Closing out a six-hour concert that featured sets by Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Bon Jovi and Kanye West is no easy feat, even for Paul McCartney. Opening with a blazing rendition of “Helter Skelter” is a very good way to start, but midway through the set his band left the stage and a roadie handed him a square Bo Diddley-style guitar. “Recently some guys asked me to jam with them,” McCartney said. “So I showed up like you do, ready to jam. In the middle of it these guys kept saying, ‘We haven’t played together in years.’ Then I finally understood I was in the middle of a Nirvana reunion.”
With those words, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear came onstage for their first public performance together since Nirvana’s final concert more than 18 years ago. McCartney found himself in the extremely unlikely role of substituting for Kurt Cobain, but they didn’t do a Nirvana song. Instead, they did a shockingly great new tune called “Cut Me Some Slack” that’s certain to get a lot of love on YouTube in the coming days.
Even without the Nirvana reunion, the “12-12-12” concert – organized rather quickly over the past six weeks to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy – would have been one of the most memorable all-star shows in history. It was the first time the Stones and the Who had shared a stage since The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968, and throwing in Chris Martin, Alicia Keys, a surprise appearance by Michael Stipe along with Springsteen, McCartney Joel, Bon Jovi and Waters ranks it up there with Live Aid, Live 8, the Concert for Bangladesh and very few other gigs in rock history. “This has got to be the biggest collection of old English musicians ever in Madison Square Garden,” Mick Jagger quipped. “If it ever rains in London, you’ve got to come help us.”
Here are 10 highlights from the evening beyond the incredible Nirvana/McCartney performance.
1. New Jersey unites for for “Born to Run.”
It was the ultimate Jersey rock duet: Bruce Springsteen brought on Jon Bon Jovi for Springsteen’s greatest anthem. The other — even more emotional — high note of Springsteen’s set: his emotionally charged rendition of “My City of Ruins.” The song was originally written as a prayer for his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, but after 9/11 it was repurposed as a tribute to New York City. On Springsteen’s ongoing Wrecking Ball tour, it’s served as a tribute to the late Danny Fedirici and Clarence Clemons, but at 12-12-12 it was once again about battered towns on the Jersey Shore.
2. Eddie Vedder gets “Comfortably Numb” with Roger Waters.
Sadly, David Gilmour didn’t show up to perform with Waters, who opened with a series of songs from The Wall and then did two tunes from Dark Side of the Moon, with band member Robbie Wyckoff in the difficult role of handing Gilmour’s vocals. He was relieved of his duties when Eddie Vedder came out for “Comfortably Numb.” It was absolutely sensational. Sadly, it was the only time Vedder was utilized all night. He could have easily played with Springsteen and the Who, but oddly enough he sat backstage through both of their sets.
3. Adam Sandler and Paul Shaffer goof on “Hallelujah.”
Leonard Cohen’s song has been covered by so many people over the years it’s almost lost all meaning, but Sandler and Shaffer somehow breathed new life into it by turning it into a hysterical tribute to New York – complete with references to prostitutes, squeegee men and Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on extra-large sodas.
4. Eric Clapton digs deep.
Artists tend to stick to their biggest hits at these events, but Clapton was one of the first to reach deep into his catalog for an obscurity. After opening with “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” he went all the way back to Derek and the Dominos for a highly unexpected take on “Got to Get Better in a Little While.” It’s hard to imagine he could have topped it with the millionth run-through of “Layla” or “Sunshine of your Love.”
5. The Rolling Stones’ surgical strike.
The Stones had a gig booked the day after “12-12-12” and they never, ever play back-to-back nights, so they only slotted themselves in for 15 minutes. Strangely enough, they only needed 10. Opening with 1994’s “You Got Me Rocking” was a questionable move, but they made up for it with a fast and loose “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Just as the crowd was getting warmed up for more, they were gone.
6. The Who’s wild “Bell Boy.”
Of all the songs on Quadrophenia the Who could have performed, “Bell Boy” was probably the least likely pick. It features the long-dead Keith Moon on lead vocals and it is far from well-known. Utilizing archival video of Moon singing the song on the original Quadrophenia tour, the Who made the bold choice to break it out. It was a great tribute to their late drummer, and their finale of “Love Reign O’er Me” was mesmerizing, even if Roger Daltrey sounded a little hoarse at times. It’s hard to blame him. The man is 68 and coming off a pretty grueling tour.
7. Kanye West kilts it.
West took the Queen-at-Live-Aid approach to his set: cram as many hits into a medley as is physically possible. Kanye was clearly having audio problems and the bass was way too low, but he still ran through “Jesus Walks,” “Touch the Sky,” “Power,” “Mercy, “Gold Digger” and many others with incredible energy. The leather kilt was also a nice touch.
8. Billy Joel hasn’t lost a step.
Joel was the only performer of the night who has been out of the public eye for a few years. The time off seems to have treated him well. He may look more than a bit like Brian Dennehy these days, but his voice is absolutely unreal. If you closed your eyes you’d think you were listening to Songs in the Attic. It’s impossible to pick one highlight from his six-song set. Backed by his longtime touring band, Joel played “Miami 2017,” “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “New York State of Mind,” “The River of Dreams,” “You May Be Right” and “Only the Good Die Young.” He almost blew every other performer off the stage.
9. Michael Stipe’s surprise cameo.
By 12:15 a.m., the audience was clearly getting tired. Chris Martin’s acoustic take on “Viva La Vida” didn’t exactly wake them up, but then he introduced the evening’s first true surprise guest, Michael Stipe. He’s kept a low profile since R.E.M. split last year, and Martin said he came “out of retirement” to join him for “Losing My Religion.” They harmonized a bit on the chorus, but Martin stuck mainly to guitar. It was a lovely moment, but a sad reminder that R.E.M. are now a thing of the past, though if Nirvana can reform (even for a single song) anything is possible.
10. Paul McCartney’s mighty mega-jam.
Those predicting that McCartney would trot out “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude” like so many charity shows of the past were incorrect. In fact, his set featured only three Beatles tunes, “Helter Skelter,” “Blackbird” and “I’ve Got a Feeling.” For the third number he sat at the piano and dedicated “Nineteen Hundred and Eight-Five” to all the Wings fans. They had a good night, because he also did “Let Me Roll It” and a finale of “Live and Let Die.” Instead of the usual all-star finale jam, McCartney invited many first responders to stand with him onstage while Alicia Keys did “Empire State of Mind.” It was the perfect way to close out the night.