Tuesday, February 28, 2017

2016 Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert

Hi everyone,

My view from up high
Tickets for this year's Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert didn't go on sale until one month before the event, and even then only a few performers were mentioned as part of the lineup. None of the performers overly excited me; some had performed for this show before, and I had no expectations about the newbies, since I hadn't heard them before.

Still, I felt lucky to get a seat in row B of the front center balcony. The concert's band – the 2016 Rainforest Fund All-Star Players, led as always by musical director/drummer Narada Michael Walden – included 14 musicians and 7 backup vocalists and featured members of the Orchestra of St. Luke's. As usual, a small row of (four) chairs were placed on the left side of the stage so that the performers could watch and enjoy each other's performances.

The main attractions
This year, the show moved from spring to winter, but no snowstorms blocked my way to Carnegie Hall on December 14. Also unlike years past, the concert was shortened by an hour, and some attendees near me felt cheated. While I too longed for a few more show-stopping moments, I was impressed by the show's efficiency this year. Besides, this year's theme was holiday and winter spirit. Did we really want three hours of Christmas music?

Another weird complaint I heard was that the sound wasn't perfect. I thought it was just me, but others agreed that there were moments when we couldn't understand what some performers said while others were loud and clear. As one attendee said about it on her way out, "I mean, this is Carnegie Hall; what's going on?" Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be there, as always. Here's a run down of the tunes.

1. Carol of the Bells – 2016 Rainforest Fund All-Star Players (aka the band). I've never liked the rocky version of this holiday classic, but I liked this evening's arrangement because it showcased the amazing band and muscled into jazz territory. It still had its signature electric guitars chords jamming at the start and finish but became a brand new beast in the middle, full of instrument solos, like saxophone and flute. The whole concoction was led by pounding drums and heavy bass, and the big finish was enhanced by the guitarists jumping dramatically and lighting swapping colors – red, blue, white – at the pace of the beat. This was an exciting start to the show.

2. Winter Wonderland – James Taylor with Chris Botti. I always look forward to seeing James Taylor at this concert, in which he has participated since 1992. He's always funny and his voice sounds amazing in Carnegie Hall. In honor of this year's theme, he and trumpeter Chris Botti wore winter coats, hats, and scarves while they performed "Winter Wonderland." I also liked the lighting in the background during this song, which displayed white tree branches along with dot and geometric patterns that reminded me of a snowy day. I was surprised that this was Chris Botti's only spotlight appearance during the concert, but he performed this song on James Taylor's own 2006 holiday album, James Taylor at Christmas.

3. Soul Cake – Sting. When Sting first appeared, he wore a long overcoat. For this song, he took it off to reveal the best outfit of the night: a black top with a bright yellow swirled design, a black skirt (which he wore to last year's Grammys), and heavy back boots. (He's such a rock star!) "Soul Cake" is one of my favorites from Sting's winter-inspired album If on a Winter's Night.... For it, he played guitar, surrounded in a huddle by backup singers. Their outfits all included some winter wear. The singers included a regular from Sting's own band, Jo Lawry, who wore a winter knit hat and scarf, as well as Lisa Fischer, who I know as a featured backup singer for the Rolling Stones and as part of the Oscar-nominated documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. (They have both attended this benefit before.) The grown-ups were also joined by a small group of singing children, also dressed in winter wear. Together, they created a warm folk sound and feel.

Break for Trudie Styler's Speech. After this song, Sting's wife Trudie Styler appeared to make her speech. Sting introduced her, noting her "very sexy dress." It was a good one: a sleek shiny silver long-sleeved dress that looked like liquid metal and ran just below the knee. She thanked all the performers, noting that this was the first concert they've held in December, a time to reflect on the joy of the holidays but also winter longing for people no longer with us or people in need, like the homeless. The songs chosen tonight represent all of these facets. She said that the Rainforest Foundation has raised $45 million since its inception, and this year was the first year they were called to action in the United States for the conflict about the pipeline development at Standing Rock, North Dakota. Some people from the Lakota Delegation were in the audience, and she blew kisses to them. She acknowledged that we were headed for challenging times. "This evening is not the time to comment on the incoming administration," she said. "Robert De Niro did that for us." (You can see what she's talking about here.) We laughed, despite our worries, and Trudie finished her speech. Then, we got right back to the music....

4. Let It Go – Idina Menzel and the Manhattan Girls Chorus. Trudie introduced "Let It Go," saying that it has become an anthem for young girls everywhere. Before it started, about 45 girls – the Manhattan Girls Chorus – in black dresses came out and sat hero-style across the length of the stage. I liked that one of them had purple hair. Idina Menzel, in a red pantsuit, stood at the center and sang. The girls stood and sang with her when it was time to do so. During this song, the lights were again like snow dots. Having Idina sing her signature song from Frozen to you in person is pretty amazing. She is "Elsa" after all, and she had a fantastic choir backing her up, which made this already inspiring song even more powerful.

5. River – James Taylor. I love Joni Mitchell's song "River." Before I heard her sing it, I knew it as a cover by one of my favorite bands, Travis. For his version, James Taylor played acoustic guitar, sitting on a stool and backed up by the band. Because of James Taylor's warm voice and the faster pace, I felt that this version sounded too upbeat for its sad lyrics, but I did like the three dancers (two guys and one girl) who swirled around the stage during the song, as if they were on the icy river. This song is included on the James Taylor at Christmas album.

After the song, James announced, "And now, back to Sting...."

6.  The Cherry Tree Carol –  Sting. Like James, Sting sat a stool playing guitar for this song, accompanied by the band and backup singers. I didn't recognize this song at first, but once I listened to it again, I realized I knew it. Sting said that "The Cherry Tree Carol" is his favorite Christmas carol. This song is available on Sting's album, If on a Winter's Night....

After the song, he began to introduce the next performer, saying how happy they were to have him and how amazing it was that he found the time to attend during this busy time of year. Audience members began calling for "Bruuuuuce [Springsteen]" who was on the list of performers, but it wasn't him; instead, Santa came on stage. Someone near me in the audience said to her friend, "But who is it? It's got to be someone."

7.  Vesti la Guibba from Il Pagliacci – Vittorio Grigolo. When opera singer Vittorio Grigolo took off his Santa hat and beard, he smiled at us, shrugging off the disappointed expectations for Bruce Springsteen. I don't know much opera, but I recognized "Vesti la Guibba" immediately from when Luciano Pavarotti sang it. Vittorio was so dramatic, singing tragic lyrics I couldn't understand. As he sang, he dropped the Santa hat and took off his jolly red coat, tossing both on the floor. By the end of the song, he staggered off stage in full misery. This guy's voice is amazing, and he was so fully invested. Though the fluffy red pants and suspenders over his white t-shirt conflicted with this emotional drama, we could all feel it – even in the top rows.

8. The Empty Chair – Sting. "The Empty Chair," written by Sting and J. Ralph, is on Sting's latest album, 57th and 9th, but it was written for a documentary, Jim: The James Foley Story. James Foley was a journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Syria in 2014. When Sting was asked to write this song for the film, he initially refused, unsure he was up to the task. He came up with a metaphor for the tragic story at Thanksgiving dinner, while surrounded by family. He imagined what it would be like if one of his own children was missing from the table – if there was an empty chair. He sang this song sitting on a stool, playing guitar with the band backing him up. "The Empty Chair" earned Sting his fourth Oscar nomination.

9. Nessun Dorma from Turandot – Vittorio Grigolo. "Nessun Dorma" is another song that I remembered from Luciano Pavarotti's version. Vittorio sang his version with the Manhattan Girls Chorus. Everyone erupted at the end, including Sting and others who watched from stage right. This guy is going places.

10. Frosty the Snowman – Ronnie Spector. For a complete change of pace, Sting introduced Ronnie Spector, the Rose of Spanish Harlem, who sang "Frosty the Snowman." This song was a hit for her all-girl band The Ronnettes. Tonight, she wore a fitted Santa jacket over black leggings, and her backup singers wore red dresses to match. They all had bouffant hairdos. It was during this song that I noticed members in the band wearing Santa hats.

11. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – Ronnie Spector. Ronnie Spector started singing this song but then stopped it because she forgot to tell us the story first. She said that, as a kid, she worried about Santa not visiting her house because her family home didn't have a chimney. Her dad told her that, in New York, Santa uses the fire escapes. The next day, the milk and cookies she left for Santa were gone, so she knew he was real! She sang "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," which was another Ronnettes hit. Afterward, as she left the stage, she gave us a flirty flip of her coat.

12. Last Christmas – Sting. Sting changed his outfit to white shirt under a silky, shiny black suit. "Where are my girls," he asked, and five backup singers, including Jo Lawry and Lisa Fischer, came running out, some in winter coats, saying, "Here we are!" They huddled on either side of him as he said "There you are." As the music for "Last Christmas" started I, and the girls behind me, gasped with excitement and instantly began swaying and singing along. George Michael's music has this affect on us. Sting and the girls did a great job on this '80s favorite, though I later wrote in my journal, "Why didn't they get George Michael to sing it?" Now that surprise appearance would have been exciting! I miss you, George Michael!

13. Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) – Darlene Love. Making the next introduction, Sting told us to welcome "the beautiful wall of sound that is Darlene Love." He was right; she was thrilling to hear. Maybe it helped that I love this song and forgot she made it famous. She looked beautiful too, in a white wide-leg pantsuit over a red sparkly bustier with red high heels. Her warm energy was contagious, and when the song ended and we quietly waited for the next performer, a lone voice yelled out what we all wanted, "Darlene, come back!"    

14. Baby, It's Cold Outside – Idina Menzel and James Taylor. Oh well, I love "Baby, It's Cold Outside" too. For this song, James played his guitar, and the band backed him and Idina up. James Taylor included this song, a duet with Natalie Cole, on his James Taylor at Christmas album, but I like the classic Ella Fitzgerald version with Louis Jordan best.

After it was over, James exclaimed, "I Darlene Love it! Bring her back out!"

15. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree – Darlene Love. We all cheered because Darlene Love was again awesome, singing "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." She (and Vittorio Grigolo with his amazing voice) was the highlight of the concert for me.

16.  I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day – Sting. To preface his performance, Sting said, "I promise you, this is the stupidest song you'll hear all night. It was a huge hit in Britain in the '70s, and it's called 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.' That sounds like a form of torture to me, but..." (I think I know the source of Sting's distaste. Watch this video for the song if you want some nightmare material.) For someone who doesn't like this song, Sting did some great dance moves while he sang it. I was unfamiliar with this song (and didn't care for it either), but I heard it in a mall a few weeks later, so I guess Sting is right: it's popular.

After the song was over, it got quiet. Sting said, "Uh, I have no idea what's going to happen next..." Then, a voice came from the orchestra-level audience: "Ho Ho Ho! This is your Jersey Santa Claus!" Bruce Springsteen came down the aisle to the stage while Sting looked out, asking, "Santa?" Bruce had everyone at "Jersey."

17. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town – Bruce Springsteen. I'd only seen Bruce Springsteen in person once before when he performed at this benefit a few years ago. I was indifferent to his music – some of it I like, some of it I don't, and probably most of it I don't know. For a while, I got sick of hearing his version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" on the radio when it was released as a single, but I know how popular he is. His live performances have a joyous energy; he has that effect on the audience, and having experienced it, I understand why he has such an avid following. He becomes one with the crowd when he performs.

18. Merry Christmas Baby – Bruce Springsteen. Case in point, during "Merry Christmas Baby," which Bruce also released years ago as a single, he sat on the edge of the stage and eventually jumped down to sing from the aisles. He was swarmed by women in the audience, and he jokingly called out, "Security?" He was participating in a bunch of fan selfies while he sang, which impressed me. The crowd followed him wherever he wandered until he made it back on stage.

19. Tenth Avenue Freeze Out  – Bruce Springsteen and Lisa Fischer. "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" brought out the crowd's love for Bruce even more than his Christmas songs. Everyone was jumping, swaying, and singing along. This great rendition showcased Lisa Fischer's powerful voice; she and Bruce made a great match. This classic Springsteen song, while not originally a duet with the wonderful Lisa Fischer, is available on Bruce's Born to Run album.

20. Do You Hear What I Hear? – Jennifer Nettles and company. Sting introduced Jennifer Nettles as a special surprise guest that they were lucky to have. I didn't know who she was, but I liked her sparkly silver pants. She acknowledged her dread about following Bruce but said, "Here goes..." Available on her own To Celebrate Christmas album, she started singing "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and was eventually joined by the other performers. Idina Menzel, Darlene Love, and others trickled on stage until they were all there in a row spanning the entire space; the women were on her right side while the men were on her left.  

21. Joy to the World – Jennifer Nettles and everyone. For "Joy to the World," the dancers and backup singers joined the lineup. I could tell that interesting harmonies were happening but the sound, which had been spotty at times throughout the concert, was most noticeably insufficient during this song, which would have most benefited from it. (It's a bummer to miss those harmonies in Carnegie Hall!) Sting rattled off all the performers' and band members' names, but he was also hard to understand beyond the music. I did hear him call for Trudie Styler, and when she joins in, you know it's the finale.

After being treated to 3-hour concerts, including an intermission, all these years, when the lights turned on, many of us were left with a feeling of "That's it?" Still, as I mentioned, I appreciated this year's polished efficiency. Other years, I've heard people complain about the drawn-out length with too many speeches and other business.

People are never fully satisfied, but I've always loved these concerts. They're always special one-of-a-kind experiences that I'm lucky to have. I look forward to returning here for another one in 2018!


Image credits: Aside from the Bruce Springsteen fan shot (© Showbiz411), all professional concert images are © Kevin Kane and Kevin Mazar at Getty Images.

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