Whereas all things tribute — TV specials and all-star compilations — frequently veer towards the contrived, last night’s rock elite homage to John Lennon felt refreshingly true. Held at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, the event, christened Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words and Music Dedicated to New York City and Its People, was loose, inspired and almost all class. While some were simply missing the inherent chutzpah that Lennon’s classics mandate, those who shined brightest reminded how the Manhattan via Liverpool legend continues to inspire decades on from his death.
As it should have, the tribute focused on Lennon’s timeless mantra — give peace a chance — and New Yorkers’ stunning resiliency. Said emcee Kevin Spacey, “A despicable act of blind hatred has failed completely to tear us apart.” While the parade of mega-star guests (Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Steve Buscemi) said equally eloquent mouthfuls at the podium, the songs themselves spoke scores more.
Dave Matthews left his horn section in Virginia for a stirring solo rendition of “In My Life.” Expertly plucked, his bare-bones interpretation left ample space for Lennon’s perfect prose and made a convincing case for a Matthews solo album.
As is customary, quintessential Manhattanite Lou Reed was dry, heartfelt, key-challenged, trembly and downright possessed in delivering “Jealous Guy.” Like Lennon, never anything but true to art and self, Reed’s selection of arguably the songwriter’s most vulnerable number made for spellbinding, angry rock & roll. The ageless singer thrashed away at a defenseless guitar with all the frustration it must have taken to pen this song in the first place.
Buffered by a ballsy backing trio, Canadian diva-ette Nelly Furtado, with Eurythmic Dave Stewart, proved a powerful stage presence in a rousing “Instant Karma” even as her low voice occasionally disappeared in the mix. The recently invisible Natalie Merchant emerged to deliver a tastefully understated “Nowhere Man” that was nothing short of transcendent.
With all proceeds headed for a variety of charities, no one really failed at last night’s tribute. That said, a few performances missed the mark. Despite Dean DeLeo’s typically massive and reckless guitar, Stone Temple Pilots’ “Revolution” came off more like a soundcheck than what it really is — an anthem so strong even Madison Avenue couldn’t render it impotent.
Spacey himself tossed his coat aside and grabbed the mic to try his luck with “Mind Games,” which seemed to perfectly illuminate the “everyman” angle of Lennon’s music. A long standing ovation rightfully followed but odds are he’ll land ten more Oscars before Grammy comes calling.
Despite the innumerable A-list rockers in the house and on the bill, the affair actually belonged to decidedly non-platinum crooner Rufus Wainwright. Alongside Moby and Lennon’s son Sean (who turned in a delicately beautiful “Julia” on his own), Wainwright proved a vocal giant in delivering “Across the Universe.” So expansive, perfectly pitched and emotionally warming was his performance you could almost hear viewers nationwide asking “Who the hell is that?” Wainwright’s sweet reading seemed to channel John Lennon himself and the song became much, much more than just a cover.