It began with David Bowie, sitting Indian-style alone on the darkened Madison Square Garden stage and plunking out a warm but playful version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” on a tiny electric keyboard, and ended five hours later with Paul McCartney leading a stage full of the biggest names in entertainment and a handful of police officers and firefighters through an encore version of his new song, “Freedom.”
Both performances aptly summed up the mood of Saturday night’s sprawling Concert for New York, a benefit organized by McCartney to simultaneously aid the families of the victims of the September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and honor the heroes — living and dead — among the city’s police and fire departments.
It was clear from the get-go that this was a celebration, not a wake. The Concert for New York was a stark contrast to the September 22nd Tribute to Heroes telethon, which was taped in secret locations for security and captured the mood of a shell-shocked country in the throes of mourning (resulting in exemplary performances by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Tom Petty and the Dixie Chicks). This night was a tribute to a proud and resilient city pulling itself out of the rubble and standing in open defiance of its attackers. “We are showing everybody that we do not hide in caves like cowards,” host Billy Crystal said after Bowie finished his two-song set with a rousing “Heroes.” “We are out here tonight having a great time.”
Not that there weren’t tears in the sold-out house, stroked by performances like Destiny’s Child’s “Emotion,” James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and Elton John and Billy Joel’s duet on “Your Song.” The audience was front-loaded with some six thousand members of the NYPD, FDNY, rescue workers and their families, many clutching photos of lost comrades and loved ones to their hearts or holding them in front of the cameras (the concert was broadcast live on VH1). But more often than not, when the cameras panned over the police and firemen, it was clear they’d taken the party spirit to heart — hoisting beers in the air, singing along to the Goo Goo Dolls’ righteous run through Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” playing air guitar to the Who’s explosive four song set, laughing at Elton John’s line about always loving a man in uniform and even waving their middle-aged arms in the air to Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).”
Moreover, they knew this was their party, with a handful of officers climbing onstage, apparently unscripted — who was gonna stop them? — between sets to tell their stories and call out the names of their fallen friends. One emboldened fireman used his moment in the spotlight to directly challenge Osama bin Laden, directing the al Qaeda leader to “kiss my Royal Irish ass” and calling him “Bitch!” The sentiment went over markedly better with the crowd than actor Richard Gere’s call of forgiveness over vengeance, which was met with a resounding chorus of boos.
There was nothing but cheers for the performers, however. Though the biggest whoops of enthusiasm were bestowed upon the classic rockers — which included Clapton (with surprise guest Buddy Guy), hometown favorite Joel, John Mellencamp, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the Who and McCartney — the younger performers convincingly held their own. The Backstreet Boys had children and adults alike swaying to “Quit Playing Games With My Heart,” Five for Figthing struck a surprisingly moving chord with their ballad “Superman,” Macy Gray stole a little of McCartney’s thunder with her freaky take on the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” and comedian Adam Sandler went over like gangbusters with his Operaman set, paying homage to New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and the Yankees and roasting bin Laden. Melissa Etheridge, performing solo with an acoustic guitar, nailed Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” and Bon Jovi successfully recast their pop metal anthem “Living on a Prayer” into a stirring, Mellencamp-ish heartland rocker. The same band’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” seemed a curious selection in light of President Bush’s use of the same phrase in his war on terrorism campaign, but no more so than the Who’s choice of “Behind Blue Eyes,” with it’s “No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man” lyric.
While some performers made a concerted effort to play topical songs — like the aforementioned “Heroes,” Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and Jagger and Richard’s soulful “Salt of the Earth” — the rule of thumb seemed to be play the hits in the interest of having a good time. “Tonight is a party,” said Kid Rock after his guest turn with Mellencamp on an epic version of “Pink Houses.” “Tomorrow we go back to work.”
The marathon concert — which raised an estimated $14 million for the Robin Hood Relief Fund through ticket sales alone — was supplemented by comedic and film interludes by a host of celebrity guests. Saturday Night Live‘s Will Ferrell drew as much applause for his appearance as George W. Bush (boasting of his approval rating of like, “106 percent!”) as former president Bill Clinton — appearing as himself — did when he introduced James Taylor. Directors Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Ed Burns, Spike Lee, Kevin Smith and even Jerry Seinfeld contributed short films celebrating different aspects of Big Apple life, from Yankee fever to mocking New Jersey. Other celebrities taking the stage to introduce bands and rescue workers included Susan Sarandon, Jim Carrey, Mike Meyers and Natalie Portman, who planted a memorable kiss on the cheek of a fireman who had been rescued from the rubble of one of the collapsed WTC towers.
It all culminated with McCartney’s performance, which opened with a raucous rendition of the Beatles’ “I’m Down,” peaked with “Yesterday” and closed with “Let It Be.” McCartney also featured an elegiac new ballad, “From a Lover to a Friend” (from his forthcoming album, Driving Rain) and the aforementioned “Freedom,” a straightforward, flag-waving anthem he penned the day after the terrorist attack on America. After “Let it Be” turned into a free-for-all with Joel, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, the Who’s Roger Daltrey and the rest of the gang joining on the chorus and McCartney joyously calling on Clapton for a guitar solo, the former Beatle had everyone go through “Freedom” a second time. Off the cuff and looser-sounding than a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame all-star jam, it wasn’t technically one of rock’s greatest performances, but the joyous spirit was right in the pocket: “We will fight/For the right/To live in freedom.” Only Keith Richards, speaking earlier in the show, better summed up the resounding feeling of triumph over tragedy: “You know, I gotta feeling this town’s gonna make it!”