No one could ever accuse Alicia Keys of skimping on star power for her annual Black Ball, a benefit for her Keep a Child Alive Foundation. Last night’s event at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom was particularly noteworthy for the unexpected collaborations Keys orchestrated for an evening of tributes to the late George Harrison’s musical and philanthropic legacy. The concert – which raised $3 million for AIDS treatment and care in India and Africa – had an elaborate Indian motif, the normally beer-stained boards of the venue replaced with thick carpeting and gilded dinner tables. The ambiance paid tribute to Harrison’s pioneering leadership of the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, the first large-scale rock & roll benefit concert.
Indian fusion musicians Midival Punditz and Indian-American electronic composer Karsh Kale opened the set with a sprawling jam on Harrison’s track “Within You Without You” (off the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and one of the first explorations of the Eastern influences that would define his career). They were replaced swiftly with Keys and British rapper Jay Sean sharing Harrison’s hit ballad “Something” (off Abbey Road), revising it as a sultry and melismatic R&B duet.
The revolving, 12-plus backing band added brassy emphasis to the evening’s showstopping number, Keys’ and blues-rock guitarist Gary Clark Jr.’s incendiary, freewheeling spin on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It was a truly sensational, towering moment of psychedelia, with Clark’s thickly distorted strings churning heavy theatrics worthy of Eric Clapton (the uncredited soloist on the Beatles’ original White Album recording) and Keys wailing her verses in matched ferocity from an adjacent piano.
Norah Jones – daughter of Ravi Shankar, sitar virtuoso and co-founder of the Concert for Bangladesh – delivered a sweetly plaintive solo rendition of her single “Don’t Know Why” at her piano; it segued into a lithe duet with Keys on “Isn’t It a Pity,” an autumnal track from Harrison’s classic triple album, All Things Must Pass. The moment of spiritual solemnity was uplifted by the next guest, Usher, who strode the Hammerstein boards in dark sunglasses and rattling chains, crooning his “OMG” a bit indeterminately (seeming to attempt one of every three notes). He appeared almost as pleasantly bewildered as the audience when Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora abruptly hit the stage to peel off the final notes of the song. Usher, Keys, and Sambora then shared duties in a delicate rendition of Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” and Keys abetted that optimism with a sparse, rapturously delivered solo rendition of “My Sweet Lord.”
“It’s incredible. The way my wife organized the music tonight – she’s a superwoman,” producer Swizz Beats told Rolling Stone about Keys. “And when you have a superwoman planning this kind of event, it’s all one of ones. The way you’re going to hear these songs, you will only hear them tonight.”
The attendees were just as star-studded as the performers, and included Tyra Banks, Padma Lakshmi, Queen Latifah, Serena Williams (who told Rolling Stone she was “thrilled” to see Usher perform) and George Harrison’s widow, Olivia, who told the crowd, “Tonight we’re all here because of the compassion and courage of two people who never met,” and pledged a donation to Keys’ charity. A lively auction offered trips to India, private tennis lessons with Williams, and a 66-carat ruby; those proceeds also benefited Keep a Child Alive, which provides treatment and assistance for children and families affected by HIV and AIDS in India and Africa.
The evening concluded with a pure pop performance: Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas materialized onstage, dapper in a black suit, to chirp through “Where is the Love?” and “I Gotta Feeling” with Keys. For the latter, the previously demure audience of socialites and philanthropists leapt to their feet and crowded the stage (an adoring move Harrison would have recognized, surely) to bounce in place with the pair’s giddy chants. High above the stage, projection screens displayed a traditionally ornamented Bollywood dancer gyrating in unison with the very Western dance hit – an oddly perfect moment of pop universality.