Music Review: Snoring Through the Live Earth Concerts

by Rick Rockwell

Former Vice President Al Gore has made his statement, entertaining an estimated two billion people via television, radio, and the internet with the Live Earth concert series. Certainly, there will be debate about the message of global warming, the pledge, the politics, the ratings, and a variety of angles. But how did the nine concerts on six continents* hold up as a musical event?

Here’s the review in three words: pop, pap, poof.

The event was so light as to float away, but perhaps that is the type of musical programming that connects with the masses. This reviewer consumed the day’s events live and on tape-delay via internet, radio and finally in the evening via television by switching between NBC, CNBC, and Bravo. But in more than six hours of sampling, few musical moments stood out. The disappointments outweighed the surprises.

First, to the highlights:

The biggest surprise was a scorching duet between Alicia Keys and Keith Urban on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Who knew either could rock so hard? Keys tore into the vocals with abandon while Urban shredded his guitar.

In London, the Red Hot Chili Peppers burned down the house with “Dani California.” In New Jersey, the Dave Matthews Band cooked through “Too Much,” and it was just that. Back to London for Duran Duran with a very punchy “Girls on Film.” (With this performance and their work on the Amnesty International Darfur charity album, Instant Karma, Duran Duran are rehabilitating themselves from their teen crush image of the 1980s.) Also, in London, Metallica stomped through “Enter Sandman.” (Although you would have never known it if you watched any of the NBC evening feeds.) Lenny Kravitz ran into the crowd in Brazil while delivering an energetic version of “Let Love Rule.” In Australia, Crowded House led a rousing sing-along with “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”

And there were some amusing moments too: Christopher Guest getting the satirical Spinal Tap crew together for a few numbers in London and the band of scientists called Nunatak playing a song in Antarctica.

That really wasn’t enough for all that sifting through hours of concerts. The major disappointment was The Police lamely trying to resurrect themselves. Their extended version of “Roxanne” was dull. Ironically, Sting (Gordon Sumner) seemed to lose his voice or strained through much of “Can’t Stand Losing You.” Even asking for the assistance of John Mayer and Kanye West (why those two?) during “Message in a Bottle” fell flat.

Another disappointment was NBC’s coverage. Just like NBC’s Olympic coverage, the global event was reduced to the view from New York with occasional medleys of songs from elsewhere with the exception of healthy doses of material from London. (NBC cut Wolfmother’s heavy metal set to just a third of a song, for instance.) Plus, NBC gave us not one but two extended samples from Madonna’s set in London. This is just an example of how pop ruled. (We won’t even go into the Japanese and Chinese pop idols streaming on the ‘net.) Over on CNBC, it seemed the cable network showed Madonna’s entire set, including her embarrassing attempts to play a guitar a la Jimi Hendrix.

Finally, it is obvious that NBC had to use Carson Daly in its coverage; they do have him under contract after stealing him from MTV, after all (although Today's Ann Curry, his co-host was far superior). But Daly proved once again that he is all about self-promotion (who cares if he parties with these musicians?) and asking insipid questions. Although NBC’s overall coverage on the network and various cable channels was a step above what MTV offered of the Live 8 concerts, that isn’t saying much, considering MTV’s abysmal performance in 2005. Both efforts suffered from too much blather from commentators and too many commercials.

In the end, when the inevitable concert disc arrives, likely the producers will be hard pressed to find even 45 minutes of great performances.

*Nunatak's one-song performance in Antarctica really doesn't qualify as a concert. A great idea would have been to give the Arctic Monkeys a gig playing to a select group of 100 fans in Antarctica, except the Arctic Monkeys came out against the concert series.

(The promotional poster of the Live Earth concert in Shanghai, China is from MSN. Various Metallica videos have occupied the space below, but keep getting pulled by YouTube. Here's a PG-rated version of "Enter Sandman" from Metallica's Wembley Stadium London set, for a return engagement.)

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eredux said...

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Anonymous said...

What a dumbass review. Madonna was merely playing a guitar. She was in no way trying to be like Hendrix. I don't care for her music, but thought she did a good job.

Sometimes people find it hard to give credit, because their preconceived notions forever block them from doing so.

Rick Rockwell said...

Some anonymous commentators need their anonymity because they don’t want to show they don’t know much about music history.

Here are three things to know from music history:

1) Madonna is an appropriator of sounds. She is not original. She has always been so. Check the reviews from the era when she released “Like a Prayer” for instance (1989). She has always found a way to move from trend to trend and synthesize the sounds of others with her material. Thus she invites Gogol Bordello on stage to spice up her act. For those who like this sort of amalgam of pop, then perhaps you are better served by the commentary here. Madonna continues to be a pop success because she is able to hypnotize the masses into believing that she is cutting edge.

2) Madonna’s act is highy choreographed. Nothing is spontaneous. That is the way it has been since she wowed critics with her live performance of “Like a Virgin” more than 20 years ago. So what she was doing with the guitar, the feedback, and the stage monitors was completely planned. (This critic has never been taken in by her act and knows enough about the music and stage choreography to see through her. And this critic has never been one to swim with the critical tide, which seems to be saying Madonna carried the London show. So if that is preconceived, so be it. But if she would produce something interesting and original, that would be wonderful; some are still waiting after all these years.)

3) Perhaps our anonymous commentator has never seen tape or film of Jimi Hendrix performing. And too bad for that. Because although some of the act Hendrix put on was planned and choreographed too, much of it was spontaneous. And if you have ever seen Hendrix, then you would know that Madonna was ripping him off. And that she is a poor imitation.

Anonymous said...

Maybe NBC didn’t show Foo Fighters (I watched Bravo), but they were excellent. They carried the London show. It’s too bad Bravo didn’t show their whole set. It’s available on YouTube.

Rick Rockwell said...

Actually, NBC did show The Foo Fighters, but only one song: “Times Like These.” I liked the passion of the band on that song, but I’ve heard the group play that number better. However, I will have to take your word that the Foos were the real heavyweights in London. Several folks have sent me e-mail that I should have praised them and the link to YouTube is above for all to decide.

And now some loose ends to tie up….

*Apparently, many folks have come to this entry seeking ratings information. Perhaps we will post a full review of the ratings later. However, the U.S. ratings for over-the-air television show NBC did not surpass ABC’s ratings for Live 8, and even the memorial concert for Princess Diana drew more than double the numbers for Live Earth, in the U.S. Similarly, the ratings in the U.K. did not stand up to the Diana memorial concert. You can find a full ratings recap from Reuters here. Internet numbers for the concert set a record but apparently, the number of total viewers will have to be revised downward significantly from two billion, unless there are huge ratings to come from China and elsewhere.

*A special thanks to those who set me straight and steered me to more information on Spinal Tap. You can find that here. By the way, that review seemed more in line with what was written here about Madonna and other acts from the London show, at least the ones seen in primetime in the States.

*Finally, for those who think tough criticism of Madonna is something new: please remember that hipsters have embraced her more than a few times in her career. And thus there is an inevitable pushback. However, there is probably no better critique of Madonna than what Dire Straits and Sting sang about her and singers who emulated her.

JKinsman said...

I didn't catch the whole show so I appreciate your review and comments about it. I think Keith Urban and Alicia Keyes were the best thing I saw. I, and anyone else who has been to a Keith Urban concert, have known that Keith could rock like that. He is underrated as a gutarist but the world is coming around. I was impressed and suprised by Keyes. I didn't know she had it in her. They were great. It probably wasn't the best thing Keith could have said when he told CNN that he was soon going to hop on a plane to visit his wife after just performing to raise awareness about global warming.

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