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10 Great Concerts for a Cause

From the Festival for Peace to 12-12-12

Paul McCartney

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 21: British pop star Paul McCartney performs on stage alongside other artists at "The Concert for New York City" held at Madison Square Gardens on October 20, 2001 in New York. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

Dave Hogan/Getty

When disaster strikes, whether nature or humanity is the cause, we've come to expect rock stars to respond. And when they do, they've not only raised money and awareness, but have given us surprising collaborations, moving interpretations of familiar songs and ways to collectively process our grief.

Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America is tackling this head-on, raising money for a United Way fund with a concert to be broadcast on A+E Networks (A&E, History, Lifetime, FYI, LMN, H2) on November 20th, 8/7c. Artists on board include Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Pharrell Williams, Miguel, Ed Sheeran, Eric Church, Jill Scott and more. Here are 10 concerts that helped pave the way.

Festival for Peace

Youthful fans give the peace sign during the intoduction of a protest singer at the peace rock festival being held on Aug. 6, 1970 at Shea Stadium in New York. An estimated 20,000 people attended the twelve hour festival during the session. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

Marty Lederhandler/AP

The Festival for Peace (1970)

Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary) had helped organize a successful multi-artist benefit concert at Madison Square Garden in February 1970 to raise money for political candidates opposing the Vietnam War. He and his collaborators planned something even bigger for Shea Stadium on August 6, 1970, the 25th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima. The latter show was reportedly something of a bummer at times, with the noise of planes coming and going to nearby JFK Airport marring sets and a bored party crowd booing Paul Simon off the stage. But the line-up was packed with hip stars, including Credence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf, Miles Davis, and (in one of her final performances) Janis Joplin. We can only imagine what Janis' duet with Dionne Warwick on "What the World Needs Now Is Love," sounded like: Apparently none of this was recorded or filmed.

George Harrison

Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Concert for Bangladesh (1971)

More than 7 million Bengalis had already fled to India from the genocidal war waged against their struggle for independence when Ravi Shankar approached George Harrison with the idea of putting together a benefit concert for the refugees. In response, Harrison organized an unprecedented event — the two concerts at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971 constituted the first rock fundraiser on such a scale. Shankar performed traditional Indian music, while Harrison lead a supergroup featuring Leon Russell, Billy Preston, his old bandmate Ringo Starr and a faltering Eric Clapton, then struggling with heroin addiction. Even Bob Dylan agreed to perform at the last minute. The concert raised $250,000 for UNICEF, and a recording of the performances, released as a three-LP set, would eventually raise more. "What we did show was that musicians and people are more humane than politicians," Harrison would later recall.

Live Aid

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Live Aid Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

LiveAid (1985) and Live 8 (2005)

A new era of all-star charity concerts began on July 13, 1985. British rockers Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, who had begun raising awareness of the ongoing famine in Ethiopia with the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single the previous winter, organized two full-day events in London's Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia's JFK Stadium that were televised live to nearly two billion people worldwide. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Almost everyone seemed willing to sign on, from current pop sensations like Duran Duran and Madonna to classic rockers like Bob Dylan (joined by the Stones' Keith Richards and Ron Wood) and a reunited Led Zeppelin. Nearly 20 years later, on July 2, 2005, Geldof would throw Live 8, a less epochal but perhaps even more ambitious event, which consisted of concerts in nine countries.

Farm Aid

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 22: FARM AID Photo of FARM AID and Bob DYLAN, Bob Dylan,Tom Petty & Willie Nelson performing live onstage with the Heartbreakers at Farm Aid in Champain,Illinois (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Farm Aid (1985-Present)

"Wouldn't it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?" Bob Dylan asked from the stage during Live Aid (much to Bob Geldof's annoyance). In response to Dylan's statement, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young assembled Farm Aid, a 1985 fundraiser for U.S. family farmers, held in Champaign, Illinois. In addition to the organizers — and, of course, Dylan — Billy Joel, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty performed that day; and there have been 28 subsequent Farm Aid concerts, held annually since 1992. The Farm Aid organization now provides a disaster relief fund for family farmers and has successfully lobbied Congress on their behalf.

Beastie Boys

Beastie Boys during Tibetan Freedom Concert June - 1996 at Polo Fields, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California, United States. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)


Tibetan Freedom Concert (1996-2012)

While studying Buddhism in Nepal in the early Nineties, the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch learned more about the quiet struggle of the Tibetan people to gain independence from the repressive Chinese government. Yauch and his fellow Beasties eventually rallied like-minded artists around the cause of Tibetan freedom and held a concert in San Francisco that featured the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Björk, Smashing Pumpkins, Cibo Matto, Rage Against the Machine and De La Soul. Tibetan Freedom concerts were held in six subsequent years as well, with the most recent in 2012 and the most ambitious in 1999, when four Free Tibet shows occurred on the same day in Wisconsin, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Sidney. U2, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Foo Fighters and more have used the events to draw attention to a cause that would almost certainly have gone under-noticed otherwise.

Paul McCartney

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 21: British pop star Paul McCartney performs on stage alongside other artists at "The Concert for New York City" held at Madison Square Gardens on October 20, 2001 in New York. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

America: A Tribute to Heroes (2001)/The Concert for New York (2001)

In the confusing and emotionally fraught days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, two major musical events helped America mourn our losses and celebrate our heroes. On September 21, the four major U.S. television networks aired America: A Tribute to Heroes, a telethon-style benefit concert for the victims, highlighted by Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins" ("A prayer for our fallen brothers and sisters," he called it), Neil Young's pensive take on "Imagine" and Willie Nelson's gorgeous "America the Beautiful." Paul McCartney organized the more raucous Concert for New York, which took place on October 20 at Madison Square Garden, to honor police and firefighters who had acted as first responders. The Who turned in a brutal set and the Beatle himself capped off the night movingly with six songs, including "Yesterday," "Let It Be" and a new number, "Freedom."

Stevie Wonder

Dave Bjerke/NBCU Photo Bank

Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope (2005)

In December 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean — the third-largest ever recorded — spawned a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in 14 countries. This all-star response, patterned after America: A Tribute to Heroes aired early the following month. The telecast hardly lacked for celebrities — George Clooney hosted and former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton made appearances. But the music was the main draw, with performances from Elton John, Annie Lennox, Sheryl Crow, Madonna (it was her turn to claim "Imagine") and Roger Waters and Eric Clapton, who teamed up for "Wish You Were Here."

Concert for the Gulf Coast

Mandy Moore, Bruce Willis, Michael Chiklis, Ben Affleck and Sarah Michelle Gellar at the phone bank during "Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast", the live, commercial-free, one-hour primetime simulcast Friday, Sept. 9, 2005 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/CT; tape delayed PT/MT) on all six broadcast networks as well as other programming services domestically and around the world. Donation phone lines (1-866-4AIDNOW) for Hurricane Katrina Relief remain open through Saturday, September 10th. In addition, donations can be made at www.RedCross.org and www.salvationarmyUSA.org. (Photo by WireImage House/WireImage)

WireImage House/WireImage

A Concert for Hurricane Relief (2005)/Shelter for the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast (2005)

What you remember about A Concert for Hurricane Relief is Kanye West declaring "George Bush doesn't care about black people" while Mike Myers stood dumbfounded. But the September 2005 benefit concert for victims of Hurricane Katrina also offered up fine performances by New Orleans natives Aaron Neville, Wynton Marsalis and event organizer Harry Connick, Jr. Shelter from the Storm, which aired a week later, was more strictly music-centered, with a moving collaboration between Mary J. Blige and U2 on "One" and a history lesson from Randy Newman: "Louisiana 1927," about a similar flood nearly 80 years earlier.

Bono, Jay Z, Rihanna

1/22/10, London, England, UK --- LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22: In this handout photo provided by MTV, Bono, Jay-Z and Rihanna perform together on stage at the Hope For Haiti Now concert, a global benefit for earthquake relief, at The Hospital Club on January 22, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/MTV via Getty Images) --- Image by © Pool ./Retna Ltd./Corbis

Dave M. Benett/MTV via Getty

Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief (2010)

Hosted by Wyclef Jean, this January 2010 telethon featured performances in both Los Angeles and New York, as well as reporting from Haiti, where a powerful earthquake had killed more than 200,000 people 10 days earlier. The evening was distinguished by a hefty dose of pre-rock material: Mary J. Blige and the Roots performing the old Stephen Foster tune "Hard Times Come Again No More," John Legend singing "Motherless Child" and Bruce Springsteen playing "We Shall Overcome." But the highlight of the event was a brand new song, Rihanna's "Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour)," which she performed in London with Jay-Z, Bono and the Edge.

Bruce Springsteen

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 12: Nils Lofgren, Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt of The E Street Band perform at "12-12-12" a concert benefiting The Robin Hood Relief Fund to aid the victims of Hurricane Sandy presented by Clear Channel Media & Entertainment, The Madison Square Garden Company and The Weinstein Company at Madison Square Garden on December 12, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Clear Channel)

Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Clear Channel

12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief (2012)

Hurricane Sandy ripped through the eastern seaboard of the United States in October 2012, causing $60 billion in damage. Two months later, on December 12, this all-star benefit, held at Madison Square Garden and broadcast widely on television and online, raised funds for victims of the storm in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The lineup was perhaps the most star-studded of any such benefit, with Bruce Springsteen, the Who, Bon Jovi, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Chris Martin, Michael Stipe, Kanye West and Eddie Vedder all turning out. The evening closed memorably with a rocking Paul McCartney performance, during which he was joined by the surviving members of Nirvana.

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