Moments of beauty to ease days of pain

By Ben Wener for The Orange County Register on September 13, 2005

The strangest but greatest thing happened over the weekend: Roughly 10 hours of unfiltered, heartfelt live music was aired on a variety of cooperating television outlets.

The majority of it was commercial-free and left to speak for itself. Half could be seen on MTV, which scarcely shows 10 hours of uninterrupted live music in a month these days.

Of course we know why this occurred: to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina displaced throughout the Gulf Coast. This being both music- and disaster-related, there was a clear emphasis on the demolition of New Orleans, one of the key birthplaces of American music.

But if you only caught Friday's "Shelter From the Storm" — televised on all major networks and, at press time, still streaming online at Yahoo! Music — well, you merely saw the introduction.

A superb, quietly wrenching one, that is, staged by the people responsible for the 9-11 telethon "America: A Tribute to Heroes." Riveting appearances from two legendary piano men born in New Orleans — Randy Newman, his eerie tale of another flood, "Louisiana 1927," now some kind of anthem for this tragedy, and Dr. John, who revived the Fats Domino tune "Walkin' to New Orleans" — bookended the hour-long special. It was a telecast teeming with memorable turns introduced by moving pleas from, among others, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Ellen DeGeneres and Jennifer Aniston.

The selections were fitting, and unlike four years ago not everyone felt the need to stay somber; Foo Fighters, led by Dave Grohl in CCR wear, delivered a roaring version of "Born on the Bayou," while Garth Brooks came out of retirement to sing with Trisha Yearwood on a more literal "Who'll Stop the Rain?"

In some instances solemnity mingled with teary-eyed jubilation, as when Paul Simon dusted off a spookier "Take Me to the Mardi Gras," then capped it by falling into darkness while a N'awlins band let loose. Alicia Keys brought gospel with Shirley Caesar and other stars of the genre. The Dixie Chicks offered a song of hope backed by Tom Petty's Heartbreakers and Robert Randolph on slide guitar.

U2 enlisted Mary J. Blige to enliven "One" at a stop in Toronto. Neil Young brought in a new piece, "When God Made Me," from his coming "Prairie Wind" album — which would have been a crass move were the song not so profound.

Kanye West, despite fears that he'd erupt once more after his comments about President Bush were censored during the previous week's NBC fundraiser, confined his remarks to a few altered lines of "Jesus Walks." This time, it was Chris Rock who got off an inscrutable, unscripted barb: "George Bush hates midgets."

But there was much more. Partly overlapping with "Shelter" was BET's "SOS: Saving OurSelves," which featured Keys performing "If I Ain't Got You," Patti LaBelle covering the Pretenders' "I'll Stand by You" and Jay-Z and Diddy presenting a million check on behalf of the New York hip-hop community.

And Saturday night's "ReAct Now: Music + Relief" concert, aired simultaneously on MTV, VH1 and CMT, was the most heartrending of all. It was so stirring (much of it done "Unplugged"-style and without commercials or much between-song chatter), it was as if MTV Networks was trying to make up for its completely incompetent handling of Live 8 two months ago.

The compelling turns are too many to name, but while looking on in amazement that Buckwheat Zydeco and the Neville Brothers were actually on MTV, I jotted down some favorites I won't soon forget: Trent Reznor reclaiming his "Hurt" from the late Johnny Cash; Beck looking like a bearded Dylan singing "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometimes"; Melissa Etheridge premiering an a cappella blues she had just written, "Four Days"; segments from Coldplay and Pearl Jam, the latter preceded by an indictment of the government's response from Eddie Vedder; and a harrowing "Under the Bridge" from Red Hot Chili Peppers.

"Sometimes out of really horrible things come really beautiful things," Anthony Keidis pointed out. "I think that's happening right now."

Indeed. Not only was it an exceptional weekend of ego-free charity, it was the perfect way to memorialize the passing of another 9-11. Might I suggest we do this every year?


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