rock Lobster."
It couldn't be any more obvious that this crowd had paid $50 for a half hour with one band, and anyone else, talented or not, was just not living up to that finale of a set. DJ Mixmaster Mike finally came on at 12:05, giving up an extremely short version of his solo time at the tables, introducing each member by scratching between records. Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D hit the stage to "Body Movin'," and the crowd went absolutely wild. The band didn't get too far in bringing back their own old New York rap, concentrating on Check Your Head ("Pass the Mic," "Whatcha Want," "Stand Together"), Hello Nasty ("Super Disco Breakin'," "Intergalactic," "Three MCs and One DJ"), Ill Communication ("Sure Shot, ""Root Down), and that Sounds of Science special "Alive."
Though few other artists spent much time talking, let alone preaching, the Boys had plenty to say about non-violence in general and at the event specifically, stopping the show to discourage crowd-surfing by telling people to dance "with each other not on top of each other." It was only one of several times the band had to stop and, as they put it, rewind. Rapping "Whatcha Want" to Missy Elliott's latest groove, Ad-Rock was getting his freak on so hard he lost track of the song. Mike was either having so much fun that he left the boys behind, or the boys were having so much fun that they couldn't keep up.
Yet they managed to keep the crowd reminded of why they had organized the event to begin with. "It's fucked up man; it's fucked up," Ad-Rock declared earlier. "That was my speech," he explained. "I just hope everybody's alright. That's a good speech. Everybody's alright; everybody's alright."
Throughout the night, the boys also intermittently introduced the audience to guests, including brief introductions and thank-yous from representatives of the two charities to which all proceeds will go (New York Women's Foundation Disaster Relief Fund and the New York Association for New Americans' September 11th Fund for New Americans), ongoing activist Yoko Ono, and Benjamin R. Barber, author of Jihad Vs. McWorld. Introduced as "my mom" by Sean Lennon who himself addressed the crowd, saying "I don't think anyone should be afraid to speak out against violence right now," Ono blew kisses to the audience as she crossed the stage and then spoke of the healing and uniting powers of music.
Barber delivered a five-minute speech, admitting that he doesn't usually "do concerts; I do classrooms... I do a little media," but explaining his common interests with the concert's underlying cause, which he stated as the need to extend the war to a "second front of civic freedom, democratic freedom... the kind that brings justice to the world." Likening terrorism to the anthrax disease and the eradication of terrorism to immunity, he stated "We can't just kill the germs; we must inoculate the world against terrorism." Though he received a range of cheers and boos, with some mid-speech chants of "U.S.A.", Barber ended on a high note to applause, observing "You're here because you love music . . . But I hope you're also here because you love peace, justice and democracy." Calling for the fans to do more than donate their $50 ticket cost, he asked for a "commitment to give back to them [the Beastie Boys] . . . what they give you in the concert hall."
If Sunday night is the measure, then fans will be paying that debt off for a long time to come.