There were many conflicting emotions on display during VH1’s “Concert for New York” airing from Madison Square Garden. One part telethon, one part Irish wake and one part house party, the 5½-hour telecast was both celebratory and poignant and remarkably precise in its focus on the regular folk that the show was mounted to benefit.
From the strikingly stark opening, which saw a somber-looking David Bowie perform a pensive version of Paul Simon’s “America” in ghost light before launching into a full-band version of “Heroes,” producers minimized glitter without eliminating it entirely (as was the case on the “Americathon” telecast some weeks back).
Most of the performers fudged, keeping one foot planted on each side of the line between style and sincerity: Bon Jovi followed a muted “Livin’ on a Prayer” (its soaring arena-rock riff replaced by violin musing) with a fist-pumping “It’s My Life.” Likewise, Billy Joel offered the expected croon-along “New York State of Mind,” but also provided a jolt with an eerie version of the post-apocalyptic “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).”
That dichotomy extended to the comedic interludes as well. Billy Crystal loosened his Borscht Belt delivery to allow some edginess to creep in, and Will Ferrell’s George Bush impression merged irony and flag-waving with unanticipated cleverness. Howard Stern’s return from MTV Networks exile, on the other hand, was merely grating — low on laughs and long on monotonous venom.
Filmed interludes, prepared by a passel of high-profile directors, were more effective than the live sketches. Each bore the unmistakable imprint of its author — Martin Scorsese’s poignant street-smarts, Ed Burns’ urban cornpone, Woody Allen’s slapstick existentialism — but none gave off an air of vanity.
Destiny’s Child, seemingly stung by criticism of their canned perfs, dispensed with the Memorex and delivered a beautiful a capella performance, including a gospel medley. The Backstreet Boys traveled the stripped-down route somewhat less successfully, while Jay-Z wouldn’t budge from familiar territory, striking thug poses and rhyming tunelessly about outwitting cops — which did not endear him to the thousands of uniformed personnel in the audience.
Themes throughout were laid out unambiguously: Threats on the life of Osama bin Laden — delivered mockingly, (as by Adam Sandler’s “Operaman” character) or in earnest (as by a wounded Gotham firefighter) drew ovations; pleas for love and compassion, like the one delivered by Richard Gere, were met by lusty booing.
Oddly, representatives of the old guard seemed most willing to take chances this evening. Eric Clapton didn’t succumb to the temptation to offer up any of the maudlin material that might’ve been expected. Rather, Slowhand engaged Buddy Guy in a downright nasty rendition of “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
Similarly, Mick Jagger (abetted by bandmate Keith Richards) dusted off the Stones’ altogether appropriate workingman’s anthem “Salt of the Earth” — although he nearly blew it by tacking on an ill-fitting Vegas vamp.
Elton John, who won an ovation for a soaring version of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” matched the Stones’ creative core in repertoire choice. But the evening’s most galvanizing perfs came from the Who (whose four-song suite exploded with improbable power) and the show’s catalyst, Paul McCartney — who ended the evening by shaking the rafters (with a smashing “I’m Down”) and helping lay an emotional foundation via his newly composed “Freedom.”