When this celebration of the life and music of John Lennon was originally conceived, many months back, it was designed as a testament to peace‹with proceeds earmarked for gun-control efforts. And while recent events changed the tenor of the presentation considerably, the overriding message‹stated in the title of the show, which was broadcast live on TNT‹remained.
The tenor of the program was considerably less subdued than might be expected, with musical director Dave Stewart and ubiquitous keyboardist/mascot Billy Preston rousing the crowd with spirited backing.
Presenters, while saddled with dialog that sometimes strained to incorporate Lennon-centric themes into pertinent speeches, likewise accentuated the positive‹or at least the stoic.
While the participants paid lip service to Lennon’s revolutionary attitudes‹some of which were alluded to in the interview clips that punctuated the performances‹few of the legend’s most prickly moments were touched on during the program. The Stone Temple Pilots’ fierce version of “Revolution,” a notable exception to that rule, captured all the agitation of the original, while Alanis Morissette did a fine job of capturing the dislocation of “Dear Prudence” with her reading‹which indicated she’s still deeply fascinated with the Indian subcontinent.
Producers deserve credit for overseeing unusually smooth set changes‹and for keeping the in-house audience involved, via video installations and taped segments, that bridged the commercial-break gaps. Host Kevin Spacey also did a terrific job, speaking eloquently, often off the cuff, and turning in the evening’s biggest surprise by singing “Mind Games” with both passion and sensitivity.
The show certainly contained its share of misguided moments: Shelby Lynne, for one, was totally out of her depth performing “Mother,” replacing the raw urgency of the original with a thoroughly inappropriate mixture of Hallmark treacle and Broadway brass. Similarly, Marc Anthony’s Vegas-revue take on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” effectively ended William Shatner’s three-decade reign as perpetrator of mankind’s most heinous Beatles cover.
Generally, however, artists that departed from Lennon’s musical intent retained the integrity of spirit. Lou Reed, for instance, turned in a radical revamp of “Jealous Guy,” but his stuttering, frustrated delivery suited the song’s tenor perfectly, as did Yolanda Adams’ rousing, storefront church rendition of “Imagine.” Brit chart-topper Craig David also hit home with a stirring “Come Together” that incorporated a hyper-speed freestyle rap verse.
The all-hands-on-deck singalong of “Power to the People”‹cleaved by the performers’ snaking conga line through the aisles‹ended the evening (the first show at Radio City since the attacks of September 11) on a high note, one that sounded both defiance and hope for better things to come.