For the thousands of people crammed into the center of Times Square on a rainy Monday evening, it must have seemed like a surreal dream inspired by a night gorging on junk food, Born to Run and The Joshua Tree. U2‘s the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. played the familiar opening notes of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” but Bono was nowhere in sight. Instead, out walked Bruce Springsteen in a leather jacket. Needless to say, the crowd – which didn’t pay a dime for the show or have any clue it was even happening until about 2:30 that afternoon – went into complete hysterics.
“I want to run!” he sang with incredible force and confidence. “I want to hide. I want to tear down these walls. . .” It was an amazing moment at a World AIDS Day (RED) benefit that came together in complete secrecy over the past couple of weeks. Originally scheduled as a regular U2 show meant to follow their planned week-long Jimmy Fallon residency, the band had to start working the phones after Bono’s devastating Central Park bike injury left him unable to perform. Nobody says no to Bono, especially an injured Bono, so Chris Martin and Bruce Springsteen agreed to front U2 for the evening, joining Kanye West and Carrie Underwood on the bill. Despite everything that goes into assembling a free outdoor concert in the heart of New York City, word of the gig didn’t reach the public until U2 announced it on their website about five hours before showtime.
Surprise guest Bill Clinton came out before the music began to give a brief speech. “You only have a minute and a half of halfway-serious talk and then it’s all fun,” he said, then read from an e-mail that Bono had sent him earlier in the day, drawing cheers with the closing line, “We’re going to win this fight.”
With that, out walked a group billing themselves as “U2 Minus 1” and Martin, who was wearing a black shirt that simply read “Substitute.” They kicked things off with “Beautiful Day” and the Coldplay frontman poured himself into the task, clearly thrilled to be filling the shoes of one of his biggest influences. “Dreams come true,” he said, “for young and old people alike.” They wrapped up with a powerful “With or Without You,” and anyone who closed their eyes could have easily believed it was Bono there in Times Square.
Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. walked offstage as Carrie Underwood’s crew began bringing out her gear, but the Edge stayed put and strapped on a new guitar. He introduced her as the “the reigning queen of country” and accompanied the singer and her band on a tender rendition of “Change,” a song about sending money to needy children overseas. She then closed the short set with her anthemic new hit “Something in the Water.”
Kanye West followed with an electric medley of “Power,” “Jesus Walks,” “Black Skinhead,” “Stronger” and “Touch the Sky.” The whole thing took just eight minutes and the speakers blasted out stupefyingly loud bass that occasionally distorted his vocals, but it hardly mattered. He was on fire and easily won over many fans that came out simply to see Springsteen and U2.
Unlike other all-star charity shows that run for hours and hours, this one clocked in at a mere 48 minutes. The stage crew was remarkably efficient, and the only drawback was the distracting Times Square video screens. It was a little incongruous to watch Bill Clinton speak about the AIDS crisis while a 100-foot-tall Kate Upton advertised Express clothing on a screen that looped through the entire show.
U2 and Bruce Springsteen could have easily entertained the crowd for an hour or two, but their headlining set lasted a mere two songs. “Where the Streets Have No Name,” which will hopefully enter Springsteen’s repertoire, was followed by “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” They’d played this together at two Rock and Roll Hall of Fame events, and once again they “took it to church,” as Springsteen commanded towards the end of the tune. By this point the cold rain was pouring down, but hardly anyone started walking towards the subway until all the performers came out for a group bow. Now let’s all hope that Bono heals up quickly so we can see “U2 Minus None” on the road next year.