During the weekend of October 19, 2001, events related to the terrorism of September 11 dominated the musical spectrum. While the initial public reaction to that tragedy offered a somber program - September 21st’s America: A Tribute to Heroes - matters tended toward the celebratory a month later.
My weekend started with the smallest but the best of the concerts. U2 played Baltimore that Friday and put on possibly the best of the 27 performances I’ve seen them give. The terrorism put their show in a whole new perspective, and it was a dazzling show that covered all of the appropriate emotional bases. I offered additional discussion of the performance in my review of the band’s Elevation DVD, but suffice it to say that it was a virtually perfect evening.
That Sunday, I attended a totally different concert. Here in DC, Michael Jackson organized “United We Stand”, a long, meandering waste of time. The show plodded along forever and ran more than three hours late. The stadium ran out of food and the evening culminated in a lip-synched performance by Michael during which he actually flung the US flag to the stage. The day wasn’t a total loss, but it was close, as the concert seemed like an opportunistic chance to wave the flag, promote new material, and do little else. After the highs of U2’s show, this seemed like a cheap and sleazy attempt to generate some fake emotion.
Chronologically, artistically, and emotionally, The Concert For New York City fell between the two. Organized by Paul McCartney and staged at Madison Square Garden, this show lasted about seven hours less than “United We Stand” and it offered a much more satisfying experience. While the show didn’t equal the depth and focus of U2’s concert, it still was a nice way to celebrate the positives that occurred after September 11, raise some money for charity, and make a gesture to help folks move forward.
New York combines a myriad of different elements. Most prominent, of course, is the music. The show includes 18 different performers. Superstars from the Sixties and Seventies dominate the bill, as we hear from McCartney, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Elton John, the Who, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, and James Taylor. Many of the others didn’t stray far from that blueprint; Bon Jovi, Melissa Etheridge, Goo Goo Dolls, Five For Fighting and John Mellencamp didn’t enjoy hits in that era, but their music matches the same tone.
Only a few performers strayed from this field. Backstreet Boys and Destiny’s Child provided sop for the teeny-boppers, while Jay-Z added some street credibility to the evening. Finally, SNL vets Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon each offered comedic tunes.
Some may bemoan the heavy tilt toward classic rock and lack of diversity, but I won’t do so, for a couple of reasons. For one, part of the reason the concert existed was to raise money. New York featured some very expensive tickets, and the ‘N Sync crowd don’t have that much allowance to spend. The show needed a money demographic, and the artists featured seemed logical to lure in the big spenders.
In addition, another reason the concert existed was as a “thank you” to NYC rescue workers. About 6000 got free tickets for the show, so the bill needed to make sense for them. That’s a pretty blue-collar crowd, and this seems like a sensible bill for them. And let’s not forget that McCartney organized the event, so it was logical that his generation dominated.
Anyway, 11 of the artists play two or more songs. McCartney and the Who get the heaviest airtime. Including two versions of “Freedom”, Macca performs five numbers, while the Who put on four tunes. Elton and Bon Jovi offer three songs apiece, and the remaining seven - Destiny’s Child, Billy Joel, Melissa Etheridge, Jagger/Richards, James Taylor, Mellencamp, and Bowie - pump out two tracks each. Obviously, the other seven performers on the bill get a single song and that’s it.
At times, the divisions seem odd. I was surprised Clapton and Backstreet did only one song each and Jagger/Richards played just two, while I also didn’t expect Destiny’s Child and Etheridge to get the additional numbers. Otherwise, the balance made sense.
In addition to all of the music, New York combines a variety of other elements. Like America, between the songs we hear tales of true-life heroism and requests for money. Originally broadcast live on VH1, New York tried to raise cash over the air; these bumpers give the musicians time to set up and also bring in some bucks. Some of the non-musical bits involve simple stories and pleas, but others try to lighten the tone. Billy Crystal does a little stand-up early in the show, and others like David Spade, Howard Stern and Jim Carrey provide some laughs. SNL’s Will Ferrell even does his Bush impression at one point.
Mostly prepared specifically for New York, we also get a mix of short films. Created by folks with strong connections to the city, we find movies from Martin Scorsese, Ed Burns, Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Smith, and Ric Burns. Along with the bumpers from the actors and others, these act as spots in between the different performers.
Some of the non-musical material seems interesting, but a lot of it moves awkwardly. As with most live events, the evening progresses in a somewhat clumsy way, and various gaffes occur. The DVD still includes the smattering of boos that greeted Susan Sarandon and Hillary Clinton as well as Richard Gere’s plea for moderation. Among the short films, Seinfeld’s and Smith’s are easily the most entertaining. The rest generally seem well intentioned but a bland. Many of the non-musical acts come across in the same way.
New York includes a few of my all-time favorite performers, so logically, they should offer my personal highlights, right? Actually, no, at least to a degree. Bowie - my absolute favorite among my all-time favorites, by the way - opens the show decently well with a subdued solo rendition of Paul Simon’s “America” and then launches into a fair but unexceptional and predictable “’Heroes’”. Bowie at his worst is still better than most at their best, but his work here leaves me unimpressed.
As I’ve noted in my reviews of other McCartney projects, Paul’s voice went to pot years ago, and that factor continues to mar some of his performances. He sounds fine on newer material and some older tracks that fit his limited range, but “I’m Down” is a bad choice; Macca strains to reach the notes. McCartney still has the presence and spirit to make his performances work, but he’s not and never has been a great live act.
On the other hand, Jagger’s set offers bracing versions of some classic Stones cuts. When the show originally aired, Richards was a surprise guest; fans were unaware that we’d get more than just Mick. The added energy brings some spark to the proceedings. From 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet, “Salt of the Earth” used to be a snotty dismissal of working-class folks, but Jagger had the good sense to recast it in a more literal light, and it survives the transition well. Off of 1978’s Some Girls, “Miss You” has gotten too many live performances to be anything fresh, but its New York attitude serves it well, and the song seems crisper than usual.
The Who don’t stand on my list of absolute favorites; I like them a lot, but they don’t make the same tier as those I just mentioned. As such, their terrific performance goes down as one of New York’s pleasant surprises. Based on material like their recent Live at the Royal Albert Hall, I knew they could still crank out the rock, but I didn’t expect them to fire it up to such a degree. In a roster filled with good performances, the Who lap the field; their four tunes blow the others off the stage.
Though their numbers don’t do as much for me, some of the material from Billy Joel and Bon Jovi seems even more surprising, mainly because I don’t like either of those acts. In regard to the latter, their versions of “Livin’ On a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” lack much spark, but they turn up “It’s My Life” nicely. It remains a pretty cheesy and generic arena rocker, but it comes across as spirited and lively in this setting, and Jon milks it for all its worth.
On paper, Joel’s “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” seems like an odd choice. The lyrics present a creepy foreshadowing of September 11 and easily could come across as inappropriate. However, Joel’s tone of insolence and defiance make it an improbable anthem to represent the resistant spirit of New York, and he spits it out effectively. “New York State of Mind” is more predictable and less winning, but it’s still better than I expected.
If I had to pick disappointments, Destiny’s Child seem out of place and bland. Their insistent melismatic oversinging appears showy and self-indulgent. Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” also feels like an odd choice, but it’s over so quickly that I won’t complain.
Otherwise, New York is short on low-lights; I guess they were all waiting for the next night here in Washington. (Yes, I’m still bitter about “United We Stand”!) I’ll likely skip a lot of the show during subsequent viewings, but I still think even blandities like Backstreet Boys and James Taylor come across reasonably well in this setting.
The Concert For New York City isn’t a perfect evening, and it won’t be the time-capsule moment; America: A Tribute to Heroes is just too powerful to be replaced by anything else. Nonetheless, the set packs a lot of amazing talent and presents some fine performances. With almost five hours of footage, there’s bound to be more than something for everyone.
Footnote: The Concert For New York City presents most of what we saw broadcast on VH1 last October, but some alterations occur. Most notable is the omission of one McCartney tune: "From a Lover to a Friend" is mysteriously absent. On one hand, we get some profanity chopped from the TV version; Sandler says “shitting”, while “Who Are You” reinstates its original “who the fuck are you”. Jagger reminds us that “you don’t fuck with New York”, and he also curses once during “Miss You”. On the other hand, there’s a weird fade between Destiny’s Child’s numbers as well as another later in the show - which apparently relate to layer changes - and a technical gaffe that occurred during Melissa Etheridge’s set is nowhere to be seen. (I taped parts of the broadcast but not these, so unfortunately, I can’t compare them.) These changes are small, but I thought I should mention them.
The Concert For New York City appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture showed its TV-concert roots at times, overall it offered a very satisfying piece of work.
Sharpness generally looked positive. Wide shots betrayed a modest amount of softness, but these didn’t become problematic. For the most part, the program remained detailed and accurate. I saw a touch of shimmering and a few examples of jagged edges, but these didn’t occur frequently, and the image usually stayed solid. I saw no problems related to edge enhancement, and the videotaped program seemed to offer no source flaws or artifacts.
Colors provided the DVD’s strongest elements. We saw a mix of hues from clothes, lighting, and backdrops, all of which appeared wonderfully rich and vivid. The tones remained tight and vibrant and showed no concerns; they really came across terrifically well. Black levels also seemed deep and dense, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. Overall, I thought New York looked quite good; were it not for the minor softness at times, this would have been an “A”-level image.
Note that my comments above reflected the quality of the live segments seen in New York. I didn’t include the short films for that didn’t seem to make sense. They ran the gamut of different looks, such as the intentional soft appearance of the Ed Burns piece, so I didn’t feel I should factor them into my ratings. In addition, some of those films featured different aspect ratios; for example, the Spike Lee clip looked to be about 1.78:1. However, all of the concert footage was 1.33:1. Just wanted to clarify matters!
For the most part, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Concert For New York City offered a satisfying experience, but it wasn’t quite as strong as the picture. As one might expect, the soundstage remained oriented toward the front. In the forward spectrum, we heard reasonably satisfying stereo imaging. This seemed somewhat muddy early in the show - Bowie’s “’Heroes’” offered a surprisingly mushy presence - but the mix improved fairly quickly. For most of the program, the audio showed good spread across the front, and instruments were well defined and clearly delineated. We even got some split vocals at times; for example, each member of Destiny’s Child got her own speaker from which to sing.
Like many concert presentations, New York used the rears for minor ambience. Crowd noise filled the surrounds at appropriate times, but otherwise, those channels largely stayed with general reinforcement of the music. The sound spread well to the rears to provide a good sense of atmosphere, but they didn’t do anything special.
Audio quality seemed good but unexceptional. Again, it started somewhat badly but improved as it progressed. “’Heroes’” sounded fairly poor, as it lacked depth and presence; it came across as somewhat harsh and thin. Bass response remained a moderate weakness of the mix throughout the show, but it picked up after that point. For the most part, the mix provided decent low-end tones, but these elements could have been stronger; the track never appeared anemic, but it failed to deliver a great sense of warmth.
Otherwise, the audio showed good clarity and accuracy. Vocals seemed natural and distinct, and the mix placed them appropriately within the spectrum for the most part. At times, they dominated too strongly; Roger Daltrey’s lines during the Who’s set seemed too loud when compared to the rest of the track. Instruments sounded clean and crisp throughout the show, and they balanced well across the board. Overall, the audio of The Concert For New York offered fairly positive sound, but I’ve heard better.
Not surprisingly, The Concert For New York City included no supplements. It has a booklet with various song and performer credits, but that’s it. Actually, New York does provide one helpful option: a selection to play only the musical segments. Considering how much of the DVD features non-musical bits, that’s a thoughtful feature. (For the record, with just the songs, DVD One lasts 95 minutes and 25 seconds, while DVD Two goes for 76 minutes and 24 seconds.)
While not my favorite of the benefits related to the September 11th tragedies, The Concert For New York City still offers a very entertaining and compelling event. The show packed in almost five hours of material from a myriad of well-respected musicians and actors, and it managed to appeal for money with a fair amount of class; the show seemed to celebrate the positive without becoming too sappy or maudlin. As for the DVD, it offers very good picture with decent but somewhat muddy sound. Though the set includes no extras, it still is a fine package that should find a place in the homes of many music fans.