A CONSPIRACY OF HOPE
For most of my life, there have been musical extravaganzas in order to raise money or awareness or both for one cause or another. When I was in college, George Harrison put together "The Concert for Bangladesh", a fundraising extravaganza for the impoverished country whose millions of refugees faced starvation. The humanitarian disaster following its civil war with East Pakistan was exacerbated by massive flooding and other natural disasters. So, Harrison got together a few of his "friends", such as Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar and others who performed at a pair of concert events at Madison Square Garden. I didn't score tickets to that concert. I missed the "No Nukes" concert in 1979, and I did not attend the "Live Aid" concert series with simultaneous performances in two stadiums in Philadelphia and Wembley in London in 1985 to help provide relief to millions of starving Ethiopians during a terrible famine, although I watched the joint telecasts for many hours and sent in my donation. Phil Collins, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Sting, and Paul McCartney all made appearances.
What I did get to see was the "Conspiracy of Hope" concert in June of 1986 to raise money for Amnesty International. One of my students said she could get me two tickets, so my wife and I arrived at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands around 11:30 on the morning of June 15. We didn't leave until eleven hours later! We were at the tour's culminating concert, and the list of performers was more of a rock/pop/folk/jazz fantasy than anything that could reasonably have been imagined. The concert opened just after noon with Bob Geldof (who put together the "Live Aid" concerts) and Steven Van Zandt. Reggae/pop bands Third World and The Hooters followed before folk icons Peter, Paul & Mary came out to perform a set of their legendary tunes, including "If I Had a Hammer" and "Blowin' in the Wind". Many of the performers emphasized their political views through their commentary and their song choices. Peter, Paul & Mary sang "El Salvador" as a prime example. I'm adding links for all the videos in case they are pulled.
We are both jazz aficionados, so seeing Stanley Jordan and especially Miles Davis and his fusion band was mind-blowing. Jordan memorably played a cover of "Eleanor Rigby", but I especially like his brief interpretation of "All the Children" below:
As you heard, Stanley was introduced by legendary promoter Bill Graham. Celebrities came out on the stage all day long to make appeals and introduce the musical performers. Among them were NJ Senator Bill Bradley, actors Darryl Hannah, Christpher Reeve, and Robert DeNiro, and even Muhammad Ali. Most performers played twenty to thirty-minute sets, the bigger names usually playing longer. Joan Armatrading sang love songs. Yoko Ono screeched a couple of I-guess-they-are-considered songs. Ruben Blades got a little political with his salsa rhythms. Howard Jones sang a pop tune or two. The Neville Brothers sang four songs, joined by Fela, the Nigerian political activist and bandleader, and legendary guitarist Carlos Santana. They also accompanied folk legend Joan Baez for a set of her hits.
Jackson Browne was at the peak of his powers, a huge star at the time. I had first seen him perform when he was just 22, some sixteen years earlier. He played a long set to thunderous applause from the more than 50,000 in attendance. I remember being excited to hear Lou Reed sing "Walk on the Wild Side" live, the penultimate number in his hit-filled set. Following Lou Reed were the night's biggest stars.
Peter Gabriel was next, and he had recently turned his critically-praised but niche career into true rock star-status with blockbuster smash hits like "Sledgehammer" and "Shock the Monkey". What I most remember about Gabriel's nearly forty-minute set at dusk is that it left him soaked to the skin. He concluded his hit-laden set with "Biko", his musical tribute to the anti-Apartheid activist in South Africa who lost his life naked and beaten in jail a decade earlier. I remember the stadium reverberating with the crowd chanting "Biko" throughout the song.
Then came Bryan Adams. I was never a fan, so I viewed this as bathroom-break time. But the crowd sang along to his huge 80s hit songs. I was saddened in multiple ways by what followed. The legendary guitarist and composer of The Who, Pete Townshend, was supposed to be the next act, but my wife and I had heard earlier in the day that Pete's dad had suddenly fallen gravely ill, and as soon as Pete landed at JFK, he got on the next plane to return to London. But we were elated that the equally legendary Joni Mitchell had volunteered to take his place at the last minute. There is virtually no musician I revere more than Joni, so this was a thrill for me. Unfortunately, after many hours, the crowd was amped up for heavy-duty rock anthems, not thoughtful and introspective pop tunes. Some in the crowd even booed when Joni sang, and someone in the crowd threw an ice cube that hit her guitar. She kept her aplomb and finished her set with one of my favorite Joni tunes, "Hejira".
Under normal circumstances, U2, the biggest band in the world at the time, would have been the final act. They played eight songs in their dynamic set, which I have included below:
What I remember is that I turned to my wife at the end of the set and said, "If Bono were to ask the crowd right now to get up from their seats, march like lemmings toward the Hudson River, and plunge into the water, I think they might do it." That's how charismatic a performer he was. As always, he was overtly political, singing anti-Apartheid songs like "Sun City" or tributes like "MLK". But he leavened the set with surprises like The Beatles' "Help" and Dylans "Maggie's Farm".
Only something unique and amazing could come afterward. The reggae-inflected rock/pop trio, The Police, were the biggest band over the previous decade, but they had broken up due to dissension and Sting's desire to forge his own path. Just three years earlier, their album Syncronicity had been No. 1 in America for 17 weeks, propelled by the monster single "Every Breath You Take". Shortly afterward they disbanded and moved on to solo projects for the next two decades. They didn't play as a trio again until they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. Sting became a hugely successful soloist and band leader of studio musicians, many with jazz chops. I have seen him many times in a number of venues--always great! But for three of these Amnesty Concerts the band regrouped and played half a dozen of their hits, including "Every Breath You Take", "Roxanne", and "Message in a Bottle".
My wife and I were headed for our car when Sting called everyone on stage from the entire day for the grand finale. In addition, two dozen former political prisoners who had been freed at least in part due to the efforts of Amnesty International joined the musical stars, and everyone in the stadium joined in on Dylan's "I Shall Be Released". What a day.