The Amnesty Concert Rights And Rockers Come Together At Jfk Stadium: A Review The Music: A Marathon With A Message.

Posted: September 20, 1988

Just the scale of last night's Human Rights Now! concert at JFK Stadium might have prevented the occurrence of any actual music: 75,000 people; six big-name artists; music for more than six hours; TV cameras; plenty of stadium-crossing "wave" spectacles.

And works designed to draw attention to Amnesty International's campaign for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But surprisingly, throughout the marathon, there were moments in which the message and the music magically coalesced. If the stadium mega-event has become synonymous with blunt bashing and little musical communication, this concert - which featured Youssou N'Dour, Tracy Chapman, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Joan Baez and other performers - showed that subtlety is not only possible, but desirable.

Chapman proved it in a surprisingly evocative 35-minute set that focused on the activist material from her debut LP. "Behind the Wall," sung a cappella, benefited from Chapman's trembling, edge-of-bitterness vocal treatment, and ''Mountains O' Things" received a declarative, straightforward arrangement marked by tension-filled verses that rarely found proper release. That made the song more effective. Chapman had little problem holding the crowd, but on a new song, the appropriate "Freedom Now," which echoed the day's human- rights rhetoric, the catchy hook didn't catch on immediately.

Even Springsteen, known for his fist-clenched anthems, tempered his performance with a gentle, rolling treatment of "The River," which featured Sting on lead vocals.

Sting, too, sought subtlety. After a collection of hulking rockers - the rousing opener "King of Pain," an eight-minute version of "One World" filled with jaunty solos - the British singer/songwriter donned a guitar for the slight "Fragile." The song's inbred lyricism - "on and on, the rain will fall, like tears from a star" - was complemented by the percussion tapestries of Minu Cinelu and Sting's own wrenchingly romantic single-line guitar. The feeling evaporated into an equally delicate moment on "They Dance Alone," Sting's song about the thousands who have disappeared in South America under suspicious circumstances. And during a medley that compressed ''Bring on the Night" with "When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around," Sting surrendered the spotlight to pianist Kenny Kirkland, whose extended solo contained heavily syncopated block chords and impressive be-bop-based solo lines.


Throughout the show, the headliners integrated members of the other bands into the act. Sting did "Every Breath You Take" as an encore, and was joined on vocals by Springsteen, whose contributions served to drain the song of its venom, turning a once- bitter song into another plodding rocker. Sting and Gabriel sang together briefly on "They Dance Alone." Saxophonist Branford Marsalis, a member of Sting's band, contributed '60s soul lines to Gabriel's ''Sledgehammer."

The most memorable guest appearance came from Chapman, who sang the female lead on Gabriel's suite-like "Don't Give Up." Bending her voice to fit the twisting, gospel-influenced line, Chapman sounded at ease and reassuring, as if the part were written for her.

Delicate, painterly touches distinguished Gabriel's set. Using Indian violinist Shankar and N'Dour as part of his backing ensemble, Gabriel managed to make his songs - familiar art-rock epics such as "In Your Eyes" and ''Shock the Monkey," and the instrumental "Of These, Hope," from Gabriel's sound track to The Last Temptation of Christ - ring with the push- pull of inner-band communication and the freshness of discovery, as musicians from various nationalities exchanged musical ideas.

Anchoring the conversation was the impeccably minimalist drummer Manu Katche, whose straightforward timekeeping suggested a rainbow of polyrhythm.

Particularly evocative was "Games Without Frontiers," a song Gabriel dedicated to the "45,000 unnecessary casualties in Nicaragua," which found the singer doing a military goose step across the stage, and a throbbing, seven-minute version of "Biko" that was laced with violin and synthesized bagpipes. This song evolved into a massive sing-along and closed Gabriel's set, which was perhaps the most musical of any throughout the day.


Springsteen opened with "Born in the U.S.A.," and followed that anthem with another, more personal one - "The Promised Land." Clearly the crowd's favorite, Springsteen and the E Street Band needed little warm-up to reach full throttle. Powered by the bone-penetrating snare drum backbeat of Max Weinberg and the equally direct bass of Garry Tallent, Springsteen's outfit stirred up elementally simple rock and roll with few frills and the propulsive motion of a hurtling train. "Cover Me," which featured the horn section Springsteen used on the Tunnel of Love tour, was an all-stops-out showcase for Springsteen's jagged - and relentless - vocal energy.

If some of the sets seemed thick with significance - Sting seriously stretched the message of "If You Love Someone, Set Them Free" by dedicating it to Nelson Mandela and those jailed in South Africa - Springsteen's performance was a rollicking party, an object lesson in the power of pure rock and roll. The hammerlocking grooves of Springsteen warhorses "Cadillac Ranch," "Born in the U.S.A.," and "Born to Run" were spelled by a few glimpses from the notably suite-like "Jungleland," one of the show's hands- down highlights, and another narrative epic, "Thunder Road."

Springsteen seemed to be the most apt at leading whole-stadium sing-alongs. Among the 12-song set's most memorable: "My Hometown," "Glory Days," and ''Born to Run."

The show began, 10 minutes early, with the principals taking turns on the Bob Marley rebel yell, "Get Up, Stand Up," which also introduced Baez.

As she did for the American edition of Live Aid in 1985, Baez opened the show. This time, she started with the gospel standard "Oh, Freedom," and delved immediately into John Lennon's "Imagine," and the Beatles' "Let It Be," neither of which seemed to rally the still-gathering crowd.

The show ended more than seven hours later with the same all-star cast that started it. Supported by the E Street Band, the group embellished Springsteen's arrangement of Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom," with frequent changes in the lead vocal roles. That was followed by a similarly structured reprise of "Get Up, Stand Up."

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