“Rock & roll is here to stay!” Yoko Ono asserted on the stage of the Theater at Madison Square Garden Saturday night, telling the audience that’s what her late husband would have said in response to “Imagine: John Lennon 75th Birthday Concert.” Steven Tyler, Eric Church, Aloe Blacc, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow and Tom Morello were just a few of the multi-generational luminaries who came together onstage to pay homage to the revolutionary Beatle — the Liverpool songwriter, lionhearted political activist, peacemaker and musical treasure, who would have been 75 years old on October 9th and who died 35 years ago this month. Put on by Blackbird Presents and AMC, the show benefited the poverty-fighting organization Robin Hood.
Kevin Bacon hosted the tremendous, star-packed event — airing on AMC on Saturday, December 19th at 9 p.m. ET/PT — which hit every note of Lennon’s songwriting personality, his interests, concerns and loves. In the first half of the show, Sheryl Crow played a rollicking serenade of “A Hard Day’s Night,” the Killers’ Brandon Flowers conducted an effervescent sing-along to “Instant Karma,” Latin pop sensation Juanes sang “Woman” wearing a variation of Lennon’s famous “New York City” shirt that read “Medellín City,” and Train frontman Pat Monahan impressed the crowd with an acrobatic rendition of “Jealous Guy.” John Fogerty, the biggest Beatlemaniac in the room, kicked off the night with a striking one-two acoustic punch of “Give Peace a Chance” and “In My Life.”
The most memorable performances were by the least-well-known artists. R&B artist Aloe Blacc held the notes of “Steel and Glass” for breathtaking stretches. The song, from Lennon’s dark 1974 solo album, Walls and Bridges, is about psychological extremes. “How does it feel to be off the wall?” Blacc wondered with gravitas, standing in a zippered leather jacket with arms folded behind his back. Nashville singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton, who made a splash at this year’s CMAs, gave a titillating, bluesy take on “Don’t Let Me Down,” flanked by Crow and Flowers. Alt-rock band Spoon offered 10 minutes of full-octane rock & roll.
Lennon’s activist anthems shone especially bright. The Roots gave “Mother” a hip-hop treatment, while working-class heroes Kris Kristofferson, Tom Morello and harmonica legend Mickey Raphael performed a sobering, stripped-down set in front of a picture of Lennon towering over them with his arms crossed. Morello came back for an anthemic rendition of “Power to the People” with the New York Freedom Choir, which includes representatives of nine different activist organizations in the state. This was the peak performance for so many reasons. Morello’s guitar playing was incendiary. He raised his fist to the crowd in solidarity, and, more movingly, simply pointed upward toward the sky. He played his guitar flipped over so it revealed the word “IMAGINE” in all capital letters on the back, and then, after a climactic, toe-curling solo, rested the instrument on the stage in a symbolic gesture of laying down arms.