The city of Boston is known for many things – its revolutionary history and higher education, its championship banners and ground balls between the legs, its provincial past and progressive future. After this year's Boston Marathon, the city has also been recognized for its collective pride and resiliency, which were celebrated in unique fashion yesterday at the Boston Strong benefit at the TD Garden for the victims of the marathon bombings.
Beginning with guitarist Tom Scholz's molten, Hendrix-style "Star-Spangled Banner" and ending with an enthusiastically absurd all-star singalong of the garage-rock anthem "Dirty Water," a parade of townie hall of famers from the worlds of rock and pop, comedy and sports took the stage to honor the victims and the first responders. Scholz's band, Boston – once, for you youngsters, the biggest rock band on the planet – came out of mothballs to set a breakneck pace from the starting line, and Aerosmith wrapped up nearly five hours later with an all-hands-on-deck encore that included, aptly, their version of "Come Together."
In between, emotions teetered from full-hearted to "Fuck yeah!" The J. Geils Band finished a rowdy half-hour set that recalled their working-class, pre-MTV heyday with the harmonica romp "Whammer Jammer" and the classic roof-raiser "(Ain't Nothin' But a) House Party." Dropkick Murphys, a late addition, closed their four-song set with a deafening singalong to their pirate anthem "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," which featured the strangely moving sight of the New Kids on the Block – now there's two sides of the city's musical identity – surging onstage in spangled Boston Bruins jerseys.
Bostonians are fiercely, famously protective of their own, and their own culture; as comedian Steve Sweeney, a local legend, said before introducing the Geils Band, when people ask, "How you doin'?," locals are liable to reply, "Mind your own goddamn business, you nosy bastard!" As he laid on the accent thick ("gawwwd-damn!"), the arena shook with self-aware laughter.
But the city has become much more inclusive in recent years, and the Boston Marathon attacks have made that clear. Host Matt Siegel, a longtime local radio personality, drew a rising wave of roars as he listed the people for whom the benefit was organized, from the wounded and the rescue workers to the runners, the shopkeepers along the race route and "the beautiful, sweet people who created that incredible memorial in Copley Square." Richard Blanco, the poet who read at Barack Obama's second inauguration, brought the Garden to a hush with an evocative new poem written for the event.
Promoter Don Law invited a few honorary Bostonians onto the bill, including his close friend Jimmy Buffett (who noted that "sometimes patriots come from pirate stock") and the hard-edged country star Jason Aldean, a close buddy of several Red Sox. His "Dirt Road Anthem" rap about watching out "for the boys in blue" drew hoots of recognition from the cluster of MIT police officers in attendance to honor Sean Collier, their colleague who was killed by the bombing suspects a few days after the marathon. (Aldean, the cops told Rolling Stone, was one of Collier's favorite artists.)
Sportscaster Chris Berman, on hand as a presenter alongside football legends Doug Flutie and Tedy Bruschi, noted that on the drive up from Connecticut he "took the Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston." The man who wrote that sweet nostalgia, the born healer James Taylor, shared the stage with old pal Carole King, and together they brought the love. King, seated at a grand piano, took the lead on her own "So Far Away," then joined a group of backing singers as Taylor led them on "Shower the People" and "How Sweet It Is."
"We should do this more often," King said before the pair concluded their set, inevitably, with "You've Got a Friend."
"Well, they'll take your soul if you let them," sang Taylor, pointing to the audience, big bunches of whom were swaying arm in arm. "Don't you let them."
Through the night, the mood was lightened by some of Boston's best-known comedians, including a slimmed-down Lenny Clarke, who blustered hilariously in a pair of bright yellow pants; and the sublime Steven Wright, who made the most of his three minutes with a deadpan fusillade of surreal jokes ("I have two pairs of glasses, one for fiction and one for non-fiction. I read the Bible twice, once with each pair").
The reunited New Kids on the Block, whom Donnie Wahlberg acknowledged were not especially well-liked by the city's hard-rock fans 25 years ago, were as warmly received as the rest of the acts, and they repaid the favor with surprise appearances by their New Jack Swing-era contemporaries Bell Biv Devoe (in matching Sox hats) and Boyz II Men (in matching Celtics jerseys). New Kid Joey McIntyre pointed out that he'd finished the marathon in 3:57, just 10 minutes before the bombs went off.
"It sounds like a cliché, but I'm telling you, love conquers all," he said, his voice cracking. "Love crushes hate, every single time!"
An hour or so later, Steven Tyler and his little band of roosters put the finishing touches on a night to remember. Noting (as did many other performers) how cool it was for them to share the stage with Carole King – her classic "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" was "the first song I ever sucked face to," he said – he shook off the grog of the band's flight in from Singapore with a mini greatest-hits set ("Sweet Emotion," "Dream On") followed by the all-star encore. Buffett, Flutie, the New Kids, Dane Cook and the rest of the motley crew belted out the lyrics to the Standells' ode to this city by the banks of the river Charles.
"I'm gonna tell you a big fat story, baby," they all sang lustily. It was about their town.