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Saturday’s poverty-bashing Global Citizen megaconcert in Central Park was nothing if not a crowd pleaser as sets by John Mayer, Alicia Keys, Kings of Leon and Stevie Wonder added up to nearly six hours of mainstream music.
The basic message of the event, repeated by speakers throughout the blue-sky, 70-degree day like a mantra: ending “extreme global poverty by 2030.” Dignitaries including the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim and Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as well as a bevy of celebrities (among them: Gerard Butler, Bridget Moynihan, Soledad O’Brien, Russell Simmons and Olivia Wilde) hammered away at the issues that allow poverty to continue, especially in Africa.
During each band break, a new round of speakers urged the 60,000-plus fans in attendance to act. In one of the more amusing speeches, Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am encouraged everyone to recycle their water bottles. “My hat is made of seven bottles,” he said, hyping Ekocycle products. “It’s all about sustainability.” Wiil.i.am has partnered with Coca Cola to form the company.
Most of the day’s sponsors were Australia-based, including lead sponsor, the Cotton On Foundation. Hugh Evans and Simon Moss founded the Global Poverty Project, which produced the festival, in 2008. The Sumner F. Redstone Foundation was the event’s principle backer.
In its second year — the festival’s 2012 bow featured Neil Young, the Black Keys, Foo Fighters and K’Naan — fans were again required to accrue points in order to qualify for tickets. Writing your Congressman equaled five points. Signing a petition added two points to your total. Sharing a Facebook video was worth one. A total of eight points was needed. Raising awareness, not money, was the main focus of the day.
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And teaching about the treacherous public policies that contribute to global poverty. “It is not natural,” Prof. Jeffrey Sachs noted pointedly, “It’s manmade.”
The music program began at 4:20 with Southern rockers Kings of Leon, who used their set to play some tunes from their sixth album, Mechanical Bull, which came out Sept. 24. Hits like “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire” were predictable highlights from this muscular Tennessee-bred foursome.
Immediately following the hour-long set, Elvis Costello came out for a brief interlude, performing “Tripwire” from his new album with the Roots, Wise Up Ghost, and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Alicia Keys had nothing new to promote. Dressed in a sexy black outfit and her hair coifed high, the homegrown singer/pianist offered a selection of hits, including “Fallin’,” “I Ain’t Got You,” “You Don’t Know My Name” and her New York anthem, “Empire State of Mind.” Between songs, she reminded the crowd that “poverty is huge injustice against our global family.”
After Keys’ 50-minute set, soul-singing sensation Janelle Monae delivered a tantalizing version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.”
Like Kings of Leon and Elvis Costello, Mayer also has a new album out, Paradise Valley. The highlights of his 45-minute set were two covers — the Grateful Dead’s “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” and Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” which segued into Mayer’s “Waitin’ on the World to Change.”
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The final band break dispensed with speakers and just let blues tracks pump through the massive speakers as the stagehands moved equipment around for Stevie Wonder, the day’s penultimate performer. Bono provided a long, rambling intro, calling Wonder “a man with an understatement for a last name.” Wonder then opened with a lengthy version of the Motown chestnut, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” He teased “Higher Ground” and “Master Blaster” before the music stopped and it was time for the UN Secretary General to have his say. This was the only misstep of the day as Wonder went off script and introduced the UN leader. “He’s a rock star in his quest, a leader among leaders,” the braided singer said. “We can work it and reach higher ground.”
The music resumed with “High Ground” (with Monae) and a slew of Wonder hits, such as “Sir Duke,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “My Cherie Amor,” “Living for the City,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Do I Do,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “Superstition,” which closed the show.
The two true highlights of Wonder’s 75-minute set: songs not written by him, but by John Lennon, who, Wonder noted, lived just blocks from where the concert took place before his assassination in 1980. “We must do something about guns in this country,” Wonder adlibbed. “There has to be more control.” He followed with a riveting rendition of “Imagine.”
But before that, Wonder led his large ensemble in the funkiest version of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” you’re ever going to hear, reminding the crowd how brilliant Wonder is as not only an originator but as an interpreter.
The 2nd Annual Global Citizen Festival proved to be a huge success. Messages were heard, music was played, the crowd behaved, the weather cooperated and perhaps we edged slightly closer to the goal of eradicating poverty in our lifetimes.
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