Performance: The Concert for New York – Madison Square Garden, October 20, 2001

As I sat down to edit the piece I’m working on for the current Guitar Noise series on Performance, I realized that I really wanted to be writing about The Concert For New York at Madison Square Garden, broadcast on VH-1 on Sat Oct 20, 2001. I was so moved by that entire performance. It embodied many of the reasons that live music and performance are powerful forms of expression. Musical artists have a long history of doing benefit concerts for causes that matter to them. This performance was amazing because of the numbers of accomplished artists participating as well as the historical context of the concert. People who were lucky enough to attend talk about the concert for days afterward. Local NY DJ’s are still commenting on what a great show it was.

For those of you who didn’t have an opportunity to view it, the Concert was a collection of amazing rock performers: David Bowie, Sheryl Crow, Macy Gray, Goo Goo Dolls, Five for Fighting, Elton John, Billy Joel, Backstreet Boys, Destiny’s Child, James Taylor, Eric Clapton, The Who, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Melissa Etheridge, Bon Jovi, The Edge and Bono and Paul McCartney, among others. They were introduced by various celebrities, including former President Bill Clinton, his wife Senator Hilary Clinton, Harrison Ford, Susan Sarandon, Billy Crystal, John Cusak, Natalie Portman, Richard Gere, Gwyneth Paltrow and many others in order to raise money to help those affected by the World Trade Center attacks. There were also short films by Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Martin Scorcese, Jerry Seinfeld, Edward Burns, Kevin Smith and others that were broadcast on large video screens. At one point, New York sports celebrities were introduced in support of the event, with their jerseys to be autographed and auctioned.

The biggest celebrities were the rescue workers: firefighters, police officers and emergency personnel. They were introduced on stage and many of them spoke of colleagues and loved ones lost on Sept 11. The rescue workers, in turn, got to introduce many of the acts on stage. For people used to quietly doing their often-difficult job, these heroes stepped up on stage and delivered their words in a genuine heartfelt manner. There were moments reminiscent of the turbulent rebellious 60’s as one firefighter spoke his mind to the audience.

What was so impressive about this show, besides the all star line up, was the joyous, sometimes defiant, sometimes reverent attitude of all the performers. This was classic rock, with all the great moments and snafu’s that live performance brings. To get that many acts on and off the stage, complete with film clips, was impressive.

David Bowie started the night of with his version of Paul Simon’s America. He then launched into a rocking version of Heroes, dedicated to the brave men and women who rose to the occasion on September 11th. Music is a time-honored way of expressing great feeling, and the feeling was quite evident in his rendition.

There was an awful moment when Melissa Etheridge’s mike cut out during the middle of Come To My Window. That is, it would have been an awful moment, but the stage crew managed to stretch it to an awful 5 minutes (an eternity in live performance). Melissa proved to be the trouper we know she is (she’s the subject of another Other Side article – Alive And Alone) and played aggressively on her Ovation while signaling to the sound engineer at the same time. The crowd was marvelous and sang along to her guitar, and when she was finally handed a working mike, she was able to pick right back up and finish her song. For her next song, she realized that her guitar was out of tune, and in a very calm and confident manner, requested a new one from the stage crew. When she had the appropriate instrument, to quote my favorite NY DJ, she “rocked the roof off of MSG” with her acoustic version of Springsteen’s Born to Run. The audience went wild, singing along with each word.

For me, one of the songs that evokes the feelings of the events during and after Sept 11 is James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. It’s always been a favorite of mine to play. To hear James Taylor sing it so beautifully and clearly was marvelous. His voice hasn’t changed at all over the years. You could close your eyes and imagine being in the 70’s, listening to him in concert then. To be able to give such feeling and beautiful acoustic guitar playing after so many years of playing the same music is inspiring. The evocative poignancy of music was truly evident in that moment.

Possibly the most heartfelt moment was when The Who took the stage. They were looking like, as my 9 y/o put it, “old guys” but they sure rocked. They were a bit shaky at first when playing Who Are You. They gained momentum with Baba O’Riley and Behind Blue Eyes, then became sublime with Won’t Get Fooled Again. Daltry and Townshend were singing in perfect harmony, and Townshend’s windmilling and blisteringly hot guitar solo were fantastic. “Pick up your guitar and play” indeed! The joy of their music was evident in the honest gritty performance.

Paul McCartney was wonderful as well. He was one of the driving forces behind the concert. With The Who performing, and Mick and Keith together as well, I half expected Ringo and George to show up, with Lennon forever in the spirit of New York City. McCartney played some wonderful tunes of his own and then gathered all of the performers, including some rescue workers, to come on stage to sing Let It Be and Freedom, a new song he wrote on Sept 12. He asked Eric Clapton to solo twice in each song. During the first of each pair of solos, Clapton played a nice riff, polished but not special. Then with the second solo of the song, the inimitable Clapton pulled the most amazing improvisations out of his guitar. It’s a comfort to know that even the most accomplished guitarist out there needs a measure or two to figure out how best to phrase his or her music.

The wonder of performance, whether Rock or Folk or Hip Hop music, is that music celebrates our feelings, whether rebellious or sad or exultant. It then unites and heals us in a heady way. Anger was an oft-repeated sentiment, as it has been many times in rock’s history. But equally expressed was the belief in a free society and the freedom to live and enjoy music and life. The music, in concert with comedy, film and genuine spoken expression of emotion, became a vibrant celebration of life.

For all those touched personally by the tragedy of 9/11, I extend my heartfelt sympathy. For those grieving and yet determined to live life to the fullest, as urged by many leaders, this was a glorious moment of rock. Now that’s a freedom worth fighting for.

n.b. This column continues in a series dedicated to the female musician. As always, I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered. Please email me and tell me your story. I enjoy hearing each and every one.