Live Earth (7/7/2007)
Live Earth, Al Gore’s spectacular series of concerts for the environment Earth, has been a magnet for mainstream media cynics, who point to amplifiers, lights and garbage as evidence that the whole thing was one big festival of hypocrisy. But for a member of the throng at Giants Stadium, at least, the atmosphere felt as political and optimistic as any show in memory. The audience was sporting a record number of anti-Bush T-shirts, and there were twice as many tree-hugger types wandering around in green as there were Jersey frat boys swigging Bud and holding their breath for Bon Jovi.
Between sets, celebrities and environmentalists like Jane Goodall, RFK Jr, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz spoke about the environment—and for once, most seemed less polished than earnest as they pled with the audience to make a difference. And the stage was stormed again and again by passionate musicians, egos and entourages aside, who proved that if music can’t clean up the environment, it’s one of the most powerful tools out there to change minds. It almost felt like the 60s.
Live Earth’s message brought out the best in a dizzying array of bands and artists, whose performances ranged from generically positive to genuinely transcendental. The show’s spiritual kickoff came from the biggest rock star of all, Gore himself, who introduced a freewheeling duet between Alicia Keys and Keith Urban of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” a song which hasn’t lost its prophetic quality despite the ensuing decades. Keys later came back and covered Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Me (The Ecology),” another 60s anthem that’s still too pertinent.
Recent Oscar Winner Melissa Etheridge had the most unabashedly political set of the show. Although a song about Cindy Sheehan and the war might be an unconventional choice, she had the fed-up crowd nodding with religious fervor. Kelly Clarkson’s loveable, angry-girl shtick paled in comparison to Etheridge’s righteous indignation. While Clarkson moaned about rejection by her lovers, Etheridge preached, telling her audience to resist the pull of consumerism and fight the powers that be.
Not to be outdone by the rocker-chicks, Akon, Ludacris and Kanye West demonstrated the overlooked fact that the rhythms of hip-hop can be as appropriate for saving the world as they are for grooving at a club. The stadium’s front section went wild for Akon, who rode through its midst on a security guard’s shoulder, touching hands and jamming to a song about Africa—which, he told the audience, is everyone’s homeland. West elicited squeals when he sprinted across the stage during a manic set that encompassed nearly all of his past singles and some hot upcoming tracks.
Heroes of the college scene Dave Matthews Band sent their fans into raptures with a short but mesmerizing group of appropriate songs - like “One Sweet World” and “Don’t Drink the Water” - while chilled-out guitar maestro John Mayer soothed the audience with his somewhat lackadaisical protest song, “Waiting on the World to Change.”
Most of the bands performed under the bright sun, giving the concert a laid-back summer-festival vibe. But once the light faded and Gore reappeared to introduce hometown heroes Bon Jovi, the stadium suddenly felt like a glamorous New York event with a surprising degree of intimacy.
The triple-punch of classic closing trio the Smashing Pumpkins, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and the Police elicited the kind of awe bestowed only on truly classic rockers. Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan delivered beautifully sour vocals that summoned up the rage of early-90s alternative music. Lighters and cellphones floated in the dark as audience members crooned along with a mellow Waters to “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Dark Side of the Moon.” West and Meyer jammed along with the Police during the final number, appropriately “SOS.” “We can save the world!” West shouted along with Sting’s vocals.
And it felt like we could save the world, because the grandiose universe of pop music, nothing is impossible. The fusion of anger and resilience that rock embodies prevailed on Satuday. Throwaway lyrics seemed profound, while the specter of war and disaster diminished. Whether the day’s inspiration will translate to action remains to be seen. But between the hope of the artists and the cynicism of the media, I’m going with the former.