For this, the 12th annual benefit concert for their Rainforest Foundation, Sting and wife Trudie Styler not only asked performers to donate their services, they asked them to spend some time outside their normal comfort zones. Dubbed “Singing in the Rainforest,” the show was devoted to songs from seven decades of Hollywood film, territory unfamiliar to all but a couple of the evening’s participants.
The first set, culled largely from soundtrack material from the pre-rock era, was particularly sink or swim. Elton John took to the waters the most readily, wrapping “Secret Love” in a rich baritone and a suitably rueful delivery. He also provided some welcome comic relief via a faithful, full-length version of “The Woody Woodpecker Song.”
Billy Joel was markedly less effective in the role of crooner, as borne out by a rendition of “I Got You Under My Skin” that aimed for Sinatra silkiness but only captured Piscopo parody. Sting, taking a more subdued tone, managed a “Moon River” that would’ve passed muster on an Andy Williams Christmas special, while James Taylor danced deftly across the melody of “The Way You Look Tonight.”
After an intermission, the wayback machine was set for a little less way back, a surrounding that suited Joel particularly well. He revved up the energy level by steering the 30-piece orchestra through a “Live and Let Die” that successfully straddled the line between power and bombast, then took center stage for a rendition of “Unchained Melody” on which he hit Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield’s high notes with surprising flair.
Taylor showed some good humor by hoofing his way through some failed dance crazes while tackling “The Twist.” John tore through “Pinball Wizard” with his usual showmanship. Bette Midler, the only artist to be ceded two consecutive numbers, skirted scenery-chewing on “The Rose,” then succumbed to it during “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
As is often the case in star-studded galas, the most intriguing perfs came from the agate-type names, in this case, India.Arie, who turned “The Long and Winding Road” into a near hymn, and Jimmy Scott, whose breathless take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” showcased his unparalleled mastery of phrasing.
Finale, an all-hands-on-deck take on “Johnny B. Goode,” would’ve been just another awards-show jam, if not for the presence of Michael J. Fox, whose lead guitar playing and vocals manifested not only the vibe he captured in “Light of Day,” but his continued ability to seek light in the wake of his medical battles.