If you’re Bob Geldof, how do you kick off the flagship show of what you’ve proclaimed to be “the greatest concert ever”? Well, by pairing two of the greatest rock artists on one of pop music’s most iconic songs.
The Live 8 concert in London’s Hyde Park opened with Paul McCartney and U2 performing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” igniting the crowd with the opening line “It was twenty years ago today” — a celebratory reference to the original Live Aid, which raised more than $40 million for African famine victims in 1985.
But Geldof’s grand sequel, broadcast on MTV and VH1 and Webcast on AOLMusic.com, was designed to raise awareness, not money. Live 8 brought together contemporary stars such as Coldplay, Linkin Park and Green Day with Live Aid alums such as Madonna, Sting and U2 for concerts in ten international cities — Philadelphia, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo, Moscow, Cornwall, Johannesburg and Barrie, Canada. The goal: pressuring world leaders meeting at the G8 economic summit on July 6th, in Gleneagles, Scotland, to approve billions of dollars in aid and debt relief for poverty-ravaged Africa.
Even more than Live Aid, Live 8 capitalized on its assemblage of talent with several collaborations. Early in the Hyde Park show, Coldplay was joined by ex-Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft for a version of “Bittersweet Symphony.” In Philadelphia, Black Eyed Peas teamed with Rita, Ziggy and Stephen Marley on Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” Rob Thomas performed an impressive duet with Stevie Wonder on the latter’s classic “Higher Ground,” while Maroon 5’s Adam Levine joined Wonder on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” Later, during McCartney’s performance in London, George Michael surprised the crowd when he showed up to lend his harmonies to the Beatles hit, “Drive My Car.” Geldof himself played with Travis on a cover of the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays.”
But the show-stopping crossover performance came when Jay-Z, sporting a Nelson Mandela t-shirt, tore it up with Linkin Park on “Numb/Encore” and two other “mash-ups” from their album Collision Course.
Many artists, while not explicitly political, chose songs that fit the tenor of the event. Green Day, performing in Berlin, roused their audience with the title track from their Grammy-winning album American Idiot, as well as a cover of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Maroon 5 ripped through a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and the surviving members of the Who kicked out their anthem for all seasons, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Sting revisited his Police days with pointed versions of “Driven to Tears” and “Every Breath You Take.” As he sang the line “We’ll be watching you” on the latter song, images of the G8 leaders flashed on a screen behind him. Even Good Charlotte’s tongue-in-cheek “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” seemed to carry extra weight in the context of the event.
Most artists — and a few other public figures — took advantage of their few moments onstage to acknowledge the cause they were supporting.
Will Smith, opening the show in his hometown of Philadelphia, stood in front of a copy of the Declaration of Independence and anointed Live 8 a “declaration of interdependence.” “Today we hold this truth to be self-evident: We are all in this together,” he said, before leading the audience to snap its fingers every three seconds to illustrate the death rate of children in Africa.
During a searing set that rivalled their legendary performance in 1985, U2’s Bono told a Hyde Park audience of 200,000, “This is your moment to make history by making poverty history.”
Alicia Keys told the Philadelphia audience, “I’m very, very, very proud to say I’m part of a generation that stands up, that doesn’t just sit down, while the world is being ravaged by hunger and AIDS and the demolition of the human spirit,” before performing the jazz standard “For All We Know.”
“People today are coming together as a family because our brothers and sisters in Africa need our help, so let’s change their worlds,” Killers frontman Brandon Flowers announced before leading the crowd through a rousing performance of “All These Things That I’ve Done.”
Before introducing Annie Lennox in London, a bleached-blonde Brad Pitt informed the audience that, “By the time this concert ends this evening, 30,000 Africans will have died because of extreme poverty . . . This doesn’t make sense. This is why we’re here tonight.”
Even Microsoft mogul Bill Gates got a rock star’s reception when he was introduced by Geldof and told the London throngs, “We can do this, and when we do it will be the best thing that humanity has ever done.”
Perhaps the most impassioned entreaty came from anti-Apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, who received a five-minute standing ovation in Johannesburg. “History and the generations to come will judge our leaders by the decisions they make in the coming weeks,” he told a crowd of more than 8,000 people. “I say to all those leaders: Do not look the other way.”
But no moment hit a more resonant emotional chord than when Geldof introduced Birham Woldu, a woman who appeared as a malnourished child in the documentary on African famine that aired during Live Aid twenty years ago, and who, Geldof claimed, was saved in part because of that event’s proceeds. “Don’t let them tell you this stuff doesn’t work,” he said. “You work. You work very well indeed.” Geldof then introduced Madonna who performed “Like a Prayer” hand-in-hand with Woldu and backed by a gospel choir.
The most anticipated performance of the day had nothing to do with political posturing or crossover collaborations: the classic lineup of Pink Floyd, reunited for the first time since bassist Roger Waters parted company with the band in 1983. After transfixing the audience with Dark Side of the Moon classics “Breathe” and “Money,” Waters, obviously touched by the moment, acknowledged how moving it was to be onstage with his three former bandmates. “We’re doing this for everyone who’s not here,” said Waters, “but particularly, of course, for Syd.” The band then segued into “Wish You Were Here,” the song Pink Floyd recorded thirty years ago for reclusive founding member Syd Barrett.
As the night fell around the globe, the concerts closed with the requisite all-star finales. In Barrie, Neil Young, in his first live performance since suffering a brain aneurysm in April, was joined on his hit “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World” by several of Canada’s homegrown artists, including the Barenaked Ladies, Bruce Cockburn and Gordon Downie of the Tragically Hip. In Hyde Park, virtually all the London performers crowded the stage with McCartney for a show-closing singalong of “Hey Jude.”
Whether or not the G8 leaders take heed of Live 8’s plea and follow through on recent pledges to cancel debt and increase aid remains to be seen, but the event itself served as a powerful example of the unity it preached. That may be its most lasting message.