Although billed as a concert –one featuring the first reunion of the surviving Beatles in nearly a decade, no less — this fund-raising event came across more like a telethon with particularly good production values: It was long on speeches and good intentions but short on bona fide entertainment value.
To be sure, topliner Paul McCartney lived up to his end of the bargain when he took the stage, proffering an assortment of fan-pleasing hits and event-appropriate obscurities, but the lead-up to his evening-ending mini-set had surprisingly little punch. Sheryl Crow, for instance, was undoubtedly aiming for subdued in her interpretation of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” but she landed squarely in the midst of somnolence — terrain in which Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder likewise found himself mired.
The ennui was highlighted by the sheer number of speeches on behalf of the program’s cause –the promotion of transcendental meditation, a spiritual effort first championed by the Beatles some four decades ago. De facto host David Lynch proved quite affable in his testimony on behalf of TM, but others called upon to testify — Howard Stern and Mike Love of the Beach Boys among them — delivered platitudes that offered little in the way of enlightenment.
The program picked up steam after the intermission, and not simply by virtue of higher energy. The 1960s troubadour Donovan tapped into the spiritual zeitgeist with particular effectiveness, hitting a gently hypnotic groove on his handful of offerings, notably a shimmering “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” (on which he was joined by My Morning Jacket singer Jim James). Jazz flutist Paul Horn maintained that mood on an austere set anchored by a piece titled, appropriately enough, “Meditation,” but two hours into the show, Beatlemania was practically oozing from the cheap seats.
Those filling them were rewarded by a brief, charming set by Ringo Starr, who vamped through some of his best known bits from the Fab Four repertoire, including a winsome “Yellow Submarine,” as well as a brace of his solo songs. The fuse wasn’t really lit, however, until McCartney took the stage and, with seemingly minimal effort, truly tore the roof off the sucker.
McCartney emphasized upbeat material — “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Jet” were especially rousing — but didn’t shy away from hitting emotional notes with songs like “Here Today” (a dedication to the late John Lennon). He drew an ovation by ushering Starr onstage again with a wry “ladies and gentlemen, Billy Shears,” but while the sight of the pair sharing a stage had some nostalgic resonance, their personal rapport was more engaging than their musical affinity, which really clicked only on a time-traveling “With a Little Help From My Friends.”