Thursday, December 13, 2012

Six Boring Hours For Sandy Relief

I'm not usually one for benefit concerts or all-star assemblages of disparate talent. They usually run way too long, and feel self-indulgent, even when they're in the service of something bigger. But this week's "12.12.12: The Concert For Sandy Relief" touted the biggest gathering of stars ever, even bigger than the concert for 9/11, so I couldn't resist checking it out. Is Nirvana really reuniting with Paul McCartney in place of Kurt Cobain? That alone is enough to make me want to watch, and if I'm gonna watch, I might as well blog the thing, no? (I will probably regret this decision.)

7:30pm: The introductory footage of the devastation to New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Staten Island is really affecting. It's weird how quickly major disasters like this are swept under the rug in favor of the next thing, like this phony "fiscal cliff" debate. There's no denying, this is a good cause. Having said that, the footage is kept mercifully brief, though I'm sure there will be a lot more of it as the evening goes on.

7:34: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band kicks things off without so much as an introduction. The house lights in Madison Square Garden are still on, which seems like a strange choice. Bruce has never really been my cup of tea, but he looks great here. (As my wife likes to say, he looks rich.) As a non-Bruce fan, I don't know if "This Train" is a new song or an old classic, but they're certainly doing it justice, and the message of optimism is appropriate. I still don't really dig Bruce though.

7:38: Segueing into Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" is a nice idea. Although, Bruce and the E Street Band, as the world's unfunkiest band, is particularly unsuited to the task.

7:40: Once again, I don't know if "Wrecking Ball" is a new song or what, but to a non-fan it plays like a parody of a Bruce song: quiet intro listing off his various Jersey bona fides, followed by shouted "1! 2! 3! 4!," the drums kicking in, and inspirational choruses about steel and rust and youth and beauty and blue-collar yes we can. Once again, I guess it's appropriate, but still, I'm reminded why I don't really like Bruce.

7:46: Back to the "People Get Ready" chord changes, while Bruce waxes elegaic about Asbury Park, with a special shout-out to the gay community for gentrifying and improving the area. Whoops! I guess this is a Bruce song, "My City of Ruins," with the same exact chord changes as "People Get Ready." I think Bruce seems like a nice guy, I have nothing against him, it seems like he runs his band like a family and it's all about positivity and being proud of where you come from and I'm in favor of all that... I still don't like the music, though. It's like the unfunkiest blue-eyed soul ever.

7:55: Jesus, Bruce, enough already. Was "My City of Ruins" nine minutes (and counting) on the record?

7:56: Bruce brings out Jon Bon Jovi and Madison Square Garden has a Jersey orgasm as they begin a duet on "Born to Run." This is pretty much the only Springsteen song I ever liked at all (but still not that much) and they sound great.

8:00: It's weird how much Jon Bon Jovi's image changed when he cut his hair off. He went from cock-rock d-bag to respected figure in the rock canon. That didn't happen with Metallica or David Lee Roth or anybody else that cut all their hair off. I guess just because Jon Bon is soooooo handsome.

8:02: Half an hour in, here's the official slate of performers: 75 classic rock heroes, and Kanye West!

8:03: Billy Crystal welcomes us all to "12.12.12, The Concert for Sandy Relief, presented by Chase." I wonder how much Chase donated directly to the cause? Would they have done it without their name all over the TV? Crystal delivers 25 short, unfunny jokes that I would be very suprised to learn he wrote himself. (If he had, they'd be even less funny.) Followed by more promises that New York and New Jersey will recover. I know hurricane recovery is the reason we're all here and we have to talk about it, but Billy's been droning on for almost ten minutes and my attention is wandering.

8:10: Let's go to the phone bank! Susan Sarandon, who should be an example to all the beautiful actresses who think they're going to age more gracefully if they get nine facelifts, mentions that the phone bank is manned entirely by celebrities, though I don't recognize anyone working the phones behind her. She introduces Roger Waters with Eddie Vedder! What a weird combination!

8:12: Roger Waters is not playing bass? That's weird. Is that how he's been doing the huge tour of "The Wall" he's been on the last couple years? The band behind him launches into a Pink Floyd album cut that I totally recognize but can't remember the name of, then into "Another Brick in the Wall," with Waters now on bass. "We don't need no education" has always seemed like a strange sentiment to put forward so emphatically. I even felt that way when this song was originally on the radio, when I was 6.

8:18: Look out! An interpretive dance troupe convulses at the front of the stage for the kids' shouting choir part of the song, all wearing shirts reading "Fear Builds Walls." I'm sure it does, but it seems a little off-message for this particular event. This guitar player is playing David Gilmour's solo from this tune absolutely note-for-note perfect, and the dancers are mercifully hustled off.

8:21: I am not in favor of this acoustic emo breakdown version of "Another Brick in the Wall." I vote no. Thumbs down. And what's with the screen showing murderers' mugshots from the '70s? What am I watching?

8:22: "Money" begins. What a great riff this tune has. I don't know who this singer is, but he's not Eddie Vedder. Susan Sarandon promised Eddie Vedder! Though, to be fair, this song is not in Eddie Vedder's half-octave range.

8:28: "Us and Them" from "Dark Side of the Moon" begins with a very David Sanborn-type of sax solo. Eddie Vedder is still not on stage. Why did they even mention him? If he's coming in for one song, let it be an awesome (read: not that awesome) surprise. Didn't Roger Waters sing this song on the record, though? Why's this other guy singing it? It's interesting to watch a definitively unfamous person use all the same tics and gestures at the mic as a huge rock star would -- the effect is not the same.

8:35: Okay, here comes Eddie Vedder to sing "Comfortably Numb," though Waters is still singing the first verse. My guess is Vedder's going to come in like an angel on the chorus. Prediction verified! The chorus, of course, is squarely in his half-octave range. He's fine, but it's somewhere short of awesome. And with that, the Roger Waters band wraps things up.

8:43: Adam Sandler takes the stage with Paul Shaffer. Sandler has a faux-hawk, aka The Haircut That Doesn't Look Good On Anyone Older Than 7. He's singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" with hilarious lyrics like "Sandy screw ya!" and running down a history of New York non-disasters that we've overcome over the years. Guess what! It's not funny! And the crowd shot, of the audience smiling politely but not laughing, like people do when listening to a joke that has not yet come to the punchline, confirms that it's not just me.

8:39: Back to the call center with Brian Williams, and now there are actual celebrities there: Chelsea Clinton, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ben Stiller, who speaks with a complete lack of enthusiasm about how urgently help is needed. Weird that the phone bank is using cell phones. Never seen that before.

8:50: Oh dear god, Billy Crystal is back. Is he the official host? He introduces Kristen Stewart, who is here to read from the teleprompter some troubling statistics about how urgently help is needed. She's a little wooden, but compared to Ben Stiller she's Roberto Benigni accepting his Oscar. I hate her dress. 

8:54: Bon Jovi. Richie Sambora loves that talk box, doesn't he? "It's My Life" is the first single from the post-haircut era of the band, if I'm not mistaken and I don't like it any more now than I did then.

8:58: "Wanted Dead Or Alive." Why was Bon Jovi so much better when their hair was terrible? It's like Samson or something. I always love the part where Richie Sambora chimes in with a "Wante-ed" echo and reveals he has a way better voice than Jon Bon.

9:05: Turnabout is fair play, so Bruce joins Bon Jovi for their modern country hit "Who Says You Can't Go Home," the song that definitively proved that modern country is really just lame rock. By that standard, this song is better than most, the perfect song to hear part of while choosing beef jerky at the gas station.

9:11: Jon Bon begins "Living on a Prayer" a capella, and the crowd joins in. This is probably their best song ever, talk-box 'whoa-whoa' intro notwithstanding. Now this is a song Bruce Springsteen could really sink his teeth into, but he seems to be done for the night.

9:15: Whoops, ol' Jonny is not quite up to the key change for the coda of this song, so after missing the high note a couple of times he leaves it to the crowd, and then they're done.

9:20: How bummed would you be if you called the phone bank hoping for a celebrity and got Tony Danza?

9:21: Jon Stewart gets the crowd going with his remembrance of Seaside Heights and the Jersey Shore, though even he can't get the 14th "Bloomberg big soda ban" joke of the night across.

9:24: Eric Clapton! Sitting down with an acoustic guitar, to do "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" all by his lonesome. He sounds pretty good. I was a pretty huge Clapton fan for a long time -- the Derek and the Dominos version of this song is terrific -- but reading his autobiography kind of soured me on the guy. In his effort to steal Pattie Harrison from his best friend George, he told her if she didn't marry him, he'd become a heroin addict. Can you imagine a more self-pitying threat? He also claims that he only started doing heroin because his cocaine dealer wouldn't sell him any cocaine unless he bought some heroin with it. That sounds like the kind of excuse a high-school kid would make for bringing the car home late. So yeah, kind of lost some respect for old Slowhand.

9:30: This is pretty awesome, though, I have to admit: He's doing "Got To Get Better In a Little While," another Derek and the Dominos tune, in a power-trio formation. This show up to now was giving me the impression that there was a nine-band-member minimum on this stage.

9:35: Now Clapton launches into a slightly slowed-down version of "Crossroads," and while I don't love this weird tempo, I am into this power trio. I can't believe I'm saying this, but if Clapton toured with this band, I think I would go see it.

9:40: Is it just me or is this thing picking up sponsors as it goes on? First it was just Chase, and now we have a full-on laundry list of sponsors.

9:45: Jimmy Fallon is the first speaker to really make me feel the humanity of this cause, as he sings the praises of Coney Island, and its recovery, through tears. And then he gets to introduce the Rolling Stones with more genuine excitement than anyone else has mustered up to this point. You guys know Jimmy Fallon has the best late-night show, right? He does.

9:49: Even though they reunited with Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman for the abbreviated tour they're on, they're not here for this gig. That would have been way too easy and way too cool. I'm sure everyone there at the Garden would rather hear "You Got Me Rocking" (what is this song, anyway, from the '90s?) than "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" played by the original band.

9:51: We've all been saying the Stones are old for about 20 years, but for the first time, they really look it. Keith Richards appears to actually be doddering. Doddering is a word people say, but no one knows what it means -- that right there, what Keith is doing? I think that's doddering. Mick mentions that this has got to be the biggest collection of old English rock stars ever, and he's right. I bet this show is a lot more fun backstage, like a British Invasion class reunion.

9:54: Yikes, this version of "Jumping Jack Flash" is pretty sluggish, lacking both jump and flash. I'm feeling better and better about not spending $1,500 to go to the show in Brooklyn last week.

9:58: That's it? Only two songs? Bon Jovi does four, Bruce does four, Roger Waters does four, and the Rolling Stones do two? The food at this restaurant is terrible! And such small portions!

10:00: Stephen Colbert gets the first successfully funny shtick of the show, while also exhorting people to help. Speaking of which, if this live-blog inspires you to donate, do so by calling 1-855-465-HELP or

10:03: Instead of introducing a band, Colbert cedes the floor to Puff Daddy and Olivia Wilde, who doesn't look as good as she usually does: she's merely gorgeous, rather than jaw-droppingly stunning. She mentions that was born at NYU Hospital, whose staff heroically evacuated the building when it flooded during the hurricane. I spent a couple of days at that hospital when my newborn son had jaundice. It was easily the most harrowing experience of my life. Am I getting off topic?

10:08: Diddy and Olivia introduce Alicia Keys. The song she's playing sounds a little like some off-brand Stevie Wonder, which sounds like an insult until you think about it. She is also very pretty, but I hate that haircut and I hate that dress even more. I've never heard this song before, but it's not bad.

10:13: I'm not crazy about "put your cell phones in the air" as the opening lines of a song. (Like everybody didn't already have them out anyway.) Is it weird that I kind of like that her voice is straining a little? I've heard this song a lot around town but never knew whose it was. So I learned something here tonight, folks.

10:19: Wait, so we're at a show to rebuild New York and Alicia Keys leaves the stage without singing that "Let's hear it for New York" song that I've been hearing coming out of every passing car for the last three years? Maybe it'll be an all-star jam at the end.

10:26: Steve Buscemi brings on the Who, who launch into "Who Are You." I don't think I've ever seen Roger Daltrey play guitar in the Who before, but let's face it, this song really isn't the same without acoustic guitar.

10:30: Pete Townshend does the windmill a couple of times going into the breakdown and I cannot help the smile spreading across my face. It's generally kind of disconcerting watching all these old rock stars try to relive past glories, but the windmill is the first true shot of vigor in this whole thing. I can't believe I'm saying this, but so far my favorite acts in this show are The Who and Eric Clapton.

10:33: Even in his late '60s, Roger Daltrey can't not keep his shirt open to the navel. He's so sexy!

10:35: An unexpected, and unexpectedly moving tribute to Keith Moon is the centerpiece of "The Bell Boy," with footage of Moon singing part of the song and drumming along over the band's heads. Just like Led Zeppelin, The Who isn't really The Who without their drummer.

10:39: Townshend starts off "Pinball Wizard." I don't care what anyone says, nobody plays pinball with their sense of smell. I feel very, very strongly about this.

10:45: Daltrey's shirt comes all the way open for the intro to "Baba O'Riley" and he blows like five high notes in the first verse. Ouch. Townshend doesn't fare much better on the "Don't cry..." breakdown. Hope I die before I get old.

10:57: The Who is still on the stage. I guess they're taking the time the Rolling Stones didn't use. The good news: Daltrey buttoned his shirt.  Everyone has left the stage except him and Townshend, who's playing acoustic for a song I'm not a big enough Who fan to identify.

11:02: Oh boy, the cast of The Sopranos is in the call center, even Gandolfini. It's always jarring to hear him speak with hard 'r's. Robert Iler, who played AJ, is behind him, not in the witness protection program as I suspected.

11:10: Brooklyn native Chris Rock, one of the five greatest standups ever, is reduced to listing the show's corporate sponsors, before talking about Staten Island and pressing viewers to donate, and introducing Kanye West.

11:12: I've been saying it for a long time: Kanye is the most overrated musician of the last 10 years, maybe the last 20. Not that great a rapper, and his tracks are mindbludgeoningly monotonous. This performance is doing nothing to change that opinion: half the time he's just standing there while his super-annoying backing tracks play. He's got a band on the stage, but they don't appear to be doing anything. If he wasn't wearing that super-flattering black leather miniskirt over his tight black leather pants, this would be a total loss. This is also a pretty weird booking for him: He's following The Who, The Stones, Eric Clapton, Bon Jovi, and The Boss. Only Alicia Keys is even vaguely in the same demo as him.

11:19: I'll begrudgingly admit Kanye's picking up a little speed here, though the crowd doesn't seem to be interested at all.

11:27: Kanye's eliding the n-word from his own song, "I ain't saying she's a golddigger, but she ain't messing with no broke ______." If you can't play the song the way you wrote it, particularly if you have to change the chorus, why play it at all? Or why write it that way in the first place? Kanye's still not changing my mind, by the way.

11:32: Jesus, is this guy still on the stage? "Don't anybody make real shit anymore?" he asks while rhyming over someone else's song. And then he drops the mic. Classy. The crowd wasn't into it and he knew it.

11:38: Seth Myers introduces Bobby Mohnihan as Drunk Uncle for some old-fashioned SNL shtick. The audience doesn't seem to respond to it, probably because it's not very funny.

11:42: Billy Joel, who only seems to play huge benefits anymore, plays a song I am not familiar with (despite "Billy Joel's Greatest Hits" being one of my favorite CDs when I was 13) -- I suspect it's an old song with repurposed lyrics, because it sounds like it was written specifically for this occasion. Billy Joel doesn't get a lot of respect anymore, I'm guessing largely because of his long run of drunk-driving accidents. But did you hear him on Alec Baldwin's podcast? He's super self-effacing, funny guy who seems to understand his place in the universe perfectly. Also, he's kind of like Tom Petty: even if you never bought a Billy Joel record or played one on purpose, if you went to one of his shows you'd know every word to all 35 songs.

11:47: "Movin' Out," from the musical of the same name! Just kidding. This is just one of Billy Joel's 63 forgotten, disrespected pop gems. Or did you not have a radio in 1978?

11:51: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a nice short into to "New York State of Mind," the least surprising song choice in the history of the world. Unlike a few of the other aging stars of the 60s and 70s on this bill, his voice has not changed a bit, he sounds great. (To be clear, I think that says more about the other acts than it does about Billy Joel.)

12am: Just when I was starting to reappraise Billy Joel, he goes into "River of Dreams." You shoulda quit while you were ahead, Billy.

12:03: "You May Be Right" may be the best example of an AOR song (that's Adult Oriented Rock, a very 1970s concept) of all time. I'm not saying this is something I would rock out to, but if it came on my car stereo I wouldn't change the channel, which is more than I can say for at least half the tunes we've heard tonight.

12:08: "Only The Good Die Young" -- another good one. Where did I put that Greatest Hits CD, anyway? I haven't seen it in about 20 years. Maybe it's at my parents' house. Though I just realized I bah-humbugged Kanye and now I'm gushing about Billy Joel. My 40th birthday is only 4 months away -- coincidence?

12:14: Chris Martin from Coldplay plays "When I Ruled The World" all by himself on acoustic guitar. I just admitted to being old and out of it but it could be worse: I could be into Coldplay. I think it's time for a richly deserved bathroom break.

12:18: Michel Stipe joins Martin onstage for an acoustic version of "Losing My Religion." This song is about one thing and one thing only for me: senior year of high school, when you absolutely could not escape it. I don't know if I like it or don't like it -- it's kind of beside the point.

12:22: Who knew Chris Martin was such a cheeky guy? All that bummer Coldplay music made me think he must be super serious and humorless. Maybe he needs to go solo. Having said that, this third song is doing nothing for me.

12:27: The phone bank is all supermodels, which underlines the awful state of the supermodel industry in 2012. Anyone remember when supermodels were pretty and you could only see 20% of their bones?

12:30: I used to love Katie Holmes when she first came out, on Dawson's Creek, and kind of fell out of love with her when she hooked up with Tom Cruise. She looks pretty damn good tonight though. I don't want to think I would turn against a beautiful girl just because of who she married, but she seems to have got her groove back. Jason Sudeikis is probably going to nail her as soon as they're done announcing the next segment -- he's nailed every other gorgeous actress on planet Earth.

12:32: Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Foxx, and Christoph Waltz tell the story of Breezy Point, and good on them for doing so, but it feels a little sleazy and self-promotey, considering the three of them have a huge movie coming out 10 days from now. Also, Jamie Foxx has a very weird hairline.

12:35: Paul McCartney takes the stage and opens with "Helter Skelter." I thought he was fronting Nirvana tonight. No? This is about as close as Sir Paul gets to sounding like Nirvana anyway. I dig the Theramin breakdown at the end.

12:43: I'm not familiar with this song, "Let Me Roll It," but it's not bad. It's nice to see a left-field song choice in this long parade of predictability.

12:45: Now McCartney goes to the piano for one he dedicates to the Wings fans, and its another one I don't know. (I'm not a Wings fan.) Again, nice to see he's not just playing "I Saw Her Standing There" or whatever.

12:50: Why does Paul have a Detroit Red Wings sticker on his guitar? Is he a hockey fan? To be sure, Paul McCartney contains multitudes. Another song I've never heard before, I'm guessing it's called "Valentine," with Diana Krall joining on piano.

12:55: "Blackbird" sounds a little like he hasn't played it in a while. It gets a little better in the second verse, though.

1:08: What is that guitar? It's weird. Anyway, the moment we've all been waiting for is finally here: Paul introduces Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear, the surviving members of Nirvana, to play a jam they wrote yesterday. Sorry, folks: Paul McCartney is not going to play "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But come on, would you even want him to? It's always nice to see Dave Grohl play the drums, though.

1:12: It's like someone asked Dave Grohl 10 years ago, "When will Nirvana reunite?" and he said, "When Paul McCartney takes Kurt's place," as a joke, and when the opportunity to make it come true came up he just couldn't say no. Oddly enough, this tune is like a Brundlefly fusion of the Beatles and Nirvana (which certainly had some Beatles in it to start with), but also pretty forgettable.

1:15: The remnants of Nirvana leave the stage and Paul does "I've Got a Feeling." We're now almost six hours into this concert and I am more than ready for it to be over, as I'm sure the four of you who read this far are as well.

1:19: Back to the piano for "Live and Let Die." One thing that always drove me nuts: "In this ever-changing world in which we're living." Why not "this ever-changing world that we all live in"? "In which we're living" is such tortured syntax. In the Guns N' Roses cover of this song, Axl made it even worse by singing "in this ever-changing world in which we live in." That's three ins, two more than needed to get the point across. Fireworks! You're not allowed to do "Live and Let Die" without fireworks.

1:23: McCartney and his band take a bow, and I am so glad this thing is over. Whoops, no it's not, he's bringing some heroes out to take a bow. And now he's bringing back Alicia Keys to do "Empire State of Mind," can you believe it? She got almost no applause. The crowd wants to get the hell out of there too. It's a tough spot to put her in.

On the whole, this show was long and only sporadically interesting. I'm glad it raised as much money as it did, it's the very definition of a worthy cause, but I feel like maybe they should have skewed a little younger in the booking. Then again, the baby boomers that want to see The Who and the Stones and McCartney are the ones that have all the money, so I guess it all makes sense. And I'm as surprised as anyone to say that I think Eric Clapton, of all people, had the best set, followed by McCartney. Tour with the trio, Clapton!

For much shorter, equally trivial postings follow me on Twitter @alexcastle718.

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