Thanks to the efficiently handled flow of top talent, this pro-choice benefit proved to be a living example of how such charity affairs should be handled.
Starting on time, the 3 hour 40 minute show never flagged, with co-hosts Gloria Steinem (Voters for Choice president) and comic Rosie O’Donnell filling all gaps, performers all coming up with something out of the ordinary, and a finale with pretty much everybody onstage together — singing Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
Shawn Colvin, a Gotham-based folkie in the Joni Mitchell/Judy Collins tradition, opened with a lengthy, engaging and well-received set of material largely drawn from her Columbia Records albums, followed by the evening’s token males, Spinal Tap.
Adhering to the evening’s all-acoustic format, the veteran British trio was augmented by keyboard player C.J. Vanston, and guests Debra Dobkin (from Ann & Nancy Wilson’s band) and Lilly Hayden on percussion and violin.
The group performed selections from the Tap’s two albums — some, like the hippie anthem “(Listen to the) Flower People,” not thatdifferent from their recorded versions; others, including “Sex Farm,” heard for the first time in a glory unalloyed by crashing drums and high-decibel guitar. (Speaking of which, Nigel Tufnel may be the first acoustic guitarist to hook up a wah-wah pedal to his instrument. He’s likely to be the last.) Etheridge, a clear favorite of the crowd, previewed her upcoming Island album “Yes I Am” (its title drawing a chuckle from some members of the audience) with new tunes “I’m the Only One, “”Talk to Me, Angel,” and “I Will Never Be the Same” (previously heard on the soundtrack of the film “Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael”).
The gritty-voiced singer, accompanied by her own amplified acoustic 12-string guitar, crowned her set with a powerful rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” including an amusing monologue dealing with two-week stands and climaxing with the Santa Monica Civic’s audience — maybe 2/3 of capacity — joining in on the chorus.
So forceful and well-received was Etheridge’s set that it seemed hard to follow, but Ann and Nancy Wilson proved up to the task.
Like Etheridge, Heart’s co-leading sisters spent much time previewing their upcoming album, “Desire Walks On,” scheduled for release on Capitol in November.
New songs “Walk Away” and “The Woman in Me,” here performed in acoustic versions, will be hard to beat in full-band performances. And the Wilsons included versions of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” sung by guitarist Ann, and the Everly Bros./Roy Orbison ballad “Love Hurts,” a vehicle for lead singer Nancy.
A highlight of the set was a version of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells,” with vocals alternating among the Wilsons and keyboardist Lisa Dalbello, whose soulful voice is reminiscent of Mavis Staples.
Steinem and O’Donnell each spent much time onstage. The feminist leader was given a standing ovation when she first appeared, and sprinkled her pro-choice politics with ironic humor. O’Donnell, who has abandoned her standup for film roles in recent years, was a huge asset to the show, as she connected strongly with the mostly female audience.