Forest Whitaker

Pete Seeger's best-known acolytes turned out en masse for the four-hour perf

For more than a half-century, Pete Seeger has been winning friends and influencing socially conscious musicians of all stripes — and creating an equal and opposite reaction among those who have bristled at the unblinking, often doctrinaire tone of his work. But the man described as king of the protest singers has seldom received his proper turn in the spotlight, an oversight to a good degree corrected at this exhaustive 90th birthday celebration.

Seeger’s best-known acolytes turned out en masse for the four-hour perf, paying homage to the man and his music without tarrying in the bunkers of self-aggrandizement. Bruce Springsteen, who devoted an entire album to Seeger’s work not so long ago, was one of a handful of artists to stray from the Seeger songbook (with a steely version of his own “Ghost of Tom Joad”), but that song was delivered with enough aplomb to warm the heart of the man of the hour.

Likewise, Seeger was done proud by younger artists — a comparative term, given the absence of Gen X and Y names — who tweaked and modernized his classics. Ani DiFranco, for instance, retrofitted “Which Side Are You On?” with a potent feminist after-burn, while Michael Franti inserted a smile-inducing pro-Obama rap into the otherwise dark “Dear Mr. President.”

The most moving offerings, however, came from those who honed their craft directly under Seeger’s watchful eye, from Taj Mahal (who teamed with Tom Morello for a loamy rendition of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”) to Tom Paxton.

The spirit took further flight when the stage became more of a hootenanny site than an individual showcase. That was the case for a good bit of the concert, with teamings such as Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Richie Havens (who joined forces on “Maggie’s Farm”) and the McGarrigle Family (sisters Kate and Anna and offspring Rufus and Martha Wainwright), who tackled “The River Is Wide.”

Seeger himself, a charming, elfin presence, loomed over the proceedings from end to end, hopping onstage now and then to add vocals, but more to boost the intensity of audience sing-alongs, which were as robust as anything the Garden’s seen since it last hosted a revival meeting.

In the spirit of equality, lesser-known artists were given ample opportunity to shine, including a smattering of amateur ensembles. Just as importantly, the producers saw to a tiered pricing structure that afforded aud members the chance to see an all-star lineup for as little as $24. To paraphrase Paul Simon, it was just another bit of proof that Pete Seeger is still a man of the people after all these years.

The Clearwater Concert: A Tribute to Pete Seeger

Madison Square Garden; 19,400 seats; $254.50 top

Production

Presented by the Clearwater Organization and Live Nation.

Cast

With: Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Kris Kristofferson, Roger McGuinn, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Taj Mahal, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bela Fleck, Dar Williams, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Tom Morello, Keller Williams, Arlo Guthrie, Ruby Dee, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, Ben Harper, Bruce Cockburn, Billy Bragg, Richie Havens, Tom Chapin, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Michael Franti, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Guy Davis, Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury, Toshi Reagon, Tom Paxton, Ben Bridwell, Billy Nershi, Larry Long, Mike & Ruthy Merenda, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Tommy Sands, Patterson Hood, Tony Trischka, Warren Haynes, Silvio Rodrguez, Scarlet Moore, Jay Ungar & Molly Mason, Native American Indian Cultural Alliance, NYC Labor Chorus. Reviewed May 3, 2009.
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