Amnesty's message was clear, but was anyone listening to the words?
Not so long ago, the average American rock fan probably treated Amnesty International with the same level of terminal indifference usually reserved for strained spinach or "Masterpiece Theater." Hey, it may be good for me but I gave at the office; now get out of my face.
It's unfortunate that the globally recognized human-rights organization has had to resort to showy theatrics to draw this generation's attention to the principles of basic individual liberties, especially in an election year, when such topics should be on the national agenda anyway. Still, the more than seven hour Amnesty International-sponsored Human Rights Now! marathon at the LA Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday night - featuring Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N'Dour, Joan Baez and constant reminders to read the 30-point Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 - ranks as one of the most inspiring showcases of rock consciousness-raising. In an era when rock 'n' roll "cause" tours of all stripes have become routine, (just more grist for the "Entertainment Tonight" glitter mill), the success of Human Rights Now! was no small feat. From the start, it didn't appear possible. This tour, which began in London on Sept 2. and ends Oct. 15 in Buenos Aires, is a sequel to the successful Amnesty International-inspired Conspiracy of Hope concert swing two years ago that featured U2, Peter Gabriel and Bryan Adams, among others. The odds running against staging another successful tour, this time across five continents, were heavy.
The first problem was the scale of this tour - much larger. Whereas Conspiracy of Hope made do with the 16,000-seat Forum, the current show was booked into the 80,000-plus-seat Coliseum. The sheer size of the venue, along with the problems generally associated with events of such a grand scale, may have been one of the factors explaining why Wednesday's star-studded event failed to sell out. (Of 64,000 available seats, 57,000 were sold.)
Generally, when rock is transferred to such a sprawling environment, it ends up seeming forced and contrived. Smoke bombs, explosions and pyrotechnics can never make up for genuine passion.
Wisely, no one on this bill overreached - they just played with heart and commitment - and the performers turned what could have been an artistic and logistical nightmare into the most satisfying rock show of the season.
Human Rights Now! began on a low-key, human scale. Showing off their newfound solidarity, Springsteen, Sting, Gabriel, Chapman, N'Dour and Baez emerged from the wings en masse for a rousing version of Bob Marley's classic anthem of oppression, 'Get Up, Stand Up'. With the crowd put into the proper mind-set, Springsteen introduced a veteran of many benefits, folk singer Baez.
Baez, because of her background, added a sense of history to the proceedings. With her haunting vocal style used effectively on such songs as John Lennon's 'Imagine' and Bob Marley's 'No Woman, No Cry' (dedicated to Chile's political prisoners), Baez was a reminder that some in the music industry were involved in human-rights struggles long before Band-Aid organizer Bob Geldof had even figured out how to be a punk, much less save the world.
Her 15-minute set was followed by an infectious, half-hour performance from Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour. Brought to world attention by Gabriel, with whom he toured two years ago, N'Dour combines Western pop shadings with his native style of mbalax, which bears a polyrhythmic similarity to Nigerian juju music. With the possible exception of any Senegalese in the audience, no one in the crowd could understand the non-English singing N'Dour, but everyone could interpret his highly percussive, exceedingly accessible Afro-pop.
N'Dour's presence on the show was important because he's the only link with the Third World on a bill that is oriented overwhelmingly toward white, Western listeners. (Aware of this possible PR problem when the bandwagon travels to Africa, Asia and Latin America, Amnesty International is inviting local acts such as Brazilian Milton Nascimento and South African Johnny Clegg to join the show in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and the Ivory Coast, respectively. By all rights, considering South Africa was the brunt of much of the evening's scorn, Clegg should have been on the North American leg as well.)
Perhaps the most anxiously awaited performer was folk singer Tracy Chapman, who has made only a few Southern California appearances since the spring release of her best-selling self-titled album. Armed only with acoustic guitar and that magnificent voice with its deep vibrato, she enthralled the crowd with a no-frills set that proved that - even in a cavern like the Coliseum - understatement can go much further than the grand, empty gesture.
Though many of her songs are stylistically and thematically similar - bare-bones chords supporting tales of striving and surviving on the wrong side of America - they were stunningly effective. 'Fast Car', 'Baby Can I Hold You?' and 'Talkin' About A Revolution', for example, carried an even bigger punch than on record. The one new song, 'Freedom Now' (warmly, if predictably, dedicated to imprisoned South African activist Nelson Mandela), indicated Chapman is no one-hit wonder and, judging from the enthusiastic response, her musical future is assured.
It was unfortunate that the sound quality - astonishingly crisp and clear for the first three acts - became as murky and thick as day-old oatmeal for Peter Gabriel. On record and in past performances, Gabriel has been an audiophile's dream, mixing up progressive rock, folk, African music and hi-tech electronics into a heady, intoxicating and stylishly original brand of pop. Many of those subtleties were lost during his 65-minute performance, but Gabriel is such a visual performer, and his songs have such an innate strength, that they endured, even if they didn't triumph.
Gabriel was so inspired by the proceedings that he even hauled out his classic anti-war anthem 'Games Without Frontiers', a song he's rarely played live. Turned into a duet with Sting, 'Games' has lost none of its impact in the five years since its release. But that was just the beginning of Gabriel's segment, which built in dramatic intensity, thanks to the English singer/songwriter's athletic grace (scampering around the stage like a wounded chimp in 'Shock the Monkey') and the use of a praying mantis-styled lighting rig that loomed over Gabriel and the audience like a menacing, metallic alien.
Without Kate Bush, Gabriel's duet partner on the song, the plaintive 'Don't Give Up' threatened to become comparatively thin and empty. But then Chapman stepped onto stage with him, giving 'Don't Give Up' an earthy persona unlike Bush's ethereal grace but equally rewarding. Closing with an Africanized 'In Your Eyes' (with N'Dour) and 'Biko', his anti-apartheid anthem, Gabriel confirmed his position as one of rock's most arresting figures.
To get into the spirit of the occasion, Sting must have left his ego somewhere in the Coliseum parking lot. Departing from his recent solo tour, when he took off his shirt and the giant video screens focused on his pecs to the squealing delight of thousands, he kept his shirt on (though the presence of more large video screens must have been tempting) and kept the emphasis on the music. With the sound system miraculously OK again and his expert band, featuring saxophonist Branford Marsalis and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, Sting swung through his hour set with grace and style. Disappointingly, though, Marsalis was reduced to backup position while Kirkland enjoyed much of the solo time.
Sting's choice of material was impeccable - ranging from the amped-up reggae of 'One World' to the soaring fanfare blasts of 'Fortress Around Your Heart' - but it was the funky 'Bring On The Night'/'When The World Is Running Down' medley that showed how tasty Sting's pop-jazz melange can be. Of course, Sting's ego had to surface just a little - while chiding the crowd for not singing loudly enough, the bi-coastal blond sought to identify with everyone by saying, "I live here part of the year. It's almost my hometown."
With his marital status splashed all over the tabloids and fresh from a strenuous tour, the evening's big draw - Bruce Springsteen - could have offered a tired run-through of his latest albums and most of the audience probably wouldn't have minded. But given a pending divorce and a deadline (he only played for just over an hour, a warm-up by Springsteen standards), he put on a dazzling rock 'n' roll performance that encapsulated more of his raw energy and drive than any of his recent four-hour arena exercises.
Neglecting much of the recent 'Tunnel Of Love' material, Springsteen concentrated on breathing life into such Boss classics 'Promised Land', 'Thunder Road' and an especially moving 'The River', done as a duet with Sting. The show stopper, though, was his epic, 10-minute 'Jungleland', arguably one of his bests compositions but a song he hasn't played locally in several years. Like Chapman's best songs, 'Jungleland explores the gray area between the American nightmare and the American dream. Yet, whereas Chapman's world is monochromatic, Springsteen's is a full-color vision, driven by sweeping crescendos and the soaring tenor sax of Clarence Clemmons.
From that point on, Springsteen was on a roll, ripping through a definitive and intense read of 'Born To Run' and finishing up with his exuberant cover of the old soul chestnut 'Raise Your Hand' (mercifully, the 'Detroit Medley' was nowhere to be heard). Appropriately, the final moment didn't belong to Springsteen but to everyone. All the performers, plus a refreshingly subdued Bono Hewson from U2, came out for a cover of Bob Dylan's 'Chimes of Freedom' and then finished with a reprise of 'Get Up, Stand Up'. Tallied up, the show ran a bit over seven hours before the group of performers said goodnight.
The many high points of Human Rights Now! (Chapman's and Springsteen's riveting performances especially) couldn't completely overshadow some nagging problems. The lineup seemed designed to attract as many liberal-minded white baby boomers as possible, but more experimental pairings of artists might have drawn a more diverse audience. For instance, the addition of some hardcore hip-hop like Public Enemy (whose 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back' LP is No. 1 on Billboard's black charts this week) would have drawn a younger crowd that could have filled some of those seats that remained empty all night.
Also, an outspoken group like Public Enemy, a veteran singer like Gil Scott-Heron or Latin performer Ruben Blades probably would have addressed the issue of alleged rights violations right here at home as opposed to treating the issue as if it's the private reserve of the guys in Johannesburg or Santiago. The audience might have had its political ideals challenged, at least temporarily. Although Springsteen valiantly tried to make the point that every nation bears some responsibility, for the uninitiated, the overall feeling of the evening was that Amnesty International's message is basically for those people over there somewhere.
If the organizers weren't ready for a band like Public Enemy, even a dance rock or - heaven forbid - a metal act (Def Leppard was originally considered) would have served to spice up the menu and bring in the younger crowd, which needs to hear Amnesty's message even more than its older brothers, sisters and parents. Much of the evening appeared as if it were preaching to the converted.
Yet, for all of that, Human Rights Now! was a roaring success. When Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N'Dour and Joan Baez say they gave at the office, they really mean it. What: Human Rights Now! - the Amnesty International benefit concert featuring Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N'Dour and Joan Baez.
(c) The Orange County Register by Cary Darling