Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Better Late Than Never: The 2012 Rainforest Fund Benefit

Hi everyone,

This concert, which took place on April 3rd, may be old news, but you might still like to hear about it. I used to e-mail a minute-by-minute report of this event to my friends. This year, I thought my blog might be an easier way to share. So, here you go!

Joining Sting and Friends--For a Good Cause

If you follow my blog, you're probably aware of my unwavering love for Sting and his music. The Kitties listen to his music just as much as I do. (See here.) When I moved from Ohio to D.C. in 2001,  I decided to attend my first Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert. The Rainforest Fund is a charity Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, started in 1989 in an effort to help save the Amazon Rainforest and the peoples who live there. The concert, held at Carnegie Hall in New York City, was now easier for me to get to from D.C., and--to my surprise--it was relatively affordable!

The first time I went, I learned that each concert has a theme and, for the most part, the performers only sang songs related to it rather than their own. And, while this concert is for a great cause, it's also an excuse for Sting to get his friends together and have a big party. Along with Sting, regulars include Elton John, James Taylor, and Billy Joel (though he hasn't shown up for the last few). That year, guests Smokey Robinson, The Impressions, and Nina Simone joined them, among others. By the time Stevie Wonder appeared, playing his harmonica on Sting's song, "Brand New Day," I had decided to always go to this concert.

So far, I have. Produced by Trudie Styler, the concert is hosted every two years, and some years have been better than others. I admit, for me, the 2010 concert was so underwhelming that I questioned attending this year's event. But, at the last second, I realized that my "bad time" at that concert was more due to my own circumstances--work stress, buying a late ticket, unfortunate seating near obnoxious yuppies--rather than the concert itself. Besides, the year I don't go, Paul McCartney or Barack Obama will show up, and then I'll be sad.

So I bought my ticket, and it was obviously fate! This year's theme was Songs from the Silver Screen: If any concert was meant for me, this was it! (I do love my movies!)

As luck would have it, the day I left for my trip to New York, I felt like I had the flu. Every inch of my body ached, I had the chills, and my head was foggy. I took a freezing 4 1/2-hour bus ride, stepped out into the rain on 28th Street, and power-walked to my hotel on 49th. This year, I decided to stay in New York an extra night and packed my agenda. The first evening I was there, I attended another charity concert, which benefitted Paul Newman's charity, SeriousFun. I wrote about that here. (Believe me, I don't attend benefit concerts often; these just happen to be two charities that are close to my heart and which had events that were serendipitously back-to-back.) The Rainforest Fund Benefit was on the second night. By then, I was in full denial of my cold. So, on with the show....

What Every Concertgoer Should Know

Carnegie Hall is a beautiful building. The Isaac Stern Auditorium has crimson seating, golden ornate decor with cream walls, and a gigantic chandelier. It's very glamorous, so I always get dressed up--no matter how many people around me are in jeans and texting obliviously instead of soaking in the grand surroundings. Granted, I'm in the "cheap" seats, about seven flights up, from which the performers look like grasshoppers. It was extra-special this year when I realized I had forgotten my binoculars in my hotel room. Binoculars are good for seeing details. (I like to inspect things.) Luckily, I arrived really early because I'm neurotic that way. I had time, so I ran the eight blocks back to my hotel room, retrieved my binoculars, raced back to Carnegie Hall,  and up the seven flights of stairs to my seat with five minutes to spare. (Yeah, in heels--It never occurred to me to look for the elevator.) Yes, it's very glamorous.

The concert always uses a house band, usually comprised of the same group of people, if available, and always directed by drummer Michael Narada Walden. They're all amazing musicians, though I only recognize a few names. This year, the band added an orchestra in front, conducted by Gil Goldstein.

On the right side of the stage, there's always a cluster of chairs in front of the house band. These are for the performers who, instead of heading straight backstage, have the option to sit and watch each other perform until it's their turn again. Binoculars come in handy here. None of the reviews I've read about these concerts ever tell me what Sting or Elton John are doing on the side while James Taylor is singing a song for the audience. These are the kinds of things I like to know!

One other thing to note about this concert is that it's pretty relaxed. While I know they rehearse their songs and the show always runs smoothly, it feels as if they've all just shown up to sing on the spot as a special treat for us. Rather than have an official emcee, they introduce each other as they take turns performing. They joke, they hug, they laugh, they even mess up sometimes. Despite the grandeur of the atmosphere and the big names, the evening is intimate. I feel like a fly on the wall watching famous old friends being themselves and sharing their good time. To me, that alone is worth the pricey ticket.

Cue music! 

Okay, here's what I saw and heard:

  • The concert began with sweeping orchestral movie music, as four characters strolled out hand-in-hand. It was The Tinman (Sting, wearing a "tin" hat and big red heart pinned to the lapel of his black jacket), Dorothy (Meryl Streep in a white floor-length gown and ruby slippers, holding Toto in her arms), The Scarecrow (James Taylor wearing a scruffy hat and red bandana around his neck) and The Cowardly Lion (Elton John sporting a Badge of Courage and furry wristbands). They sang, If I Only Had a Brain.
  • James Taylor then sang Over the Rainbow on his own. When I first started coming to these concerts, James Taylor was the performer I was least excited about seeing, mainly because I didn't know much about him or his music. Since that first concert, he's become one of the people I look forward to seeing most. A pretty quiet guy with an amazing voice, he's always entertaining and really funny! He wasn't able to attend the 2010 concert, and I'm counting that as one of the strikes against it. I was so happy to see him here, even if this version of "Over the Rainbow" was a little too fast-paced for my taste and he sounded nothing like Judy Garland.
  • Sting was set to introduce the next performer as everyone else took their seats on the side. As he watched Meryl Streep getting settled, he said, "Ah, yes, like all women, she is many: She's the French Leiutenant's Woman, the devil who wears Prada, The Iron Lady, and, now, she's Dorothy!" Then, he introduced Vince Gill, who sang I Can't Stop Loving You with the house band's backup singers (four ladies and two guys). I'm not a big country music fan, so I'm unfamiliar with Vince Gill. But I was impressed.

  • Vince Gill then sang All I have to Do is Dream as a duet with Rita Wilson. Yes, that's Tom Hanks's wife. She has a debut album out of duets, and this is one of them. It was nice, but the best part was watching Meryl Streep swaying in her seat, singing along to it. Elton John, who sat next to her, joined in, and they were in the moment!
  • Welsh opera singer, Bryn Terfel, was next with Dream the Impossible Dream. I think we could all conquer the world after that.
  • Elton John dedicated Moon River to two people who recently passed away, bandmember Greg Clark and Whitney Houston, who had participated in this benefit before (though I never saw her). I'm so glad someone picked this song because I love it, but like "Over the Rainbow," I prefer the one I'm used to hearing. Elton John's voice is different from Audrey Hepburn's in every possible way. 
  • I was interested to see Roseanne Cash, who sang next. (Is it bad that my only reason is her relation to Johnny Cash? While, in general, I don't like country music, Johnny Cash is one of my rare exceptions.) She sang a fantastic version of The Ode to Billy Joe.
  • Elton John then introduced Bruno Mars, and I was shocked at how deafening the crowd became the instant he hit the stage. The woman who sat directly in my line of sight in the front row of my section served as a prime example: As Bruno sang Unchained Melody, she punched the air, whooped, and cheered with every fancy note. Apparently, I'm out of the loop about Bruno, but he was good.
  • Sting and Meryl Streep walked out next. "About 28 years ago now, I made a film with Meryl called Plenty, for which I spent one of the most enjoyable afternoons of my life making out with Meryl Streep on a sofa," Sting said. (Meryl belly-laughed!) "Our relationship has evolved since then...." (I totally forgot about that movie until he mentioned it! That relationship does not end well.) They sang Let's Call The Whole Thing Off, and it was super-sweet!
  • Then, James Taylor talked about the next song he planned to sing, Old Man River: "This is one of my favorite songs of all time, sung by the great...the great....uh, what's his name?" Someone shouted it from the audience. "Right! Paul Robeson, who was known just as much for his hard life and political views as for his beautiful voice." Of course, no one sounds like Paul Robeson, but James Taylor did a worthy version of this great song. 
  • Then, Sting strolled out with an umbrella, doodling just like Gene Kelly! He sang Singin' in the Rain  as a tap dancing lady twirled around him. She tried to coax him into some steps, but he shugged and stuck to singing. At the end, they wandered off stage arm and arm. I could go on about how nobody performs this song like Gene Kelly, but I appreciate the thought and effort. You know that Sting sang this one just for me
  • Jennifer Hudson then made her first appearance, singing the first movie song that I didn't recognize, called And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going. (Duh, it's apparently her signature song from Dreamgirls.) Jennifer Hudson has a great voice, is an American Idol finalist, earned an Oscar, and I know everyone loves her. I hate to say it, but she's too loud for my ears. 

Notes to Note During the Intermission

Sting's wife Trudie always makes a speech about the work of the Rainforest Fund during the first half of the concert. She did so just after Sting channeled Gene Kelly, promptly knocking me off my cloud and sinking my spirits with her passionate plea. But the first thing she did this year was point out and thank Bill Clinton for attending the concert! He was just sitting there in first-tier balcony! I went into action with my binoculars, but I didn't recognize anyone near him. Where was his security?! What's he doing here??? Wait, has Trudie started her speech?

Trudie's speeches about the plight of the Amazon Rainforest are always so intense that I end up feeling as though we're all going to die in 20 years if we don't do something about it. This time, she not only talked about the disappearing forest, but reported that a native tribe leader was just shot dead this past weekend while defending his land from illegal loggers. Enjoy the rest of the show.

I spent the intermission reviewing the notes I'd taken in the dark, making sure they're legible. I have tiny notebooks in which I write the names of the songs--or at least enough to remember what they were--and who sang them. I only do this at these kinds of concerts where there are too many singers singing songs that they don't normally sing because I won't remember anything afterward. I rarely pay attention to what I'm writing because I don't want to look down and miss anything on stage, so it usually ends up a slanted scribble of chicken scratch that only I can decipher. (I hope!)

On with the Show...

  • To open the second half of the show, Meryl Streep walked to center stage into the spotlight and sang, Wish Upon a Star. As Chris Farley would say, that was awesome.
  • Bryn Terfel then sang Roxanne. I just remembered now that Eddie Murphy sang this song in 48 Hours. Bryn sang "Roxanne" at Sting's 60th birthday concert at New York's Beacon Theatre last October. At first, I thought that was the only reason he was singing it again here--per Sting's request--because Sting thinks this version is his song's greatest transformation. I couldn't take it seriously then, and I still heard giggles around me in Carnegie Hall because it's still "Roxanne," the loud, angst-ridden Police classic. I get that Sting doesn't want to play it the same way every night, but turning "Roxanne" opera is just too much of a stretch. I thought the song sounded better this time around, though. Maybe it's because I've heard this version before or because the added backup singers made it more accessible. However, the best part of this performance was done by Channing Tatum and his wife, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who danced the Tango! I started seeing Channing Tatum everywhere in the last year or so, playing goofball characters in movies and on Saturday Night Live. I was baffled by his name on the stagebill, but I just recently discovered the connection: He was in a movie that Trudie Styler produced in 2006 called A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. (I don't remember him in this movie, but it's excellent and recommended!) Channing Tatum first got noticed as a dancer in Step Up  (in which he costarred with his wife). So now, I get it: He's got moves! 
  • Sting then sang the theme from MASH, Suicide is Painless. I didn't know this song had lyrics. They're depressing lyrics, but Sting's made a career out of singing depressing lyrics to uplifting tunes. He's good at it, and this was one of my favorite performances of the night!
  • Then, Rosanne Cash sang Everybody's Talkin', a wonderful song that was, again, sung wonderfully.
  • Next, James Taylor sang Shall We Dance, which was also wonderful. In the middle, he approached the performers seated on the side and held out his hand to each of the ladies. They all shook their heads in refusal, one by one, as he made his way down the line. Rita Wilson, who sat at the end, saved the day: She shrugged and accepted  his invitation. They danced around the stage for a bit and then back to her seat so he could finish the song.
  • Elton John introduced the orchestra and then addressed the audience: "It's been a tradition that I humiliate myself at this concert. [It's true.] This  year is no exception." He sang Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend as Channing Tatum slinked out to join him. As Elton sang, Channing adorned him with a giant diamond necklace. He also fastened a chain around Elton's waist, positioned so that a huge diamond dangled between his legs. Elton twirled and shimmied this trinket with bravado as Channing danced around him burlesque-style for the duration of the song. When it was over, they both cracked up, hugged, and scurried off stage. 
  • "Well, I guess I can cross that off my bucket list: Follow Elton at Carnegie Hall after a bedazzled dance.....Where's the Tango Lady?" Vince Gill was on his own. He sang Pretty Woman with one of the backup singers, and it was really good! 
  • Then, Jennifer Hudson returned and sang The Weight. It was still too much, too loud. But it might just be my ears because, afterward, Sting walked out and exclaimed, "'Follow that!' he said. "You can't." 
  • Sting gave the audience a look and continued, "But, I've got a secret weapon, Esperanza..." That's Esperanza Spalding, the Grammy-winning bassist extraordinaire! The first time I saw Esperanza, she was just starting out, appearing for the first time on the Late Show with David Letterman. Since then, she's shot to the top, and now I can say I knew her way back when. She is cool! Sting sang, Be Bop A-Lula, with Esperanza playing her giant double bass next to him. People in the audience squealed as if Sting were Elvis! That's entertainment.
  • Next, Elton John sang Rock Around the Clock, and all the performers, who were seated on the side, got out of their chairs and danced with each other: Rita Wilson and Sting, Jennifer Hudson and Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash and Bryn Terfel, Meryl Streep and James Taylor, Esperanza Spalding and Bruno Mars, and Channing and Jenna Tatum. 
  • Bruno Mars then took the stage next with a great rendition of Jailhouse Rock with the Tatums swing dancing throughout.

And Now, A Message from a President

It was time for another speech, which is unusual, but I guess it's also unusual to have a president in the audience. Bill Clinton took the stage! "I want to thank Bruno Mars for letting me channel my inner-Elvis," he said and did his best impression, "Thank you very much!" Like Trudie, he gave an impassioned speech about the disappearing rainforest, which he summed up with, "Well, you heard what Trudie said." His speech had a more uplifting pep talk flavor: We can do this! We can make change! It's possible to fix this, and we have to fix this! I felt a little better about things.

The End

For the finale, Esperanza Spalding appeared in the spotlight. Behind her, she was surrounded by the six backup singers. A capella, they sang the choral start of You Can't Always Get What You Want, one of my all-time favorite songs. (What movie is that in?) It was beauty-ful! I wished that she would have sung the whole thing herself, but for the finale, everyone has to participate. They all walked on stage, taking turns singing and thanking the band and guests.

The show has redeemed itself! It was fantastic this year, organized to perfection with no lagging moments and no show-hogging performers. It was a perfect balance of equal brilliance! Well done, everyone! 

There's a gala dinner after the concert, but it would take a good chunk of my savings to attend that. My celebration is much more low-key: I picked up a slice of sweet potato pie and a cup of herbal tea, which I enjoyed in my tiny hotel room in my pajamas in front of the TV watching Jimmy Fallon. It, too, was all very glamorous.


Image copyright credits: Rainforest Fund logo and concert poster: Rainforest Fund; If I Only Had a Brain photo: Getty Images; First Collage Photos--Rita Wilson and Vince Gill: WireImage; Bryn Terfel: Reuters; Roseanne Cash: AP; Bruno Mars: Getty Images; Sting and Meryl Streep: UPI; Jennifer Hudson: Getty Images; Sting and Trudie Styler: Getty Images; Second Collage Photos--Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan-Tatum: WireImage; Channing Tatum and Elton John: AP;  Rita Wilson and James Taylor: Getty Images; Sting and Esperanza Spalding: Reuters; Dancing photo: UPI, courtesy of The Meryl Streep Forum; Bill Clinton: Getty Images; Finale photo: UPI, courtesy of The Meryl Streep Forum. 

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