Bob Merrick

When entertainers open their consciences and pocketbooks and music is involved, there's invariably a nod to the 1960s, as the music that mirrored that era of struggle has never been topped in the inspirational department.

When entertainers open their consciences and pocketbooks and music is involved, there’s invariably a nod to the 1960s, as the music that mirrored that era of struggle has never been topped in the inspirational department. Even with “American Idol” and its emphasis on creating stars for the 21st century, the sharpest notes struck Wednesday at “Idol Gives Back” possessed a ’60s element, whether it was a song (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”), astute guitar playing (from Jeff Beck) or a film clip (Elvis’ comeback special in ’68).

“American Idol Gives Back” was a striking emotional roller-coaster inside the Disney Concert Hall, where performances were staged in between filmed segs of the impoverished, the needy and the ill. As often as we have seen these images, “Idol’s” producers superbly paced and alternated between information and entertainment, allowing the message to stand out in tandem with the music. (It can go the other way, as music and self-promotion overwhelmed the message in the broadcast of Live 8 two years ago).

“Idol” was the host of the affecting live event in Disney Hall, and regardless of anyone’s musical tastes, the performers fit “Idol” smartly and the song selections were all proper. About the only misstep was Paula Abdul’s bust-enhancing top that was a wardrobe malfunction waiting to occur.

Effect of the clips (some of which were marred by naive takes from the “Idol” judges) and of the better perfs could be seen in the tears of audience members; host Ellen DeGeneres was often regaining her composure before returning to the airwaves. Ryan Seacrest, who had to balance comedy bits, music and contestant status — and then work as a pitchman for the charity effort — delivered the performance of his lifetime. As much as this season has seen him elevate his game and take control of the show, Wednesday signaled his arrival as a television host whose potential is just beginning to be tapped.

Musically, Annie Lennox was head and shoulders above the rest. Like the others, she did just one song, Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” proving that a classic can be reinvented. She retained its inspirational message as she toughened up the melody and, in the second half of the tune, pushed it out of its solemnity and into show-stopper terrain.

Some let the material do the talking: The four members of Il Divo traded verses on Stephen Sondheim’s “Somewhere”; Rascal Flatts’ “My Wish” was given its standard reading by the pop-country act; and Earth, Wind & Fire opened the night with abbreviated versions of three of their hits.

Taking it a step beyond were Josh Groban, who was backed by the African Children’s Choir on “You Raise Me Up”; Kelly Clarkson, who sang Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain” with unassuming blues riffs from Beck; and Carrie Underwood, who filmed her performance of the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You” during her trip to an orphanage in Africa.

In a bizarre yet technically brilliant example of corporate synergy disguised as art, a newly created clip of Celine Dion and Elvis Presley doing a duet of “If I Can Dream” was premiered. (Robert Sillerman owns “Idol’s” production company, 19 Prods., and the majority of Elvis Presley Enterprises.) Presley’s remarkable perf, full of vigor and conviction, stands the test of time; Dion, who has no room to oversing, simply goes through the motions.

The final six “Idol” contestants had been asked to prepare inspirational music for Tuesday’s broadcast, and Wednesday, if they were paying attention, they received a master class. Material they were given, Quincy Jones’ “Time to Care” and Bono’s “American Prayer,” were pale imitations of both artists’ more inspirational works, perhaps yet another reminder that they don’t write ‘em like they used to — yet another reason we keep returning to the 1960s for musical guidance.

Actors appeared in taped appeals for donations and a spoof video of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”

At the conclusion of “Idol Gives Back,” Seacrest announced that $30 million had been raised for Charity Projects Entertainment Fund, which will be passing money along to Save the Children and Malaria No More.

American Idol: Idol Gives Back

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; 2,235 seats; $200 top

Production

Presented by Fox, 19 Prods. and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. Reviewed April 25, 2007.

Cast

Performers: Annie Lennox, Kelly Clarkson with Jeff Beck, Rascal Flatts, Il Divo, Josh Groban with African Children's Choir, Celine Dion, Earth, Wind & Fire.
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