In celebrating Tim Robbins’ 1995 death row drama, Sunday’s nearly four-hour event keenly blended an anti-capital punishment message with a celebration of one the 1990s’ most arresting soundtracks. Most significantly, the concert heralded the return to the stage of Tom Waits, still a witty and commanding performer, whose seven-song set generated a standing ovation and the evening’s lone encore.
Waits, who has been seen onstage only twice this decade in L.A., started with a gripping version of “Walk Away,” one of his two contributions to the Columbia-issued “music inspired by” soundtrack. His ragged voice full of fervid resolve, Waits stomped his way through swampy tunes singed with the effects of blues and gospel, sympathetically backed by musicians with more than a decade of history backing him. A wacky anecdote about a man in a lawn chair, held aloft at 16,000 feet by a collection of weather balloons, found the Waits wit untempered by his stay away from concertizing.
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, whose collaboration with the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan provided the movie’s haunting orchestral specter, started his solo set with an effective version of an odd choice — Cat Stevens’ “Trouble.” With PJ bassist Jeff Ament, Nusrat’s nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the spectacular tablaist Dildar Hussain, the ad hoc band improvised its way through “The Face of Love” and “The Long Road.” Rahat’s wails mimicked the throatier aspects of Uncle Nusrat with little of the master’s depth; when he rose into the higher octaves that are his forte, he provided a stunning counterpoint to Vedder’s grounded rumble.
Texans Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett delivered 20-minute, forthright sets targeting adversity and human frailty. Ani DiFranco delivered her four songs and a stream-of-consciousness poem with a jittery spirit, touching on the death penalty, the disposable side of society (“Fuel”) and acceptance (“As Is”). Michelle Shocked was the least convincing of the lot, her electric 12-bar bitter blues salvaged by applicable stories of vindication and loss. Evening closed with a group sing-along of Waits’ “Innocent When You Dream.”
Robbins, as host, was an understated presence, generally guiding the well-run event rather than pontificating between sets. Sister Helen Prejean, author of the bestseller, gave a passionate speech on human rights.