I am generally not a fan of festivals, mega-concerts, or gimmicky guest appearances. I try to stay away from these things. However, the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief was a confluence of too many artists I cared about for me to avoid it, and we were lucky with tickets.
My $150 “obstructed view” tickets were side-stage, just past the video screen. Two seats away and across the aisle, the $250 section started. This was a pricey gig. Obstructed meant obstructed by the side video screen, and even that wasn’t too bad; artists who put their mic at the front of the stage (like Springsteen, the Stones, and the Who) were visible enough; those who needed some distance between themselves and the audience (Roger Waters, Bon Jovi) were tough to see. Luckily most of the artists I cared about were in the former category. The video screens at the front of our section, usually used for hockey or other sporting events, worked but were mostly blocked by people standing up for the show. I think that given the ticket price, the event producers could have placed two smaller video screens facing the obstructed view sections.
Walking into the Garden was fun; there was an air of genuine excitement and anticipation. I appreciated that the entrance process (at least at 6:30) was brisk and uneventful. (It is funny to me that an event of this scope in this city at this storied venue could go so smoothly, while recent concerts I attended in Kansas City and Phoenix required the audience to enter through metal detectors. If this wasn’t a target, neither is a Bruce Springsteen show on a random Thursday.) Going up the escalators to the seating area, a time honored MSG ritual, you saw a wide representation of band shirts, mostly focusing on Stones, Springsteen and Beatles.
From 7pm onward, there were constant reminders announced over the PA: “Please take your seats, the show will begin promptly at 7:30pm.” These increased from every 10 minutes to every 5 minutes to every 2 minutes, until the lights went down and we heard the countdown, the audience joining in for the “5-4-3-2-1″ and then the explosion of applause as the lights came up and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band walked onstage.
“Land of Hope and Dreams” was a little choppy to the trainspotter (*raises hand*) as the band distilled it from its usual length, but still retained majesty and power and was the absolute right choice to open the show. I expected “We Take Care Of Our Own” but thought Bruce would skip “Wrecking Ball”. Once he started playing it I understood why, but feel like the audience would have connected better with something more familiar. (The original leaked setlist had “Born To Run” as the opening song, and although I appreciated the thematic connection by using “Land of Hope And Dreams” instead, I wish he had gone with the big guns up front. This is just me being dismayed that other acts on the bill got bigger responses than Bruce did.)
The introduction of “My City of Ruins” was absolutely masterful. It was important, powerful, genuine, and a little subversive, as it spoke to the many first responders in the crowd, while in front of an audience of very monied contributors. The “Jersey Girl” tag was a fine way to incorporate history and a crowd favorite and be even more on topic, and I think a better call than performing the entire song for this crowd.
I’m not sure Bon Jovi was necessary or added anything to “Born To Run.” However, I was glad it was “Born To Run” instead of “Jersey Girl,” which was the original plan. I am also not sure anything was served by having Bruce come out later for “You Can’t Go Home.” I don’t think that either contribution was that interesting or added anything to the performance. Born To Run does not work well as a duet; I realize that the JBJ song Bruce guested on is, but I don’t think it’s that interesting of a song choice, to be honest. (I would have rather seen Bruce come out for “Dead or Alive,” which is when we saw him walk out backstage. One advantage to our obstructed view seats is that we had a completely unobstructed view to all of the setup proceedings. Major hat tip to the stage crew, they worked hard.)
“Born To Run” at Madison Square Garden is one of the most amazing moments of Rock and Roll, ever. “Born To Run” at any Bruce Springsteen concerts is one of my favorite things to watch. I have video clips of it from venues all over the world because it is this amazing, communal, transformative moment of unity and energy and of standing there singing one of the best songs ever written with 20k other people. “Born To Run” last night was not any of those things, and I don’t understand; who doesn’t know the words to “Born To Run”? Even if you only buy music because someone told you to buy it or fill up your iTunes library with stuff you read about you would know about “Born To Run,” right? And the rich donors downstairs who were the ones sitting on their hands are all old enough to grow up with it. In that moment, my only thought was: I understand why Bruce spends so much time in Europe. (This was amplified later when I watched the polar reaction to anything Bon Jovi did, which to me just sounds empty and poppy and sugary sweet. But then again it always has. I appreciate his politics and his charity work but sorry, dude, not my thing.)
Of course no mega concert bill will be perfect, and this one had a combination of all-time favorites as well as artists I respect but have no feelings about (Roger Waters, Alicia Keys, Billy Joel) and other artists I dislike on varying levels (Bon Jovi, Chris Martin). Roger Waters’ set could have been fine, but the song selection completely halted the momentum and energy of the show. I did appreciate that Waters wandered the stage from end to end, waving at the cheap seats all the way up in the rafters.
Eddie Vedder’s sole appearance in the night — despite a billing on the level with Chris Martin and Dave Grohl — was to join Waters for “Comfortably Numb.” Now, Roger Waters has another singer who has long hair and, if it was late at night, rainy, had lost your glasses and were hard of hearing, you might confuse this individual with Eddie Vedder (as many people tweeting from the show did, including journalists who should have known better). However, once Vedder walked out onstage and opened his mouth, all doubts were removed. He was in fine voice and did a great job on the song.
You send Adam Sandler out to occupy the crowd during Chanukah in New York City and he does not perform “The Chanukah Song?” and insteads performs a terrible perversion of ‘Halleujah” (which I think should no longer be performed by anyone who is not Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley anyway). Like, I am not one of those people who stands there and yells at anyone to play their hit, but when you are at a charity concert trying to raise money, that is what you do: you play your hit.
I did not expect to have any feelings about Eric Clapton, who I respect but generally find boring. I did not find him boring tonight; I think it was playing with a trio which forced him to be energetic and dynamic and emotive. If I’d never seen Eric Clapton before, this was the Eric Clapton I would have wanted to see, instead of an all-Unplugged/”Tears In Heaven” Clapton-Lite.
This was also an appropriate precursor for the next act, as Jimmy Fallon introduced (and we shouted along with him), “Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones!”
The Rolling Stones.
I have so many feelings about the Stones. I have such a complex relationship with the Stones. It is love and hate and conflict and as I get older it does not get simpler; for example, I can’t even listen to “Brown Sugar” any more (but absolutely do not judge anyone who can; I wish I could). The last time I saw the Stones was
the “No Security” tourthe Wiltern in 2002; after that, it just became so expensive and impossible to game the system and I just couldn’t justify the money, especially with all the reports from people whose opinion I trust that Keith was not himself after that “fall from a coconut tree” and Ronnie’s sobriety was questionable at best. I didn’t have the money to invest in pursuing them, and I was not sitting in the rafters with people there to just say they saw the Rolling Stones.
Like I said, it is complicated.
But last night it was just a flash and bright lights and magic and Keith and Ronnie and Charlie and Mick, and Bernard, and Chuck Leavell blocked by the large screen. I had to switch places with the SO to see Charlie better, and this was not a case where I would demur or say that I was fine; I have to see Charlie. He is the rock; he is the fulcrum.
I hate “You Got Me Rocking” and do not see, MICK, how that song choice was going to encourage anyone to purchase the pay-per-view (the reason they were limited to two songs). I said on Twitter that YMGR is the Stones’ version of “You Better, You Bet” in that it’s a song that the band rates higher than the audience does and thinks we like it more than we actually do. It was also anticlimactic. You’re the fucking ROLLING STONES. Come out, play “Satisfaction” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” drop the mic, leave us gasping for more. YGMR was a just a let-down, once I got over the initial euphoria of seeing them again.
But then it was “Jumping Jack Flash,” and come home, all is forgiven. It was loud and and familiar and beautiful to hear, standing in this building, with the ghosts and the memories. Unlike the Who, who seemed strong and solid, the Stones seemed fragile, breakable, not entirely held together tightly enough. They are old. They have lived. They have been through a lot. I defend their right to play on a stage as long as anyone is willing to give them money (and even after that, as far as I’m concerned). I just knew at that moment that I was fine with this being au revoir, at least for now.
Alicia Keys was fine, a breather, a strong performer, the only female headliner or major performer in the lineup. (I do not count Lisa Fisher or Patti Scialfa, sorry.) She is talented. She is from New York. She did not pay the Yankee National Anthem (aka “Empire State of Mind”) at this time (although it was on the list), and I was grateful.
I don’t remember the introduction to the Who. I just knew it was coming. If I have a complicated relationship with the Stones, that is nothing compared to my emotions around Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend’s current live performing ensemble. It is complicated. Again, I support their right to perform onstage whenever they want. I am just not sure I always believe it and unlike the Stones, if Townshend and Daltrey are not believing, what is on that stage is flat and lifeless. Luckily they know this too and generally only go out if they are feeling it. But this time around, i worry about Roger’s voice, and last night showed me that — adjustments to arrangements notwithstanding — I had good cause to be concerned.
The last time I saw Pete and Roger onstage was 7-6-2002, not very long at all after we lost John. I wasn’t going to that show, even, because of ticket prices (the lawn at the Gorge was $86!) but then John decided to depart this planet and a horde of Who fans in Seattle decided I needed to go, and I ended up in the fifth row and getting a piece of Roger’s tambourine at the end of the night. I have not gone since; I have not felt the need to. I had a great run.
I sang along to “Who Are You” and wondered how many people know the story behind the song. I sing along with absolute precision to “Bellboy” — a curious choice for a Quadrophenia number when the entire album is rehearsed and you have the horns there; no “Real Me”? No “5:15″? — and was lost in my teenage remembrances of hearing this record for the first time, of discovering this story, until I stopped to think, “Oh, wait, there’s the Keith bit in this song, who’s going to do–” and my reverie is interrupted by Hologram Keith Moon on the big screen, Roger facing him, as a backing tape brings Moonie into MSG. This was disturbing, and jarring, and even more upsetting as Roger seemed to interact with the screen, waving goodbye to him at the end.
The kids behind me jumped up and down and up and down as Pete started “Pinball WIzard” and I was glad that all was not lost, that, despite no one seeming to care about “Born To Run,” that “Pinball Wizard” got the respect it is due. I had just settled in to enjoying that, when I realized what was next, and “Listening To You” was overwhelming. It was always overwhelming, but this was homecoming, this was ancient times, this was love and time and, you know, so much, everything you know, everything you remember.
“Love, Reign O’er Me” was a heartbreak moment, can Roger sing it, can he do it, there was a collective, audible sigh of relief from the audience after he got through the first verse. And it was fine, it was fair enough, good enough, but sad, for a man that didn’t smoke and took care of his voice and was by far not the biggest drug user of the 60s, I wish he still had more of it. But this is a demanding piece and Quadrophenia is vocally demanding and emotionally demanding and musically demanding and while I admire wanting to tackle it again I wonder if it was necessary. But he got through it, and we applauded gently, and with feeling.
And then “Baba” to end it, everyone should have the chance to sing “Teenage wasteland, it’s only teenage wasteland” in a crowd of 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden, everyone who cares about rock and roll should anyway. It is a thing you should do. It is a thing you should see. It is a thing you should feel.
“Tea & Theater” was at the end, no musicians, just Pete and Roger, stripped down. I questioned this move, wanting something like “Bargain” or “Join Together” or one of the great Who songs about the audience, one of those anthemic, slightly obscure, unifying songs. But “Tea & Theater” actually did that, because it was for the people who genuinely cared about Pete and Roger, and it was genuine and raw and at the end, Pete shouted for everyone to go get a fucking beer.
Which most people did, or tried to do; it was time to run out and get a drink and take a breath and try to find a snack (it was a very long night; they were sold out of hot pretzels everywhere at this point). I was willing to sacrifice missing some of Kanye for all of this but we got back to our seats just as he was starting. Kanye had massive sound problems, and was the first act for whom I needed to use my earplugs.
I do not dislike Kanye West. I own records by Kanye West. Kanye had the thankless task of performing in the middle of a lineup he didn’t fit in, in front of an audience that didn’t care that he was there. And frankly, he brought it. He worked his ass off. He sang to the entire crowd, he worked the peanut gallery, he paid attention to the cheap seats. He donated his time to this charity, and he was paid back by the prime floor seats vacating, leaving the front section very empty. Now, truth be told, those people might have left after the Stones and the Who no matter who was next. But I was insulted on Kanye’s behalf.
The people who did stay did their best to dance and be into it (even Chris Christie was paying attention!) but I disliked the general rockist antipathy against Kanye because he was the only rap artist in the lineup. I mean, I hate Chris Martin and Coldplay, but I can sit down and read my email while he’s onstage and can also say, I don’t like his music at all, but he showed up in a suit and prepared and seemed sincere (and the Stipe thing was mega cool, but more on that later). It was ridiculous to watch the reaction of people to the skirt — people who probably own more than a couple of David Bowie or KISS records — and then people overreacting to the abbreviated “Golddigger,” when they didn’t have any problem with Roger Waters not changing the “do goody-good bullshit” lyrics to “Money” earlier in the show.
The mic drop to end the set was classic.
(Not surpassingly, it was a very, very white crowd last night. I was pleased to see that my section had a reasonable diversity of age and sex; there were young kids and people with grey hair and families and teenagers. I was also pleased to see that interests were wide-ranging; the African-American girl who danced to Kanye was wearing a Stones shirt; the teenagers behind us were excited and up and bopping around to everything; the 30-something women in front of me were most excited by the Who; the business-looking dude on the aisle perked up when I noted Charlie Watts’ drum kit being wheeled into position backstage: “That’s Charlie’s kit, right?”; the group of middle-aged folks down the row sneaking cigarettes all night (grr) cared about BIlly Joel and Pink Floyd. People got up or sat down depending on the artist or the song, and aside from some initial grumbles, it was very much live and let live up in the cheap seats. This was a surprising relief, as I have known plenty of people who have had stuff thrown at them for standing up during concerts.)
I realized I have not talked about any of the videos or special guests from the various hurricane Sandy areas. In our position in the obstructed view seats, it was tough to see the video. I appreciated the recognition but also felt like there was a little too much promo for Robin Hood; there were a lot of people doing good after the hurricane, all over this city, churches and council people and community boards and other organizations, like Occupy Sandy. As a New Yorker, that part did irk me, more and more as the night went on.
After Kanye’s set was about the time I started to feel a little burnt out, a little, “Wait, what time is it and who else is left?” It was a good time to sit down and have a snack (thank you, Kind bar thrown into my purse) and wait for Billy Joel.
I was trying to explain how I felt about Billy Joel, which is that I don’t hate him but he’s never been my thing (although I hated some of the songs at the time they came out, because they were everywhere, all the time, and because, as Will Hermes pointed out on Twitter, back in the day, you chose Bruce or Billy, not both.) But there’s always been something I’ve liked at Billy Joel, the songwriting, the large band, the saxophone player, the very New York attitude, the lack of pretense. He was in great shape, and it was great to see him in great shape. And I know every word to every song whether I want to or not.
I was rolling my eyes at Chris Martin and managed to safely ignore “Viva La Vida” but then the SO says, “Hey, it’s the garden gnome,” which is our code for Michael Stipe (he wears this hat in the winter that makes him look like a garden gnome, and used to show up to the Patti Smith December shows with it all the time) and this may have leaked on been rumored (it’s so hard for me to remember right now), but Michael Stipe singing “Losing My Religion” in front of all these people again was a beautiful, wonderful, fun thing.
(12-12-12 was the most-leaked major concert event I have ever seen. There were leaks of information as soon as they started rehearsing, and you didn’t have to look very hard. I was offered information on an off-the-record basis Wednesday morning and as soon as that email arrived, another one did with the same information, without any type of embargo. I had the entire lineup card not long before I walked in the building. Usually I like surprises (I was very, very glad I had avoided all of the spoilers for the ROck & Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concerts) but tonight I was just glad I knew when I had enough time to run to the bathroom before the Stones.)
And now, you know, the Beatle. The last time I saw Paul McCartney it was from the front row in Hyde Park, in the mud and the rain. Now I am seeing him with his band and they are razor-sharp and tight as hell and support him so very very well. The first few minutes of “Helter Skelter” I was all, “If we all just got pranked by the UK press I am going to be pissed,” but then I was just glad to hear “Helter Skelter” being sung by a Beatle.
I was a fan of Wings so quite enjoyed the unexpected “Let Me Roll It” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” appearances. I could question the wisdom of those selections after midnight, but at least they were songs a percentage of the people in that building and watching wanted to hear, and not the next song, a forgettable love song written for the current Mrs. McCartney, performed by DIana Krall.
(PAUL. IF YOU WANT TO PERFORM A LOVE SONG ON PIANO, TRY ‘MAYBE I’M AMAZED.’)
But “Blackbird” was perfect and special and everyone sang or sort of held their breath that they were in this moment, this beautiful perfect moment that went back to the first time they put the needle into side two of the White Album and it crackled into this track, and we all remembered.
We had seen Novoselic wandering around backstage earlier (he is the world’s tallest man; he is easy for someone who lived in Seattle for 10 years to identify even from the cheap seats) and then later the SO spotted Grohl, so we had a matched set. And then I heard Paul effing McCartney say the words, “Pat Smear,” and world collided, tectonic plates shifted, and we entered the bizarro world. Not because of sacred cows or any kind of punk cred, but because who would have ever thought this, ever envisioned this. I never got to see Nirvana; I was living overseas at the time, and despite thwarted attempts to go to Rome or go to Reading, I just thought, “I’ll see them when I move back to the States,” and then Kurt shuffled off this mortal coil about two months later once I did.
It was weird. And good. And weird. And interesting. And, as was noted by someone else, more Plastic Ono Band than Wings [disclaimer: I work there], but that was okay, too. So it was random. So it was unprecedented. If they had been able to pull it off without fifty million leaks it would have blown everyone’s minds.
“I’ve Got A Feeling” was, largely, unnecessary (even though I kind of like the song, or liked the vocals and guitar on the bridge), and hell, I love love love “Live And Let Die.” However, the last thing in the world I expected was full out, 80′s-heavy-metal stadium-quality pyro to explode full throttle on that stage at 1 o’clock in the morning. It was crazy. It was wonderful. It made me worry about the musicians and the photographers and the audience and the large group of firefighters and first responders amassed backstage for the encore.
That group of civilians was the definitive sign that we weren’t going to get any kind of grand jam finale (as well as the utter dearth of additional equipment), and it was actually okay that we weren’t getting some half-hearted shuffle through a Beatles song. But, when Alicia Keys walked out and sat down, I realized what it was going to be, and steeled myself to either leave, or just grin and bear it. But you know what? Without Jay-Z rapping about the Yankees, it’s a lovely, lovely song. And I am sorry, Alicia, that we could not sing it with you or back to you or even manage a respectably loud enough “NEW YORK” response at 1:17 in the morning, because you deserved it, you really did. But I walked out of the Garden singing it, hummed it as I grabbed a taxi back to Brooklyn on 34th Street, and am kind of glad that the demons have been exorcised from it, at least for now.
It was long, maybe too long, and disjointed and crazy and wonderful and amazing, truly amazing that this lineup could be thrown together so quickly, that there was very little filler, that it ran as well as it probably could run, that it was not a total debacle, that it made money and will help people. It is the kind of thing that makes me glad I live in this city, it is a night that you hold close to you when the rest of the bullshit gets to be too much. It is a something that I will always remember and we don’t get that many of those.