Who could dismiss a music festival to help eradicate world poverty with Elvis Costello and Janelle Monae performing mini sets, and featuring Kings Of Leon, Alicia Keys and John Mayer with 45 minute sets each and starring one of the premiere songwriters and singers of the 20th Century, Stevie Wonder? On a glorious Saturday afternoon drifting into Saturday evening, 60,000 New Yorkers becoming “Global Citizens”? Well helping the poor is one thing and music is something else entirely and I for one, actually, will be happy to dismiss the entire enterprise for you.
Tomas Doncker and I were arguing music before we set foot in Central Park. Doncker dismissed Kings Of Leon out of hand after watching an HBO Special and being less than impressed with the skills. Back in 2010 I (viciously) dismissed their Madison Square Garden concert here, but over the years I’ve warmed to them as the Black Crowes with better songs and less boogie. I disagreed with his assessment and before the end of the night we had switched positions. Docker claimed: “They were rehearsed, they were tight, and they played well”. Admittedly, this is setting the the bar as low as possible and admittedly, Kings Of Leon are still a bore on stage. Their 10 song set is odd and not particularly well crafted. Four songs off their newbie Mechanical Bull, but not the ones I wanted to hear and the 2nd and 3rd songs were off their little known sophomore album, just in case anybody had the slightest urge to join in. Nothing off their excellent Come Around Sundown. KoL bottomed heavy the hits, a deadly mistake, they should have thrown in “Use Somebody” for the second song and bought themselves half an hour (of a 45 minute set) worth of goodwill.
Up next was Elvis Costello and he couldn’t have been worse. The man refuses to sing properly anymore, he is all overdone singing and affectation. With just his acoustic guitar he made an inane joke about walking his dog in the park when he was asked if he wanted to play, he performed the best song off his new album with Roots “Tripwire” and followed it with “What’s So Funny Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” and he was atrocious. The first song went on too long and the second was an emotional cesspool of strong feelings. It’s like Elvis thinks we can’t hear a song without Cliff Notes. Stop telling me how to feel.
Indeed, don’t tell me how to feel was my main complaint of all the political glad handing between sets. There are rules to this game of political charity where the Prime Minister of Liberia is being feted as the second coming by “Please God, No” Bono. And there the little twit is, running off his motor mouth and doing his best to make sure not one of the 22 million viewers of this musical hell, learn a damn thing. Lemme see if I can dumb down Global Citizen’s Message.
1. Feed the children.
2. Free education and healthcare for all.
3. Unleash the power of women.
4. No poverty please.
I am not sure who they think is gonna disagree with these goals. What do these Australian charity guys think we’re gonna say? Fuck the little brats, let them eat cake? Really, it’s a little ridiculous and a complete bore and, ugh, Bono. Bono’s message comes in real clear as well.
1. Fuck Ireland, I’m not gonna pay 70% tax so my brothers can have cradle to grave welfare.
2. Yeah, I’ll help the poor but only under MY TERMS.
I agree with Bono’s assessment entirely but then I am not hectoring 60,000 people on the Great Lawn and 22 million worldwide and setting myself up as some sort of superior human being. Tomas reminds me how great U2 is as band, and I agree, but not in the 21st Century where they released two shitty albums in 13 years.
But in case you think me and the True Groove Records owner can agree upon nothing, we can at least agree that Alicia Keys is the absolute worse. Well, at least she keeps to the hits and the audience loved her and indeed left in droves after her set. Both Tomas and I can point to “No One” and wonder why she can’t write two more songs like that. I’ve seen Alicia quite a a few times, she shows up everywhere, boring the audience to tears, or at least me to tears. She ended the set with three sure shots and had the entire Lawn on their feet (no great feat either since there weren’t any chairs) with two crowd pleasing brutal songs, “Girl On Fire”, which sounds like the soundtrack to a 1970s porn movie, and if every city gets the anthem they deserve we deserve “Manhattan” not “Empire State Of Mind”. Incidentally, Keys should never discuss poverty ever again if the best she can do is advise “all the children with broken hearts to hold on to love”. Serenity now.
Ghastly yes, but unlike Janelle Monae at least Alicia didn’t make a fucking idiot of herself by claiming Stevie wrote Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”. Doncker is outraged by the mistake and I tend to agree to some extent. How can you cover a song at a gig this big and get the songwriter wrong? Are these guys idiots? Are they just so self involved they veer into ignorance?
John Mayer is another place Doncker and I go into our separate corners and come out fighting. Earlier he had astounded me by claiming the Foo Fighters were better than Nirvana, the moral equivalent to claiming P. Diddy is better than Biggie Smalls. But at least Tomas has his reasons when it comes to Mayer: “The Stevie Ray offspring were Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Sheperd and Joe Bonamassa and Mayer is better than all three”. Perhaps, but this set leans too hard on his current country folk leanings, making us wait for flashes of greatness , a couple of songs off Continuum helped, some “Inner City Blues” didn’t, and everything else put me to sleep.
Bono. Hell, Bono, shut your face. His introduction for Stevie Wonder might have made it if it wasn’t the same verbal hiccups he used inducting Bob Marley into the Rock And Toll Hall Of Fame to much better effect. You know what I mean: “Mr. Masterblaster, the new Sir Duke…” stuff like that. Interminable and insulting by its laziness, finally we got to Stevie and this should have been the money shot but:
1. The set was too short.
2. After two songs, Stevie brings out the Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-moon and really, enough already. Stevie introduces Ki-moon as a rock star, which he isn’t of course, but Ban does have one killer line: “there is no U. N. without YOU”.
Opening with “How Sweet It Is” for some obscure reason and teasing Doncker with a little “Higher Ground” before “Master Blaster”, then pausing for the speech before playing hit after hit after… or as Doncker puts it “songs songs songs songs songs”. I had complained how Mayer had a derailed a song with a lousy break earlier in the evening and Doncker points to “Isn’t She Lovely” as having a perfect song break. The voice? The voice is magnificent and Doncker is almost jumping out of his skin with pleasure at the entire days highlight, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” with Wonder trilling and scatting upwards.
But it is over way too soon. Are you kidding? Everybody else should have played 30 minutes and they should have scooped up the difference and handed it to Stevie. Who on earth needs 45 minutes of Alicia and Mayer and then get stuck with 70 minutes of Stevie INCLUDING THE DAMN U.N. GUY?
I’ve been waiting to catch a full Stevie set since the last time he played a solo set in the city, MSG in 2008, and I feel as ripped off as you can watching a set that includes “Sir Duke”, “Living For The City” and “Superstition” and the Beatles “Day Tripper”. “Day Tripper” is really a Lennon track and look at this, Wonder also covered “Imagine” (to make a point about gun control). Wonder first performed “Day Tripper” on Signed, Sealed, Delivered, back in 1970 and the lick is pure Lennon and the “It took me so long to find out, but I found out” is even more Lennon like than “Imagine” ever will be.
Stevie was terrific, vocally Stevie is on fire and his harp playing is just as good, “One of three most recognizable sounds in the world”, Doncker claims, “Martin Luther King giving a speech, Jimi’s guitar (maybe) and Stevie’s harmonica playing”.
But it is a tease, and Stevie should have reworked his set into something he does all the time: an extended medley of his and other hits, a trip through Motown and soul. Instead with sincerely limited time (Central Park has to close at 10pm due to sound zoning laws) he went for jams and wasting time introducing the band which included Maxwell and Janelle singing back up.
So, did I have fun? Sure, it was ok, I hung with a real good friend Tomas Doncker, it was well organized, it saved me money and time on Alicia and John Mayer concerts. But was it good? It was not good.
Kings Of Leon – C+
Elvis Costello – D+
Alicia Keys – D+
John Mayer – C-
Stevie Wonder – B
The Global Citizen Festival – C-
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