A six-hour ham session


October 22, 2001


Organized by Paul McCartney and broadcast live from Madison Square Garden, Saturday's "Concert for NYC" too often failed where the earlier "America: A Tribute to Heroes" succeded--even though it was three times as long, much more heavily hyped and wealthy with corporate underwriting.

Continually falling flat musically and consumed by so much annoying glad-handing and tugging at the heartstrings that Jerry Lewis would actually have been a welcome presence, the marathon six-hour concert/telethon substituted bombast for passion and show-biz schmaltz for its predecessor's dignified understatement.

The question of the night: Would McCartney (inspired to organize the benefit because his father was a part-time firefighter) reunite with former Beatles bandmates George Harrison and Ringo Starr in the city that claimed their friend John Lennon?

The answer: No. And Macca's set was a mixed affair, starting out strong with a fiery "I'm Down" driven by a faceless backing band a third his age, but quickly devolving into pure pop schlock, including a strings-laced version of "Yesterday" and two runs through a cheesy would-be anthem, "Freedom," written in the wake of Sept. 11.

We did get another reunion: Instead of using his slot to hype his forthcoming solo album, Mick Jagger showed uncharacteristic selflessness by trotting out the other Glimmer Twin, Keith Richards. They opened with the rarely played "Salt of the Earth" and provided the appropriate refrain--"Let's drink to the hard-working people"--for an evening that was billed as a night of celebration after weeks of stress and strain.

The other highlights from a long and grueling night: Macy Gray's freaky, reggae-fied reading of "With A Little Help from My Friends," and an even stranger duet between John Mellencamp and Kid Rock on "Pink Houses."

Otherwise, where "A Tribute to Heroes" produced one memorable musical moment after another a mere 11 days after the terrorist attacks, "Concert for NYC" yielded mainly missteps, poor song choices and a lot of hollow posing.

It was notable that, in this company, king corndog Billy Joel actually delivered one of the more restrained sets, reaching far into his back catalog for "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" and crooning "New York State of Mind" (of course).

David Bowie did an odd, carnivalesque reading of Simon & Garfunkel's "America" and was joined by Paul Shaffer and his ubiquitous "Late Show" band for a truly awful version of the great song "Heroes" (another "of course" selection).

Shaffer and his Musician's Union hacks also dragged down a joint appearance by Eric Clapton and Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy. The two guitar greats might have delivered more than bad tourist shucking and jiving if they hadn't been held back by the glorified bar band.

Wearing an NYPD uniform shirt, a solo acoustic Melissa Etheridge poured her heart into Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run," seemingly oblivious to the fact that the song is about desperately wanting to escape from a city that has become "a death trap"--not the best sentiment for a metropolis struggling to heal and rebuild.

Similarly, the rock band formerly known as the Who thundered through four predictable classics, including "Baba O'Riley," which urged a crowd that included thousands of young rescuers still mourning the loss of their peers to sing along in homage to a "teenage wasteland."

New York's finest enthusiastically complied--and why not? The Who was much more to their liking than dismissible pop fluff like Jay-Z, Five for Fighting, Destiny's Child (who at least showed some taste in covering the Bee Gees' "Emotion" and doing a gospel number instead of their own "Survivor") and the Backstreet Boys (whose attempt at a cappella harmonizing was undermined by a poor sound mix).

Janet Jackson phoned in a weak performance from Pittsburgh (she was the only star who wasn't on site); Bon Jovi strutted its usual lite-metal lameness, and the ever-maudlin court Elton John strived to make "Mona Lisas and Madhatters" do for a mourning New York what "Candle in the Wind" did for Princess Di fans.

After the politicians' cameos (including Sen. Tom Daschle, who inexplicably dressed like Phil Donohue, and Bill Clinton, who said he hoped Osama Bin Laden was watching), and the occasional burst of troubling bloodlust and blatant jingoism, the most disturbing aspect of the show was its habit of trotting out New York firefighters and police officers to stand as awkward props beside the celebrities introducing the music.

With all due respect to these heroic rescuers, the thousands of office workers who died at the World Trade Center were barely acknowledged, much less the victims at the Pentagon or the innocents who are dying as a conflagration rages in Afghanistan. They all deserved much better--and so did the viewers at home.