EmptyRadio City Music Hall, New York
Tuesday, Sept. 18
Benefit concerts come with their own set of problems, from a surfeit of stars with too little stage time to an overabundance of oratory. But while those factors did at times plague the Dream Concert, organized to raise funds for a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on D.C.'s Mall, the quality of the performances and the passion displayed by the many speakers made the evening both musically and emotionally rewarding.
Considering the worthiness of its cause and the presence of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as artistic directors, it's not surprising that the show featured a plethora of iconic musical stars. Fortunately, it wasn't the usual grab bag but rather many performers whose political passion has long been evident, including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Carlos Santana.
To be sure, it was an eclectic evening, as evidenced by such quick segues as opera singer Jessye Norman's gorgeous renditions of "America the Beautiful" and "Amazing Grace" to an irreverent comedy routine by Cedric the Entertainer to rap performances by Talib Kweli and Ludacris.
But overall the music well fitted the evening's worthy theme, from Joss Stone and Ryan Shaw's soulful "A Change Is Gonna Come" to John Legend's politically charged "Freedom Now" to Babyface's funky version of "Change the World" to Garth Brooks' heartfelt if ragged "Abraham, Martin and John" and his own "We Shall Be Free."
Brooks, confessing to nervousness ("I don't get to do this much anymore, so hang on"), found himself in the unusual position of being upstaged, by Wyclef Jean, who brought the crowd to its feet for the first time in the long evening with his hilarious rap number spoofing the current presidential race.
Santana didn't disappoint with his three-song set, raising the excitement level with his virtuosic guitar work. Franklin sounded in great voice with songs including her classic "Respect." And Wonder, following his emotional acceptance speech for an award delivered to him by the Memorial Foundation, delivered sterling renditions of several of his hits, appropriately closing the evening with his King-themed song "Happy Birthday."
A gallery of prominent figures was on hand to provide introductions, including Cuba Gooding Jr., NBA great Bill Russell, Usher, LL Cool J, Quincy Jones and several of King's children. Also present were Tommy Hilfiger and Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, the latter accepting a Corporate Citizenship Award for the company.