Just three nights after she brought her whacked-out Dead Petz project to a nearby New York stage, a somewhat more subdued Miley Cyrus had a very different message at Carnegie Hall last night. “I just turned 23,” Cyrus beamed. “And I know I will live in an AIDS-free world.”
Cyrus being Cyrus, she spoke those words while wearing a skin-tight red-glitter catsuit. But the sentiment was in keeping with the night: “It Always Seems Impossible Until It Is Done,” an all-star evening celebrating the work of the ONE and (RED) organizations. Not coincidentally, the event coincided with World AIDS Day. Devoted to ending extreme poverty and preventable disease, ONE has made remarkable progress in nudging politicians and governments to push for more resources to fight AIDS and other diseases. In the years since the organization’s inception, extreme poverty has been reduced by 60 percent, and ONE’s decade-old sibling group, (RED), has extracted contributions from major corporations and businesses to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
For all those accomplishments, Bono, who co-founded both groups, made it clear the evening was “not a charity concert” — rather, he half-joked, a night of “the famous and the infamous, the big shots and the low lifes.” Music, speeches, theater and comedy intermingled, all with a common theme: a new, global and social-media-aware generation of activists were beginning to change the world. For them, as Bono said, “there is no more Third World, there is no more First World, there is only one world.” He introduced the evening’s host, Daily Show frontman Trevor Noah — biracial and born in South Africa — as a man who “looks like the 21st century.” Taking over from Bono for the rest of the night, Noah proved himself a capable, relaxed host, even throwing in a racy joke about being the offspring of a white European and a black South African woman (“you know the Swiss love chocolate”).
In keeping with the goals of ONE and (RED), the night honored men and women doing their best to make an increasingly unsteady world a better place. Dr. Mo Ibrahim, advocate for good governance in Africa, was introduced by Bill Clinton, who still commands rock-star-level roars when he stands in front of a podium. Bill and Melinda Gates were introduced by Stephen Colbert, who joked about everything from the possibility of Donald Trump as president (if so “it’s every man for himself”) to the Zune, Microsoft’s ill-fated iPod challenger. A bearded Sting, who didn’t perform, honored Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister and former managing director of the World Bank.
Vice President Joe Biden pronounced himself part of the “disciple of the church of Bono” after witnessing the U2 singer deal with one notoriously difficult conservative politician: “I was there when Bono walked in, met Jesse Helms for the first time and convinced Jesse Helms in one fell swoop to forgive $6 billion in Third World debt.” Biden then introduced former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, citing his work to combat gun violence and tobacco use. (Biden’s presence, combined with the recent Paris attacks, surely accounted for the heavy-duty security at Carnegie Hall, where ticket holders had to walk through metal detectors.)
The music performed between those segments also aimed for (and achieved) uplift. Backed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, which accompanied all the performers, Jessie J powered through her own “Who You Are” and gave a dramatic, vocal-showcase reading of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Demonstrating superb country-blues fingerpicking, Hozier covered Skip James and sang “Take Me to Church” with a passion that belied the fact that he’s probably performed the song thousands of times. Joined by Bono and the Edge, he traded verses with the U2 frontman on a rousing “When Love Comes to Town.” Actress and playwright Danai Gurira, shorn of the dreads she wears as Michonne in The Walking Dead, silenced the room with an excerpt from her first play, In the Continuum, in which she played two very different women confronting HIV.
Ever bold, even in an adult bob straight out of Madonna’s “Material World” video, Cyrus attempted something that could have been a disaster: singing songs from her idiosyncratic Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz album with an orchestra. Yet the gamble paid off: Stripped of studio-effects gimmickry and placing more focus on her husky pipes, these versions of “Evil Is but a Shadow,” “1 Sun,” and “Pablow the Blowfish” (with Cyrus on the piano for the latter) transformed the songs into deeper, darker performance pieces. Backed only by her own acoustic guitar, Cyrus also debuted a new ballad about the death of a friend — and, in a charming lo-fi moment, first plugged in her dead phone onstage so she could call up the freshly written lyrics.
As it had to, the evening wrapped up with Bono and the Edge. Thanks to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (and energized conductor Rob Mathes), “Every Breaking Wave” built from its somber opening to a sonic maelstrom. Still backed by the orchestra, the pair played joyful versions of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” “Angel of Harlem” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” whose lyrics took on added heft in light of the night’s global-aid goals. During a climactic version of “One,” Bono brought out Jessie J to sing one verse and Cyrus another. When it became clear that Cyrus didn’t know all the lyrics, Bono, ever the gentleman, swooped in and sang the part himself. In keeping with the theme of the night, it was a moment of in-this-together teamwork.