Wednesday, April 01, 2015

2014 Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert

Hi everyone,

Last April, I attended the biennial concert benefiting the Rainforest Fund, a charity founded by Sting and his wife Trudie Styler to protect the forests and the people who live there. When I moved from Ohio to D.C. in 2001, I discovered that tickets to these concerts were relatively affordable ($150 and beyond), and New York was easy to get to by bus or train. Being a devoted Sting fan, I had to go, and I've been hooked ever since!

Always performed in Carnegie Hall, one of New York's most beautiful landmarks, these concerts guarantee a unique, unforgettable experience. You can read about the 2012 concert here. While some concerts have boasted better lineups than others (for my taste, anyway), I always leave with the same exhilarated feeling that only good music brings the soul.

This year, I assumed that extra special planning would be in the works to acknowledge the charity's 25th year. Instead, tickets went on sale with no prior announcement from Sting or Trudie and no clues about who would perform. Luckily, I Googled to find the concert's date, which was listed on a random website. Then, I just kept checking Carnegie Hall's April calendar, waiting for the event to show up. When it did, I bought my ticket without knowing who was going to be there. I assumed Sting was locked into showing up, and that was good enough for me. Also, I've attended this concert enough times to know I wouldn't be disappointed. I felt good about this leap of faith.

A while after the tickets went on sale, a list of some of the scheduled performers was released like an afterthought. Sting and Trudie Styler began showing up on TV and Facebook only about a week in advance, encouraging people to attend the concert. Despite this seemingly lax marketing effort, the show was very well attended and went on with the level of quality I expect from Trudie Styler and company. Here's a rundown on what happened.

The stage is set.
The stage seemed crowded with instruments and equipment this year. The 2014 Rainforest Fund All-Star Players, directed as usual by drummer Narada Michael Walden, included members of the St. Luke's Orchestra (conducted by Charles Floyd) and at least 15 other musicians and seven backup singers.

Thinking back, what threw me off was not the number of people on stage but an unexpected piece of furniture. What I thought was a white upright piano turned out to be a bar, complete with stools. Maybe this is an upgrade from the rows of folding chairs, where the performers could sit onstage to watch their friends singing, I thought. We were apparently in for a party.

Enjoy a view from the top – if you can.
Typically, I get a seat in the cheap section. By "cheap" I mean the $150 to $175 range, which is the top balcony. You know it's the cheap section when you climb five flights of stairs, are told to go out an exit door to climb three or so more, and then receive a final warning that the level you're currently standing on – which is not yet your destination – is the last level that has a bathroom. Despite the height (and maybe because of it), you still get a grand view of the stage (see my vantage point at right). Some years, I've bought more expensive seats in different sections of the hall only to discovered that my cheaper seat is not much different and sometimes better.

The down side to this section is that I've always been surrounded by people who don't pay the performers or the venue the proper respect I feel they deserve. Some people are dressed in jeans, most are using their cell phones or are not paying attention in other annoying ways, and a few leave before the show is over. This year, I was stuck between two women who enjoyed the show, as far as I could tell. But the one on my left didn't return after the intermission, and a woman on my right kept borrowing my binoculars and asking me who each performer was – despite the detailed-with-performer-photos program we were all given and the introductions made before every performance. At times, they distracted me from fully focusing on the show, but I'll do my best to describe it.

It's Showtime!
Each concert usually has a theme, like Motown, The Beatles, or movie songs. This year, they seemed to choose whatever song they considered to be a classic - be it show tunes, Nirvana, opera, rock, or something else. This show had a little bit of everything for everyone. Luckily, the performers have good taste. Here's what happened:
  • The white bar was there for a reason! Kevin Spacey served as bartender with Sting as his customer. They sang What a Swell Party as a duet until James Taylor stumbled onto the stage wearing a lampshade on his head. All three of them topped it off as best they could in their drunken state. Kevin even did a little soft shoe. My ticket was worth it already.
Sting stuck around as the bar was pushed off stage and everyone else left. He reintroduced Kevin Spacey as "President Underwood," his character on the Netflix series House of Cards. When the initial list of concert performers was finally released, I was most excited to see Kevin Spacey's name. I assumed that he'd just make a speech, but I don't know why I stopped there since I know he can do so much more!
  • Taking over as emcee, Kevin Spacey talked about the concert and the cause behind it. Then he said, "But, first, the Johnny Carson impression." Aside from the phenomenal acting and apparent tap dancing skills, he does impressions that always make me laugh. He told some jokes as Johnny Carson, including that he ran into Christopher Walken at Carnegie Hall, who advised [in Christopher Walken's voice], "Prac-tice, prac-tice, prac-tice..." Did I mention he sings really well too? Did you all see him as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea? As he belted out That's Life, I think Sinatra was in the room and, at the end, everyone cheered like it too.  
After the song, Kevin Spacey continued, "Sting introduced me as Underwood. Let me just say this [in Bill Clinton's voice], 'I love that House of Cards. I don't know how accurate it is. You could never get an education bill passed that fast." He then introduced Renee Fleming, who sang two opera pieces.
  • O Mio Babbino Caro is an aria about a girl who threatens her dad that she'll jump off a bridge if he forbids her to marry the boy she loves. (Look it up; you'll recognize the melody.)  
  • La Ci Darem La Mano is from Don Giovanni, which she was currently performing at the New York's Metropolitan Opera House. For this piece, three microphones were set up, and she said that she was looking for someone to perform the song with her. Behind her, all the members of the horn section volunteered, wearing period-style hats adorned with neon-colored feathers along the rims. "Those hats are the correct period, but I'm not sure about the fringe," she said. "I don't know what kind of Don Giovanni that would be." Luckily, someone else came trotting out to save the day: "Oh! Oh, here comes Sting. Okay!" He held a rose while they sang in Italian. Mid song, Kevin Spacey walked out, holding a sunflower and began competing for her affections, despite Sting's dismay and attempts to wave him off. They all sang together, but at the end, Oscar Isaac showed up with an entire bouquet of flowers and stole her away. They walked off stage, leaving Sting and Kevin Spacey sulking.

  • Kevin Spacey, then introduced James Taylor, who sat on a stool with his guitar. When James Taylor didn't attend the 2012 concert, I really missed him. Since attending these concerts, I've fallen for his voice, his sense of humor, and his calm, thoughtful demeanor. The acoustics of Carnegie Hall are perfect for him. He told us that he'd been to all but two of these concerts. "Every year, it stretches me to do something outside my comfort zone, which is a good thing, I think. This next song is definitely smack dab in the middle of my comfort zone. I think I've done it thee times on this stage." To everyone's supreme joy, he performed his classic Fire and Rain.  
  • Next, James Taylor introduced Chris Botti, who played his trumpet with violinist Caroline Campbell  for a great song called Sketches of Spain, which I'd never heard before. I was unfamiliar with the violinist, but I  first heard of Chris Botti when he joined Sting's band years ago. Since then, he's continued solo and been busy; he explained the rise in his popularity in an interview once, saying, "Be friends with Sting." The most memorable moment of this performance for me was when he played a single note on his trumpet for a ridiculous length of time. I'm convinced that he and Sting must do yoga together to get their exhales to extend that far.
  • Sting came out next and sang When We Dance, which is one of my all-time favorite Sting songs. He had changed outfits from a gray fitted shirt with a black flower pattern on it, white cream jacket, and black pants to a black three-piece suit. Two ballet dancers, Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo, swayed and twirled next to him as he sang. They were so moving to watch, set to this beautiful melody and lyrics. They must really be in love, I thought. When the song ended, I came back down to Earth and realized it was more likely that they were just excellent, convincing dancers. 
  • Dionne Warwick was next with two songs, Walk On By and Anyone Who Had a Heart. I was unfamiliar with and really liked the latter song. She was one of the "big names" for this year's concert, but I felt indifferent about the idea of seeing her. Of course, she sounded wonderful. She even reminded me of Whitney Houston in the way she talked with the audience. She also looked fantastic with snow white hair a sheer blousey green pattern shirt that was tied in front and long in back, black trousers, and kitten heels. I'm all about the outfits. 
Kevin Spacey returned to check on us: "Are you having a good night?" Yes, thank you. He apparently forgave Oscar Isaac for stealing away Renee Fleming and brought him back to the stage.
  • You probably know Oscar Isaac best from the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis, in which he played a struggling folk singer. He really plays guitar and was accompanied here by more guitarists and little bit of drums. He sang Young Turks, and everyone around me sang along. Sting joined in our enthusiasm, exclaiming afterward, "I love that song!"
  • When Oscar left the stage, Sting continued, "The sign of an important song is one that conjures up a time in your life." He reminisced about starting out with The Police, driving a station wagon across the U.S., staying in sketchy hotels, and struggling to make it as a musician. "This song," he said, "brings that all into focus. He started playing  his acoustic guitar and singing Paul Simon's "America" He tells his same story while performing this song on tour with Paul Simon, but it's still just as effective. As he started to play and everyone recognize it, an audible "Awww..." filled the room. It sounded beautiful in Carnegie Hall and might be my favorite performance of the night. 
  • As that song finished up, Stephen Stills walked out playing his electric guitar to drown out the moment and blast into another with For What It's Worth. Toward the end, other performers joined in, singing along, including Sting, Patti Scafia, James Taylor, Kevin Spacey, Dionne Warwick, Joe Sumner, and Trudie Styler. During this song, the woman to my left swayed in her seat, singing along word-for-word, to her own tune, in her own way, directly in my ear. It was kind of a bummer, because I too love that song and wished I could better hear Stephen Stills singing it. 
Here are some things to ponder during intermission (and beyond).
Sting's wife Trudie Styler, who produces this event, makes a speech at every concert. This time, she noted that the fund has raised $35 million so far, the vast majority of which comes from these Carnegie Hall concerts. She said she's is always asked why she and Sting work on this charity, and her response is two words: people and planet. "This is not the Wild West," she says of the land being destroyed. "This not ours for the taking." She gave examples of global warming, extreme weather, fires, and natural disasters, explaining that it's all connected. "There is only one [planet]. We have to change." This statistic surprised me: Fourteen companies are responsible for two-thirds of carbon emissions. She stressed that they have to change. Trudie Styler is a passionate, impressive speaker, and I'm always inspired after listening to her.
Next, she introduced another good speaker, Bill Clinton! Everyone broke the rules and got out their cell phones immediately to snap photos. He said, "I'm here to tell you that the break is on its way." The woman to my right, noticing the heightened excitement upon this man's appearance, asked me who he was. (I swear!) "Every tree in every rainforest is better left standing than cut down," he reminded us. He thanked all of the performers, naming a few, and then said, "I know Kevin Spacey came out here to make fun of me." Kevin Spacey was behind him. They hugged and kept their arms around each other as he continued speaking, sharing that they went to Africa together once and people couldn't tell who was talking. "I've always admired you and wished I could be in your line of work," he told Kevin. "Dammit if you didn't get into mine!" Bill's so smooth.

Stephen Stills returned to end the first half of the show performing the instrumental Amazonia as a we watched a video on a wall-mounted screen behind him, showing the work of the Rainforest Fund and the people it helps. I thought this whole presentation was quite well done and effective. I thought about it well into our intermission and after the show, and I hope the rest of the audience did too.

They're Back!
  • Opening the second half, Lisa Fischer (longtime backup singer for The Rolling Stones who was in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom) and newcomer Ivy Levan kicked off the second half of the concert with powerful performances of two Rolling Stone songs, Start Me Up and Jumping Jack Flash. Sometimes, Lisa Fischer's voice overpowered Ivy Levan's. Their performance together was fantastic, but if they were competing on The Voice, the winner is clear. I fantasized about Mick and Keith interrupting them, but that didn't happen. 
  • Next, Sting's daughter Eliot Sumner appeared as if she just woke on up on street corner and forgot to shower.  (She's so talented and I love her. I only mention this because the last time I saw her at this concert a few years ago, she was very glam. Apparently, this is her new look. Of course, the woman next to me asked who she was, and I explained it was Sting's daughter. She exclaimed, "That's a girl?") She sang Born to Be Wild, which was good but I wished she had performed a quieter song that fit her voice better. The last time I saw her at this concert, she sang an amazing song of her own called, "Bohemian Love" on acoustic guitar. Everyone was so attentive, you could have heard a pin drop – until she was finished, when we erupted in cheers because we all knew a star had just been born! For me, the bar was set high for this appearance.
  • Her older brother, Joe Sumner, came out next to perform Smells Like Teen Spirit. He also performed at this concert before, the same one where Eliot Sumner looked glamorous and blew everyone aways with her song. Back then, he was the grungy one with long hair. I saw him again shortly after that, opening for Sting with his band Fiction Plane. Now, at this concert, he looked like a businessman. The siblings have  apparently swapped stylists. Joe Sumner is a good screamer, so this song was a good fit for him. I remember reading that Nirvana is a big influence on his music, so I wasn't surprised by this choice. They both must have just picked a favorite song.
  • Sting returned and introduced a friend of 25 years, Patti Scafia (Bruce Springsteen's wife). They sang a lovely rendition of Stand By Me, during the middle of which they slow danced. And, as they finished, Sting knelt on one knee, holding her hand. It was a sweet performance, and I liked Patti Scafia's unique voice, which I don't think I've noticed before.
  • Next, James Taylor appeared, but I didn't recognize him at first. He changed from his typical suit attire into a casual jacket with khakis  and a pageboy hat. He looked like he just stepped out of Newsies. He sang How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), to which everyone in the room swayed, including Sting and Trudie Styler who were watching from behind a partition that shielded the backstage entrance. Awww, she gave Sting a quick kiss during this song. (These are the kinds of things you can see from these seats.) 
  • Next, Paul Simon sang Graceland and The Boxer. For "The Boxer," Sting sang backing vocals, as they do on their current joint tour. I love the harmonies they do on this song. This song showcases how their voices are a perfect combination. I always think of Paul Simon as a funny guy because I remember always seeing him on Saturday Night Live. Here, though, he told some bad jokes that I didn't get. Sting just shook his head at them, and Paul explained that only people in the Amazon, with their dry sense of humor, would understand them. Paul did say some nice things, though, about the work that Sting and Trudie have done for the Rainforest Fund. He got everyone to give Sting a standing ovation for their efforts. I'm all for that, of course.   
  • Sting spoke to get the show moving again. "You know, when Artie would sing, he'd send Paul off the stage. Well, tonight, Paul, I'm not going to send you off the stage. I want you to stand right there while I sing your song." Everyone laughed, and together they sang Bridge Over Troubled Water, as they have on their tour. At one point during the song, Sting held the note for "I will ease your mind...." for so long that the audience began clapping and cheering before he was finished. (I'm telling you, it's the yoga!) When they finished the song, Sting pointed at Paul and exclaimed, "He wrote that!" Everyone cheered and they hugged. 
  • Stephen Stills closed the show with another perfect song, "Love The One Your With," for which everyone joined him on stage, played, and sang along. Our hosts, Sting (shaking maracas) and Trudie, were the last ones out.

Good night!
As anticipated, we were all exhilarated by this one-of-a-kind show. When I met a friend for lunch the next day, still delirious from the night before, I described the show as a motley group of people who played their favorite or best-known songs. A while into my incoherent ramblings, my friend interrupted and said, "So, who else was there because so far you've only mentioned Dionne Warwick..." Hopefully, I did a better job here. 

Visit the Rainforest Fund to learn more about this great charity!


Image credits: Rainforest Fund logo and concert save-the-date ad © Rainforest Fund; all concert photos © Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images


Neal Johnston said...

Hello, Melissa! It’s always fun to watch concerts, and it’s even better when you know that the proceeds with help those in need. It’s good to know that the funds from ticket sales go to somewhere that you care about, which in this case is the planet. For a benefit concert to go on for 25 years, it’s safe to say that there are many people who are proud to take part in trying to save the planet. Thanks for sharing a splendid musical night with us. I hope to read more from you!

Neal Johnston@

Melissa Connolly said...

Hi Neal,

Thanks so much for the kind note. I'm glad you enjoyed reading my play-by-play review and hope you felt like you were there too. It's definitely a concert worth experiencing and for a great cause. I'm looking forward to next year's benefit.... Thanks for visiting and keep in touch.

Best, Melissa