Monday, July 04, 2005

A Gr8 Event?

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed here are entirely my own and are written with my work hat firmly off.

For better or for worse, I felt a part of something at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park last weekend. I've never seen such a huge crowd of people - it stretched as long and wide as the eye could see. The event seemed to be a protest against cynicism and apathy as much as anything, and as such it may have just convinced me that it was greatly positive. The message was loud and clear - gathering people together can and must effect change. The unsurprising warning from George Bush that Tony Blair can expect little in return for his commitment in Iraq may suggest otherwise, but it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, these international concerts have at the G8 summit.

I have no problem whatsoever with the notion that musicians can have a political voice. There are many who think that musicians should stick to writing songs and entertaining people. This is a profoundly dangerous and anti-democratic sentiment. As Michael Stipe said recently - in campaigning on issues such as the US election and global poverty, he is exercising his right as a private citizen to voice opinions. He also happens to be a public figure and, as such, can disseminate his message to greater effect. All well and good.

Still, I have some reservations I need to get out of the way at the outset. There were times, when performances were juxtaposed with emotive images of starving children, that it felt as if a giant pop concert may not have been the most appropriate way of focussing the world's attention on these significant issues, especially as the event appears to have generated little attention in Africa itself. This was not its aim of course. The focus has been on the G8 summit and what it could achieve, rather than the countries that are themselves in need of debt relief and much more. This is why the criticism over the lack of African artists on the bill rather missed the point.*

My second reservation is that this campaign may sweep broader, more complicated issues under the carpet. Whilst the view that African poverty can only be solved by Africa itself is grossly offensive, even complete debt cancellation is unlikely to resolve the problem. Only a handful of artists involved made any reference to the real problem - the need for a system of fair trade that does not systematically exploit African producers. Even more ignored were the troublesome conditions which will be imposed on countries before they can receive any kind of debt relief: the elimination of corruption (fair enough, but difficult to achieve), but worse, enforced privatisation and free market liberalisation. There is no evidence that this will actually be of benefit. It has certainly created problems in South America. I fear that, should any postive developments come from this, the result may be the creation of elites in Africa, and a massive gulf between the extremely rich and the extremely poor. We must guard against this if real progress is to be made. It's worth remembering that many African countries have repaid most if not all of what they borrowed, but thanks to the wonders of compound interest, now find themselves in debt to the tune of billions.

Thirdly, why has the focus solely been on Africa? Extreme poverty exists elsewhere in the world, and there are vast areas of real suffering that never receive any media attention. Are we simply to ignore humanitarian disasters elsewhere?

Nevertheless, to raise awareness has to be a good thing. I can't help but feel that there is a whole generation (post-the original Live Aid) who know very little about these issues. We can be cynical about the motives of the artists involved (and the likes of Robbie Williams and Pink Floyd have unsurprisingly experienced a massive surge in their album sales over the weekend), but their presence can only help rather than hinder any action. Some artists may have become involved with the Make Poverty History campaign as a result of record company manoevres, but acts like McFly appear to have genuinely had their eyes opened to problems they simply were not aware of beforehand. We should not dismiss their voices. As blandly emotive and cliched as they may sometimes appear, Bob Geldof and Bono do have genuine concerns. It's easy to forget that the former has worked tirelessly for the Commission for Africa, and has at least done some research. Their weaknesses come with their unwillingness to challenge some of the least attractive elements of power politics - will they achieve more by being photographed in friendly poses with Blair and Bush? The message of hope certainly rang loudly through Hyde Park - will it transcend its gates?

Did it work as an event and as a concert? There were certainly problems. The stewarding at the start was hopeless - as huge crowds of people were herded like sheep into one giant mass across three lanes of entrances, rather than into any kind of fair and organised queue. Whilst the concert overran by hours, the onstage and backstage organisation must have been superb - it's almost unfathomable to think how they managed to engineer so many performances by so many acts at one single event. The sound did not carry well across the park, however. As a result, the effect was rather like watching a dodgy, slipping VHS tape on giant screens (the stage being barely visible). The cordoning off of the 'gold circle' seemed completely against the spirit of the event, creating a privileged elite at the front of the crowd.

It was also frustrating that it was so flagrantly hijacked by rampant commercialism (look- there are thousands of free copies of the Daily Mirror strewn all over Hyde Park!). The presence of other, completely inappropriate campaigns also proved frustrating - some I support (No 2 ID has their giant balloons - but this was hardly the time or the place), and the usual suspects who attempt to take over every protest going (hello Socialist Worker). Luckily, many audience members I observed in the queue seemed engaged with the issues (some were openly discussing them), and only a small number of morons laughing through the films of starving children spoiled the mood during the concert itself.

I therefore couldn't help by submitting to the feeling that this was a brilliant, major event. There is always something thrilling about being part of a large, united crowd, and even when I disliked the music, the whole experience still felt uniquely positive. Standing for several hours was something of an endurance test - but a number of remarkable performances made it all worth it on a musical level alone.

The show kicked off on time with a bizarrely inaudible fanfare before U2 took to the stage with Paul McCartney to perform what was apparently the first live performance of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (McCartney had performed the reprise on his recent tours, but not the full version). It felt a little flat, but U2 were clearly awed to be sharing the stage with the former Beatle. Before ushering in their own 'Beautiful Day', Bono asked the crowd 'did that really just happen?' At any other event, U2's three song set (with Bono's overt preaching and the release of a flock of white doves into the air) may well have felt uncomfortably mawkish. Here, something resolutely cheesy and sentimental felt like the perfect opening to the event. 'Beautiful Day' was appropriately anthemic, 'Vertigo' confident and strident, despite its obvious limitations as a song, and 'One' was particularly touching. Bono still has a commanding presence on stage that is impossible to ignore.

Next up were Coldplay - a decidedly mixed blessing. 'In My Place' remains one of their best songs, but Chris Martin's flat intoning of Status Quo's 'Rocking All Over The World' was criminally unfunny. Richard Ashcroft took to the stage for a faithful run through of 'Bittersweet Symphony'. Whilst hardly earth shattering as a performance in its own right, it reminded me what a good song it is, and how Richard Ashcroft appears to have left his talents somewhere in Wigan ever since. Still, even the most ardent of Verve fans must have choked at Martin's ardent flattery - 'this is probably the best song in the world sung by the greatest singer in the world'. Ashcorft could not even be considered the greatest living singer singer in the world, let alone the best ever. Such overstatement may go some way in explaining Martin's own considerable limitations. Someone should introduce him to Roy Orbison and Sam Cooke. They closed with 'Fix You', an earnest ballad that shamelessly references Elbow and, perhaps precisely because of this, may well come to be their best song. Its carefully controlled crescendos linger in the mind.

After a brilliant introduction from Little Britain's Lou and Andy, Elton John provided the day's first genuine surprise. He was superb - a top notch showman wisely opting to perform two of his very best and most rousing songs ('The Bitch Is Back' and 'Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting'). It was a timely reminder that he can be a great songwriter when he puts his mind to it - it's such a pity he's been churning out middle of the road pap for the last 25 years. It was also a shame that his set was soured by an embarassingly, ahem, shambolic Pete Doherty, who teamed up with Elton to perform 'Children Of The Revolution' with committed swagger, but sadly he hadn't bothered to learn the tune. The bizarre pairing was certainly unexpected but in the event, not all that satisfying.

The less said about Dido the better. She is profoundly dull in every conceivable way, from the bland synth pad stylings of her tepid band to her weak and irresolute singing voice. She was completely upstaged by the arrival of guest Yossou N'Dour who demonstrated his talent even whilst duetting on the awful 'Thank You' and his sole UK megahit 'Seven Seconds'. How does Dido manage to communicate to so many people with no stage presence and no charisma? You're in front of 200,000 people woman! Do something!

The Stereophonics strangely started to engage the crowd a little more, despite turning in a perfunctory set with little subtlety. Still, at least they played 'Local Boy In the Photograph', the lyrics of which I still find moving. It's the one indication that Kelly Jones may possess some talent somewhere, even though with bluster like 'The Bartender and The Thief', and plodding tosh like 'Maybe Tomorrow', he keeps it well hidden.

Ricky Gervais bowed to pressure from the crowd and dutifully performed the infamous David Brent dance from The Office for 'one last time', before REM provided a welcome burst of quality. Hard to believe that The Stereophonics were gifted with four songs, whilst one of the world's most significant bands were restricted to just three, but their performance came with their usual verve and vigour as well as an unusual and endearing timing slip during 'Everybody Hurts'. Shame they played three big hits rather than testing the crowd with some of their more overtly political material. Even one of the better, more engaged selections from 'Around The Sun' might have seemed more appropriate to the event. At least 'Everybody Hurts' provided an obligatory lighters aloft moment, hampered by the fact that it was still broad daylight in mid-afternoon. With extraordinary strip make-up across his eyes, Michael Stipe begins to look less endearingly charismatic and more sinister. He remains one of the best stage performers in the business. 'We are REM and this is what we do', he said with customary self-deprecation. What they do is to be consistently the best live act in the world year after year. Long may it continue.

Ms Dynamite proved, aside from Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela (speaking in Johannesberg), to be the most articulate political voice of the day, arriving at the point crisply and persuasuvely. Her message that 'the debt is surely ours' was warmly received. Whilst many attempt Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song', her remarkable rendition had real character and pathos. She shows every sign of maturing into a major, distinctive British soul voice.

Keane and Travis then also did what they do, but with less overwhelming impacts. Keane do nothing for me whatsover. What some find anthemic, I find turgid and lacking in ambition. Watching their keyboard player's violent and exaggerated motions also induced a slight feeling of nausea. At least they appear to be down-to-earth, genuinely decent people, surprised by their perplexing commercial success. Travis were dependably inoffensive, and despite the recent dip in their profile, monosyllabic titles like 'Sing' and 'Side' obviously still carry memories for many people. Nobody could object to a run through of 'Why Does It Always Rain On Me' either.

Neither could anyone really object to Bob Geldof indulging in a quick rendition of 'I Don't Like Mondays'. The moronic chavs next to us secured their one vaguely funny moment with their chorus chant of 'Tell Me Why! I only have one song...' (it's not true of course - The Boomtown Rats had several hits in their day). It's actually an enduringly good song too, its theme of high-school massacre now genuinely prescient, even though its stylings are entirely copied from Born To Run-era Springsteen.

Revelation of the day was Annie Lennox. As good a pop band as The Eurythmics were, Lennox's solo career has been faltering, and she has shown little sign of the true artistry she is capable of. That artistry was present in bucketloads today - her solo piano rendition of 'Why' proving quietly devastating. 'Little Bird' and an energised version of 'Sweet Dreams' provided more upbeat balance. Her voice was controlled but extremely powerful, demonstrating that she is indeed a tremendously talented vocalist who prefers distinctive, emotive delivery over blandly virtuosic extemporising (others on the bill could learn from this, but more of that later).

Things then started to get more bizarre, and the quality more variable. I went to get Falafel during UB40, but their medley sadly seemed to drift more in favour of their successful cover versions than their earlier politicised material. Why not play 'One In Ten' or 'King' instead?

Snoop Dogg may well have been the source of most of the BBC's complaits, liberal as he was with his language still relatively early in the evening. As others have noted, his exortation to 'put your hands in the air like you just don't care' seemed ill-advised - we're supposed to be here because we do care aren't we? Still, it's difficult to resist the wickedly brilliant 'Drop It Like It's Hot', or indeed some of the earlier Funkadelic-inspired material aired in truncated versions. His laconic drawl remains one of hip-hop's most distinctive voices, even if he is now more cuddly poodle than savage terrier.

I almost warmed to Razorlight during their short set, specifically during a genuinely excellent rendition of 'Golden Touch' with some gospel backing vocalists. Unfortunately, Johnny Borrell's extreme self-confidence (he clearly sees his band performing to audiences of this size in their own right in the not-too-distant future) remains a distraction. Why can't the man keep his clothes on for even a 15 minute set? Still, their energy and boisterous enthusiasm may prove infectious, especially for those who know nothing of their thinly veiled New York punk influences.

Next came what everyone were all waiting for - the 'queen bee of Rock and Roll', Madonna. I'm genuinely glad to have seen her without paying £150 for the privilege, even though the juxtaposition of her jewellery encrusted fingers gripping the hand of an Ethiopian famine survivor provided one of the most uncomfortable big screen images of the evening. Her performance was simply fantastic - she commanded both the stage and the audience and her voice has clearly grown in stature and power over the years. She may now deserve the title of artist as well as star, so convincing were her performances of 'Like A Prayer' and the triumphant 'Ray Of Light'. 'Music' seemed the most appropriate song of the whole event - 'music makes the people come together' runs the chorus, and today it clearly did. The first act to really integrate performance into her act - her dancers and choir making her diva-ish demands for increased rehearsal time seem necessary rather than frustrating. Her cry of 'Are you fucking ready? Are you ready to start a revolution?' may have been the least convincing political rallying cry of all time - but we'll forgive her all that.

Snow Patrol played 'Chocolate' and 'Run', two exhuberant choruses in search of decent verses, or even a middle eight. Hardly a highlight. All the more disappointing then that The Killers, in spite of having delivered a chart-topping debut album, were restricted to just one song, a rousing 'All These Things I've Done'. No doubt the crowd would have appreciated 'Somebody Told Me' and 'Mr. Brightside' as well. They may not be particularly original but they look set to become festival favourites over the next few years.

Joss Stone performed customarily barefoot renditions of classic soul material including 'Supa Dupa Love' and 'Some Kind Of Wonderful'. How has she managed to convince the likes of James Brown, Willie Mitchell and Betty Wright that she is a genuine soul talent when she is evidently a diluted, pure commodity-pop repackaging of musical history? I do wish she'd stick to the melody line too. Despite her constant giggling in interviews, she may be starting to take herself a little too seriously.

Scissor Sisters remain a camp pop phenomenon, and at Live 8 they pulled off a neat trick by being the only act daring enough to perform previously unheard material. Their new song 'Everyone Wants The Same Thing' may well be their best yet, immediately infectious and engaging. 'Laura' and 'Take Your Mama' provided wholesome, light-hearted entertainment too. Too many artists on the bill didn't quite have the shameless energy and enthusiasm needed to reach such a large crowd but the Scissor Sisters had the necessary effervesence.

Velvet Revolver were a baffling selection, and were totally awful. This kind of sludgy, corporate rock felt horribly out of place in this line-up, and the band seemed somewhat confused by the whole occasion. They tried their best - but this crowd would obviously much rather see Slash patch things up with Axl Rose and deliver a quick blast of 'Paradise City' and 'Sweet Child O Mine'. Not likely, but we can continue dreaming.

I've never been a fan of Sting but something about his performance here carried substantial weight. Perhaps it was the explicit refashioning of 'Every Breath You Take' into a pointed attack on Blair and Bush, which seemed dignified and intelligent. It was also there in the renewed energy in his performance of 'Message In A Bottle', in which he avoided nostalgia and breathed new life into the material.

Mariah Carey provided the day's real nadir (sorry Adrian!). Her upbeat material is relatively inoffensive, and during 'Make It Happen' she paced the stage energtically and with authority. Unfortunately, she is such a hopeless diva, with backstage crew bringing her water to sip through a straw between every song and performing a horrible version of 'Hero', already one of the very worst songs of all time, with an African Childrens' Choir. She was the first artist of the night whose motivations I genuinely doubted - something about the set seemed insincere, particularly when she closed with a screechy and perfunctory promotional rendition of her latest single, which added nothing to the recorded version.

Thank goodness then for Robbie Williams (did I just say that?) who did his peerless showman act with renewed charisma. As promised, he included Queen's 'We Will Rock You' in his brief set, in reference to the first Live Aid event. He was also the only person to thank Midge Ure, who whilst still involved in the trust in some capacity, appears to have been sidelined from its public front. Williams' material may be cringe-inducing at times, but at least he made up for the crowd's notable antipathy to Mariah's self-indulgence with an inevitable singalong-an-'Angels'. He flew over from LA, where he has clearly been residing for several months, and many seem to think he has used Live 8 as a means to relaunch his career in the UK. He hardly needs to though - he could record himself pissing in a pot and it would still sell by the truckload.

Then came the elder statesmen of the rock establishment. Both The Who and Pink Floyd were spectacular. The former played 'Won't Get Fooled Again', a song that still burns with righteous fury, even though its composers now look more like University lecturers than rock stars. Pete Townsend is actually a supremely talented and intuitive guitarist, not just for the whilrling arm pyrotechnics, but for some inventive and subtle mid-song finger picking too. I've always found Pink Floyd to be on the dull side of worthy, but they performed four of their most enduring songs and seemed genuinely pleased to have patched up their differences. Even Roger Waters, notorious for his diffidence and arrogance, radiated newfound warmth on stage, dedicating the poignant and endearing 'Wish You Were Here' to the reclusive, troubled Syd Barrett. They even reclaimed 'Comfortably Numb' from the Scissor Sisters, making rich and inventive use of visuals on the big screen as they performed. Dave Gilour's fretwork was thrillingly skilled, and the sound quality was at its fullest and most convincing during their set. They may be chief executives in the business of denial at the moment - but surely a full reunion tour beckons?

Paul McCartney closed things off with brio, duetting with George Michael (who still shies from ever performing his own work live) on 'Drive My Car', delivering a surprise, highly kinetic version of 'Helter Skelter' before launching into a rather icky 'Long and Winding Road' (never his best song) and the previously announced all-star chorus of 'Hey Jude'. Cheesy in the extreme, but a necessarily unified and uniting conclusion to a quite remarkable mass gathering. Whether na na nas can change the world though may be more doubtful.

*The curious paucity of black artists on the bill in London appeared to have a wider implication - the crowd was shockingly, overwhelmingly white. This is hardly representative of modern Britain!


Anonymous said...

I can't believe that you thought that Madonna gave a good vocal performance or a good overall one! Not only was she out of tune but her desperate attempt to use that poor African woman as a prop was shameful. In regards to Mariah i would have to say that she gave very good reditions of her songs ,especially "Make it Happen". I know for a fact that Mariah was having problems with her voice over that weekend and was on vocal rest up to performance time. If anything Mariah's first two songs were more in keeping with the theme of the show then most and i find it suprising that even though you don't like her or the ballads you can dare call it one of the worst songs ever. The worst thing Mariah did was to ask for some water! Did she sware before the watershead? No. Did she come drenched in jewellery? No. If Mariah acted more like a man (as Madonna does) i think anybody would care what she did. I also find it sad that you think that she didn't care about the cause. Why?

Anonymous said...

In response to Adrian's comment, I'll just add my observations of being in that crowd. Madonna's performance was much better received than Mariah's, technical issues aside, for the simple reason that (despite some attitude and bling) Madonna actually made a real effort to ENGAGE HER AUDIENCE. 'Music' was the perfect choice track for the occasion lyrically, altho the bass was a bit big. She can't really be judged on her vocal performance alone (the sound quality varied enormously throughout the concert), I thought she lived up to expectations as a great stage performer, still a Legend in the eyes of today's young pop stars. As for "her desperate attempt to use that poor African woman as a prop", the fact is that Birham Woldu chose to go on stage with Madonna, because she was the only artist in the lineup she had heard of - and her survival story as told by Geldof was one of the truely moving moments of Live8.
The most noticable part of Mariah Carey's performance was the (shocked) silence of the crowd around me, apart from the occasional shout of 'diva!'. I personally can't stand her OTT vocal style, and her ballads just seamed so out of place. When she announced she would be ending with a new song, there was an audible groan across Hyde Park.

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