Pete Seeger 90th Birthday Concert at Madison Square Garden -- Concert Review

NEW YORK -- There was an appropriate egalitarianism on display Sunday at the 90th birthday tribute concert to Pete Seeger at Madison Square Garden. Superstars including Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp received no more stage time than such veteran acts as Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Richie Havens and many others. The 4 1/2-hour show, thankfully filmed for broadcast on PBS in the summer, paid suitable tribute to the folk music legend and tireless political activist.

It also served as a fundraiser for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the organization Seeger founded to preserve and protect the Hudson River.

Most of the older performers had worked with the guest of honor, but even the younger ones had personal connections with him. Mellencamp introduced his solo rendition of "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" by announcing it was the first song he learned to play on guitar. And Matthews, before unveiling an impressive falsetto on "Rye Whiskey," commented that Seeger headlined the first concert he ever attended.

Springsteen, who released a Seeger tribute album a few years back, talked at length about a man who he described as "looking like your 90-year-old grandpa, if your grandpa could kick your ass!" More seriously, he said, "At 90, he remains a stealth dagger into the country's illusions about itself." Springsteen then sang his "The Ghost of Tom Joad" as a duet with Tom Morello.

With many of the performers joining together for group numbers, the evening's highlights were numerous. They included a haunting "Fare Thee Well," performed by Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, the McGarrigle Sisters and Bruce Cockburn; a dazzling banjo medley by Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka, which playfully included "Happy Birthday to You"; Joan Baez, showcasing her still-lustrous voice with the still-relevant "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"; Billy Bragg's a cappella rendition of "The Internationale," with his own rewritten lyrics; a rousing "We Shall Overcome," led by Seeger; Kris Kristofferson and Ani DiFranco's amusing duet on the children's song "Hole in the Bucket"; Richie Havens, looking like a biblical prophet, reprising his hit "Freedom"; and a killer lineup of Taj Mahal, Toshi Reagon, Steve Earle, Warren Haynes and Seeger trading verses on "Sailin' Up, Sailin' Down."

Although Seeger didn't sing all that much, he did lead the capacity audience on several sing-alongs, advising them, "There's no such thing as a wrong note."

The entire musical lineup -- which also included Roger McGuinn, Emmylou Harris, Ben Harper, Michael Franti, Dar Williams, Tom Paxton, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and even Oscar the Grouch from "Sesame Street," among many others -- gathered together for "This Land Is Your Land." Suitably enough for a singer of whom Springsteen said, "He sings all the verses, all the time, especially the ones we want to leave out of our history," this rendition of the Woody Guthrie classic included even the obscure verses normally omitted.

Venue: Madison Square Garden, New York (Sunday, May 3)
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