“I gotta tell ya, I never thought I’d be here at Radio City Music Hall as the opening act for Bette Midler!” Senator Joe Lieberman joked during his and Vice President Al Gore’s opening speeches at “The Concert,” a Democratic fundraising event held Thursday in New York, where Paul Simon, k.d. lang, members of the Eagles and more banded together in support of the Gore/Lieberman ticket.
Just a day earlier, Lieberman had testified at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing that the entertainment industry was marketing adult material to underage audiences. The irony wasn’t lost that the same industry was one of the more substantial sources of the Democrats’ so-called hard money. (The Concert raised $6.5 million, in fact, for the Democratic National Committee.) Celebs at Radio City defiantly laughed it off, but it was with a certain degree of uncomfortable uncertainty, as if they were undecided if Lieberman’s stance meant that he was a man of integrity who couldn’t be bought, or whether endorsing him was a self-defeating maneuver fueling the fire of censorship.
And so bits of barbed humor were sprinkled throughout the performances and introductory speeches by celebrity presenters Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Jessica Lange, Salma Hayek and Harrison Ford. John Leguizamo quipped that to make the Radio City event happen, the presenters “had to take time off from our jobs where we push a lot of sexual and deviant material.” Even Miramax Films co-founder Harvey Weinstein, who organized the event along with Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner and VH1 president John Sykes, acknowledged that Lieberman “isn’t making my job any easier.”
For her part, Midler not only stole the show with her three-song set (“The Rose,” “He’s a Rebel” and “River Deep, Mountain High,” the latter two sung with much gusto with surprise guest Darlene Love), but she also provided the best sort of balance to Lieberman’s Senate reproofs. The Divine Miss M interrupted much of “He’s a Rebel” to crack jokes about sex and politics, some mild, others decidedly more bawdy — making Tipper blush. “I know you were counting on me to make Bush and Dick jokes,” teased Midler. “Joe Lieberman is smiling at me now. Just wait until sweeps. He’s going to be coming after me with a broom!”
The rest of the political humor was directed at (who else?) Republican Party presidential nominee George W. Bush, especially the recent Republican television ads found to have the word “rats” spliced in the frame. Bush denied there was any effort to send a subliminal message, but had repeatedly mispronounced the word “subliminal,” hence Jimmy Buffett’s mockery of Bush in “Margaritaville,” where he altered his lyric to “Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, but I know it’s that subliminable [sic] message thing.”
k.d. lang, being Canadian, didn’t get quite as caught up in the politics as those who tailored their songs and selections for the evening (i.e., Lenny Kravitz’s lyrics to “Are You Gonna Go My Way” often became a clumsy but cute “Are You Gonna Go Al Gore’s Way”). Still, her “Constant Craving” was a treat, for the simple power and sweep of her vocal. Performing barefoot, she may have looked out of place in the dressed-up crowd, who ponied up hundreds of dollars per ticket, but that just underscored the point that Democrats are supposed to be the party of the people, not just of the tux and gown crowd.
Due to the nature of the event and the long list of performers on the bill, most musicians had abbreviated sets. Kravitz, Sheryl Crow and Jon Bon Jovi only had one song each, save for their joint cover of the Beatles’ “Revolution.”
Crosby, Stills and Nash and Paul Simon’s sets didn’t quite match the spirited, show-stoppers of “River Deep, Mountain High” by Midler and Love and a stirring version of “Desperado” by the Eagles — or rather, Eagles vets Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Timothy B. Schmit. Simon turned in a nice, world beat-tinged version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Graceland,” avoiding the more obvious “America” and, er, “You Can Call Me Al”?
“Have you ever seen a greater show?” asked Gore after the all-star finale (a sing-along of Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children”). The enthusiastic cheers from the faithful, as much for the candidate as for the performers, revealed little in the way of disagreement.