“The rain stopped us last time, but it ain’t gonna stop us this time!” will.i.am shouted at the 60,000 fans packed into Central Park’s cavernous Great Lawn on Friday night. Even though the Black Eyed Peas were drizzled on for a decent portion of their nearly two-hour set, they were determined that the show would go on. After all, it was the pop megagroup’s second try at this massive benefit concert for the poverty-fighting Robin Hood Foundation, after a June date was rescheduled due to a thunderstorm just hours before they were set to take the stage.
And go on it did, even though previously booked special guests Taylor Swift, LL Cool J and Carole King were not on the bill this time. So the Peas, perhaps knowing they had some ground to make up, pulled out all of their party tricks for a crowd that was eager to play its part.
The Peas kicked off the night with four of their most recent hits: the schizophrenic robo-pop tunes “Rock That Body” and “I’mma Be,” the breezy Madonna-lite jam “Meet Me Halfway” and funky Daft Punk-lite jam “Don’t Stop the Party,” and “Just Can’t Get Enough,” a piano ballad-turned-8bit raveout that typifies group mastermind will.i.am’s soft spot these days: tenderhearted pop that hearkens back to the Peas’ Elephunk days and then, often jarringly, finds its way down a blippy path into electronic bliss.
After a mercifully short medley of “Don’t Phunk with My Heart,” “My Humps,” and “Shut Up,” the Peas played an extended version of “Joints & Jam,” their only hip-hop hit in the traditional sense, and the snappy breakout song from the group’s original Fergie-less incarnation. The singer had left the stage to get ready for her own solo mini-set, and her absence left most fans distracted, even as the few backpack rap-inclined in attendance grooved along.
As it turns out, the Black Eyed Peas really do need Fergie, easily the group’s most dynamic member onstage. While Taboo and apl.de.ap dutifully held court at the center stage and danced minimally, and studio nerd will.i.am repeatedly wandered over to the band to pick up a keytar, fiddle with a laptop or commiserate with his DJ, Fergie was a workhorse – she belted, twirled, shimmied and ran to the furthest regions of the stage without pause (save for yet another costume change). Even the gender-ambiguous backup dancers, almost fully covered in speed skater-like unitards and barely exerting themselves, rendered Fergie the sole point of interest, outside of the blindingly bright projectors that dominated the set-up and put on a hell of a show all by themselves.
As it turns out, though, Fergie needed her boys just as much. She was sweet, but suddenly timid while singing her solo hits, “Glamorous” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” The former, an ode to inconspicuous consumption, turned out to be less than appropriate for the occasion when she belted its refrain, “If you ain’t got your money, take your broke ass home!” Will.i.am (well, probably will.i.am – he was unrecognizable in Daft Punk robot gear) took over from there, with 15-minute DJ set that started with his Usher collaboration “OMG,” spanned the Top 40 playlists of at least two generations (from “Sweet Dreams” and “Don’t Stop Believing” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) and completely won over the crowd.
The full Peas lineup reemerged for “Pump It,” and by the time it had, some fans were headed for the exits as the rain picked up speed. But the group kept on party-rocking as planned: “Where Is the Love,” their apolitical world peace anthem, was a moment well-suited to celebrate what the night was really all about. “We raised $4 million!” exclaimed will.i.am, thanking fans for their donations, delivered instantaneously via text message. And Fergie got all hippie on everyone, shouting, “Feel the love of Mother Nature raining down on us. She’s keeping these beautiful trees alive!” Even Taboo and apl.de.ap got their moments in the spotlight, as Taboo voiced his intent to take the group’s fight against poverty international and apl.de.ap shared his story about coming to the U.S. from his native Philippines.
Treacly as these sentiments were, it was tough to be cynical in the face of so much goodwill. After an encore of “Boom Boom Pow,” “The Time (Dirty Bit)” and “I Gotta Feeling,” the group kept the lovefest going by simply talking while the fans streamed out of the park, thanking their fans, band, crew and each other. “Thank you for letting me join this hip-hop band against a lot of people’s suggestions,” said Fergie. “I’m so proud to be in this group with these three individuals,” echoed will.i.am. His voice was Auto-Tuned, but you could tell he meant every word.