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121212: The Concert for Sandy Relief: Concert Review

Bruce Springsteen Jon Bon Jovi 12-12-12 Sandy Relief Concert - P
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Jon Bon Jovi, left, and Bruce Springsteen at the Concert for Sandy Relief.

The Bottom Line

The six-hour marathon is a long sit, but some inspired musical pairings -- and one or two surprises -- offset any atrophy.

Venue

Madison Square Garden,
New York City
(4:30-10:30 p.m. ET
Wednesday, Dec. 12)

Paul McCartney teams with Nirvana survivors for new song and Michael Stipe duets with Chris Martin on "Losing My Religion" as perhaps the greatest concert lineup of the new century comes together to help victims of the storm of the century.

When the Concert for Sandy Relief was announced and its lineup began to build -- then bulge -- with superstar acts, it was tempting to think back to the post-9/11 telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes. Big names performed live and raised lots of money at both, but Wednesday's mega-concert was a different beast entirely.

It's an apples-to-oranges comparison, to be sure: Along with the obvious difference of this show playing out in front of an audience -- a packed arena, at that -- and being distributed around the world, it became apparent early on that the 121212 extravaganza's tone would be celebratory rather than somber. Billy Crystal's early stand-up proved that ("You can feel the electricity in Madison Square Garden, which means Long Island Power is not involved").

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It probably won't stick in the memory like A Tribute to Heroes, but that's OK -- because nothing ever will. Historical comparisons aside, The Concert for Sandy Relief played out as the very definition of "it is what it is": Despite the heartfelt speeches, video and interstitials, it was, ultimately, a televised concert. (A very long one with bleeped language on the reviewed telecast.)

Still, the sheer tonnage of the lineup made it fun to watch on TV -- though an absolute endurance test. To have been in the building must have been nothing short of magical. But the elephant in that room, and it resonated across the airwaves, was the generation gap. Despite a few token "kids" (Kanye WestAlicia KeysChris Martin of Coldplay), the lineup was a boomer's fantasy come true. Pens likely ran out of ink checking off bucket-list concert acts: The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Billy Joel -- even such relative young'uns as Bon Jovi, Eddie Vedder and  Dave Grohl.

Case in point: Crystal brought out demo magnet Kristen Stewart with a joke that actually resonated beyond simple intro: "If you were born after Ronald Reagan was president -- and your parents just finished explaining to you who I am -- you're in for a treat tonight." She hustled through her copy that introduced a video of Jon Bon Jovi discussing the devastation then beat a hasty retreat.

On with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

And certainly there was much to enjoy during the six-hour program. It was enough just to see Mick Jagger refuse to stand still as he and the Stones played. One might have wondered why they went on a little less than halfway through. Two reasons: 1) It likely was getting past the target audience's bedtime; 2) They only played two songs, when their contemporaries did at least four.

But Jagger got off one of the night's very best lines: "This has got to be the largest collection of old English musicians ever assembled in Madison Square Garden," he said. Then he added, with a snide smile, "If it rains in London, you gotta come help us."

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One thing about those aging Brits he mentioned: We all should be in such great shape at or pushing 70: Jagger, Keith Richards, McCartney, Waters, Clapton, The Who’s Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. Geez.

Steve Buscemi later took a couple of jabs at the Stones' abbreviated set, but at least Mick didn't use the global audience to plug his band's pay-per-view concert this weekend.

The Who played to its biggest TV audience since that mini-meltdown during the Super Bowl halftime show three years ago. Much better this time, boys. Using a video of the late Keith Moon singing his part in "Bellboy" was inspired and entirely fun. Open-shirted Daltrey still brings it, though his voice excusably has lost some power, and Townshend brought out the windmills. Collectively, the band delivered one of the night's most enjoyable sets.

The Jersey contingent likely achieved nirvana when Jon Bon Jovi joined Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for "Born to Run" early on -- and when Springsteen returned the favor to trade verses on Bon Jovi's "Who Says You Can't Go Home." And Joel delivered a hometown-crowd-pleasing set that reminded of just how much sheer of a kick he is onstage. "New York State of Mind," natch, drew the biggest cheer.

Waters began with some tracks from The Wall and wrapped with Vedder belting out "Comfortably Numb." The Pearl Jam frontman was in tremendous voice and brought an undeniable energy to the song. But, unlike 2005's Live 8, the oldsters didn't get a Floyd reunion: no Dave Gilmour.

Not only was Keys' two-song acoustic set a musical highlight, she represented for the younger set: You could almost feel the boomers seethe as she repeatedly sang, "Put your cellphones in the air" during "No One." But the real magic was her soaring intensity during "A Brand New Me." It was simply special -- though, judging from the crowd's reception, it was an opportunity for the rich old white guys to hit the restroom or concession stand.

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Same goes for West’s portion of the show. He certainly tried hard, but the guy is used to adoring audiences, not being a throw-in. Most in the classic-rock crowd obviously only knew him by reputation. (What must they have been thinking when they heard the sample of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” during “Power”?) It's questionable whether anyone there was swayed by his enjoyable but miscast medley performance as the show sailed past the four-hour mark. Cheers were polite at best.

Earlier, Diddy came onstage with Olivia Wilde and said, “Make some noise for yourselves, New York and New Jersey,” the crowd did -- more than they made for either of them.

The night’s biggest surprise -- well, untipped "surprise" -- was Michael Stipe coming out of R.E.M. retirement to sing an acoustic version of “Losing My Religion” with Coldplay’s Martin. Expect that to sell well on iTunes this week. Lovely.

The worst-kept secret ended up being McCartney, as he put it, "in the middle of a Nirvana reunion" of Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear. They played a new original called "Cut Me Some Slack" (watch the video here) that Sir Paul said came out of a rather spontaneous jam. Fun, but that one song was it. Then it was on to more Beatles. This after opening with a stunning, wild version of "Helter Skelter." He later brought out an unannounced Diana Krall to play piano on his wanted-so-badly-for-it-to-be-a-hit "My Valentine."

The show's grand finale was not the expected "Hey Jude" but an everyone-onstage version of Keys and Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind," which Keys sang. An inspired choice. Then it all ended rather abruptly -- at 1:30 a.m. ET. It likely was a strategic decision to not have the camera pan the crowd late in the show; wonder how many folks had simply bailed at that point.

The hits kept comin' all night, broken up by bits of comedy from the likes of Chris RockJon StewartStephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, who said at he fiddled with his phone, "I'm so honored to be here tonight -- I gotta tweet this." And Adam Sandler's Sandy-themed comedy song, sung to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," was borderline hilarious. The yuks kept the mood light, despite some heart-wrenching footage of folks who lost everything in the superstorm in October. It was a rather fine line that was walked deftly. But it worked. 

And as a TV show, the production was outstanding, with mostly seamless transitions. 

During the six hours of Big Time Entertainment, a few nagging questions kept coming to mind: Why all this now, for this particular disaster? Where was this kind of outpouring of fundraising support after, say, Hurricane Katrina or the Japanese earthquake/tsunami or Haiti or ... ? Why was there never any update on how much had been pledged? And where exactly is all the money going? Those are questions best left to the cynics and conspiracy theorists, but maybe this mega-bill extravaganza will be a template for the future. Let's hope.

Program

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band:
Land of Hopes and Dreams
Wrecking Ball
My City of Ruins
Born to Run (with Jon Bon Jovi)

Billy Crystal

Susan Sarandon

Roger Waters:
In the Flesh?
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)
Money
Us and Them
Comfortably Numb (with Eddie Vedder)

Adam Sandler and Paul Shaffer:
New York vs. Hurricane Sandy song set to tune of “Hallelujah”

Brian Williams at phone bank with Ben Stiller

Kristen Stewart

Bon Jovi:
It’s My Life
Wanted Dead or Alive
Who Says You Can't Go Home (with Bruce Springsteen)
Livin’ on a Prayer

Brian Williams at phone bank with Whoopi Goldberg

Jon Stewart

Eric Clapton:
Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out (solo acoustic)
Got to Get Better in a Little While
Crossroads

Chelsea Clinton

Jimmy Fallon

The Rolling Stones:
You Got Me Rocking
Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Stephen Colbert

Diddy and Olivia Wilde

Alicia Keys:
A Brand New Me
No One

Steve Buscemi

The Who:
Who Are You
Bell Boy
Pinball Wizard/See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You (medley)
Baba O’Riley
Love Reign O’er Me
Tea and Theatre

Brian Williams

Billy Crystal

Della Crews (News 12 New Jersey)

Chris Rock

Kanye West (medley):
Clique
Power
Jesus Walks
All of the Lights
Run This Town
Diamonds
Touch the Sky
Golddigger
Good Life
Runaway Freestyle
Stronger

Brian Williams at phone bank with Jack McBrayer

Seth Meyers with Bobby Moynihan (as Drunk Uncle)

Jake Gyllenhaal

Billy Joel:
Miami 2017
Movin’ Out
New York State of Mind
The River of Dreams
You May Be Right
Only the Good Die Young

Blake Lively

Chris Martin:
Viva la Vida
Losing My Religion (with Michael Stipe)
Us Against the World

Brian Williams

Katie Holmes and Jason Sudeikis

Leonardo DiCaprio (via video)

Jamie Foxx, Quentin Tarantino and Christoph Waltz

Paul McCartney:
Helter Skelter
Let Me Roll It
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
My Valentine (Diana Krall)
Cut Me Some Slack (with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear)
I’ve Got a Feeling
Blackbird
Live and Let Die

Ensemble:
Empire State of Mind