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MailTribune.com
  • No one benefits from benefit concerts

  • They are always so bad.
    • email print
  • They are always so bad. Except for the very first one, and, of course, a few glorious moments of the one in 1985 that showcased Queen's Freddie Mercury in all his rock-god glory.
    But, as a general rule, benefit concerts are a rolling travesty, visited upon us every 10 years or so by self-important celebrities any time something terrible happens to poor people who live in low-lying areas.
    And Wednesday's 12-12-12 benefit show for the victims of Hurricane Sandy was no different.
    I streamed it live about an hour ago and once it finished, I had to walk a few laps around the Mail Tribune parking lot — in freezing fog, mind you — just to clear my mind.
    Benefit shows have a way of making legends seems small, i.e. Bob Dylan at Farm Aid in 1985; geniuses seem boring, i.e. Elvis Costello at said Farm Aid; and aging rockers, i.e. The Who at every one of these damn things, seem like aging rockers.
    There are, of course, exceptions.
    As I mentioned above, Freddie Mercury and Queen's epic performance at Wembley Stadium is rock 'n' roll lore. Mercury, powering through "We Are the Champions" and "Bohemian Rhapsody," held total sway over more than 70,000 people in what has to be the world record for a sustained sing-along. He was absolutely electric.
    In Farm Aid 1985, a fairly new band from Ireland named U2 strutted on stage for a 14-minute set that would announce its presence as a force to be reckoned with in the music industry. Watching that set now reminds me of how angry and anarchic a young and spry Bono was 30 years ago, before the 120 television screens.
    You also had Thomas Dolby join David Bowie on stage for a solid rendition of "Heroes."
    The first notable rock benefit concert was most likely the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. It was the brainchild of George Harrison and featured a show-stopper of a performance by the late, great Ravi Shankar.
    Shankar, who died on Tuesday, a day before the 12-12-12 debacle, must have smelled that one coming and decided it was as good a time as any to check out.
    The Concert for Bangladesh was mostly solid from start to finish, with Harrison, enlivened after breaking free from the tyranny of Lennon and McCartney, playing generous portions from his solo masterwork "All Things Must Pass."
    The concert was free flowing, with Harrison more than willing to allow artists to jam for extended periods. There were few of the torturous medleys that have come to define benefit concerts. Even Bob Dylan seemed to be having a good time.
    Fast forward again to 1985, when throwing money at poor African countries was all the rage among moneyed Southern California types. Hence, Live Aid 1985.
    Farm Aid was a nationalistic response to Live Aid perpetrated by John Cougar Mellencamp and Willie Nelson. The gig was meant to drum up funds to save family farms throughout the Midwest. It didn't work, of course.
    I remember watching Farm Aid on TV as a kid. My mother seemed really excited to see Foreigner play. I haven't taken the time to rewatch Farm Aid on YouTube in recent years. Not sure why. Anytime you can dig a Foreigner set sandwiched between Huey Lewis and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, you gotta do it, right?
    The problem is these concert benefits are smarmy. They have these normally aging rock stars pumping out medleys of hits that made them millionaires in 1974 between vignettes of just plain normal folks like you and me who've been ravaged by some catastrophe or another.
    The 12-12-12 show has to rank among the worst. It trotted out these oh-so-New York artists such as Billy Joel to belt out yesterday's hits, while oh-so-New York Billy Crystal riffed on all these oh-so-New York inside jokes about pierogi stands on Staten Island.
    Bruce Springsteen gave it a good go, but why is he suddenly rocking spray tan on stage with Bon Jovi? And why is he pretending that Bon Jovi is an important artist? It is the New Jersey connection? Kool and the Gang's from Jersey. Why not rock with them?
    The Rolling Stones sprinted through "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and not much else. And I'm certainly not a huge Eric Clapton fan, but he was among the highlights for me. His take on "Nobody Knows When You're Down and Out" rang true that night.
    After the opening sets, the entire thing devolved into straight-up weirdness. I stared in disbelief as Steve Buscemi took the stage with some wasted city workers to introduce, of all bands, The Who.
    The Who. Among my favorite all-time bands. I took a bathroom break during Buscemi's intro and came back to a shock.
    "Why is Bill Clinton singing for The Who?" I thought. "Oh, that's Roger Daltrey. Oh..."
    We then were treated to "Saturday Night Live" cast members, who, unthinkably, have not learned that broad comedy simply doesn't work in large stadiums. It made me remember why I don't watch that show anymore.
    I found myself drifting out periodically to follow updates of the Celtics and Mavericks basketball game on Twitter. When would it end?
    One shining moment came when Eddie Vedder joined Roger Waters on stage to team up on Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." I don't like Pink Floyd and I don't like that song, but on this night those two found a space to work with and made something happen on that stage. Good stuff, there.
    And finally, it was the moment we all were waiting for. Paul McCartney joined the surviving members of Nirvana for one song that didn't make any sense and that I will never listen to again.
    I hope the thing raised some money for those poor people hurt by Sandy. But, man, you'd think along with some cash they deserve a decent show.
    Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or mailtribune.com/crimefinder.com.
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