IMAGINE: JOHN LENNON 75th BIRTHDAY CONCERT,
THE THEATER AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, NEW YORK CITY, DECEMBER 5, 2015
As this 75th birthday year had pretty much come and gone without any fanfare from the Lennon camp, it was nice to have a celebration in the city John Lennon chose to call home as the calendar was winding down.
Presented by the Blackbird Music Group in alliance with the AMC Network, the event raised funds for the Robin Hood Foundation, whose events held at the Garden have included the Concert For New York and the 121212 Hurricane Sandy benefits, both headlined by Lennon’s fellow Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney. But neither Sir Paul nor Ringo Starr would be on hand to celebrate in song on this evening, though both sent videotaped messages which were aired at the event, and will presumably be included in the AMC telecast slated for Dec. 19th.
Hosted by MC Kevin Bacon, the line-up of performers was indeed a varied one, and drew on a fairly balanced mix of Lennon’s Beatles and solo repertoires. In addition to several groups on the card, a rotating list of performers were supported by a house band that featured drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist Lee Sklar, guitarists Sid McGuiness and Felicia Collins (both formerly of the David Letterman “Late Show” CBS Orchestra) and the evening’s musical director, Greg Phillinganes, on keyboards.
While the pace of the evening was hampered by certain re-takes (mostly for Bacon) and downtime needed to ensure a polished final product, the musical performances were generally quite good, and in several cases, exceptional. Here’s a rundown of the set list:
Leading off the proceedings was John Fogerty, who was added to the bill just a couple of days prior. He launched into a ¾ complete version of “Give Peace A Chance”, sticking to the original lyrics and arrangement. An interesting choice, this one is typically held in reserve for an ensemble closing number and given the current climate, might have lent itself to some updated ad-libbed lyrics. Still, having some star power to launch the proceedings served the evening well. Fogerty followed up the opening number with a touching “In My Life”.
Next up was Peter Frampton, who did a straightforward 12-string take on “Norwegian Wood”, a number he’d played during his solo spot while touring with Ringo’s All-Starr Band back in in 1997.
Latin pop star Juanes followed with “Woman”. A good vocal performance, though delivered with nearly zero stage presence.
Aloe Blacc delivered one of the evening’s true highlights, a booming version of “Steel and Glass”, providing the first relatively deep dive into the songbook. Following this rousing performance, he and Phillinganes teamed up for a gospel-tinged piano-only read of “Watching The Wheels”, with an arrangement that recalled Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me”.
Donning a New York City T-shirt as made famous in Bob Gruen’s iconic mid-70’s photo of Lennon and armed with a black Rickenbacker 325, Sheryl Crow came on to perform “A Hard Day’s Night”, adeptly handling the alternating Lennon and McCartney lead vocal parts.
A weak-voiced Kris Kristofferson and no-voiced Tom Morello (from Rage Against The Machine) teamed up for one of the evening’s relatively few low points with “Working Class Hero”.
Chris Stapleton, who ran the table at this year’s Country Music Awards, teamed up with Brandon Flowers (of the Killers) and Crow for “Don’t Let Me Down”. The stylistic misalignment was evident, with the soulful feel of the original all but lost in translation. Stapleton fared much better when swapping out cohorts Flowers and Crow for Kristofferson and Willie Nelson on “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”.
Following what seemed like an eternity for re-staging (and not making use of the multiple video screens or even tapping MC Bacon for a little banter), the Roots closed part one of the show with a blistering version of “Mother”, though their self-styled prelude was lost on the majority of those in attendance (maybe they didn’t get the memo that this evening wasn’t about THEM …).
The 5-piece Texas band Spoon opened up the second part of the show with the couplet of “Hey Bulldog” and ”Cold Turkey”, the former being given the “take II” treatment for whatever difficulties (technical, or more likely, the very flat vocal delivery) were incurred. Still, they’re a tight band that went over very well.
Curiously, the next slot was by John & Yoko themselves, with a video performance of “Attica State” from their 1971 appearance on the David Frost show. While this would have made for nice filler during intermission or the aforementioned extended restaging, it served as a convenient set-up to introduce Yoko herself, who came out to say a few words, but did not perform.
Back to the proceedings, Nelson came on to do a very moving “Imagine”, garnering a well-deserved standing ovation.
Flowers returned to do a powerful “Instant Karma”. Falling just short of ‘shouting’ the lyrics, his vocal projection filled the room.
Train’s Pat Monahan performed an interesting arrangement of “Jealous Guy”, injecting a reggae flavor to the second half of the song before the band burst into a sped-up piano boogie a-la Elton John’s “Burn Down The Mission”.
While at times struggling with the meter of the lyrics, country star Eric Church did a serviceable “Mind Games”. The band really shined on this one.
An in-your-face version of “Power To The People” followed, featuring the New York Freedom Choir and lead guitar prowess of Morello.
The main set closed with Steven Tyler rocking his way through “Come Together” (which his band Aerosmith had a hit with in the late 70’s) and “Revolution”, being joined on the latter by Church.
The encores opened with video greetings from Ringo, who then introduced a video of his most recent All Starr Band delivering the Lennon-penned “I’m The Greatest” from the superb “Ringo at the Ryman” DVD. That Paul’s video was not played immediately afterward paved the way for some last-minute speculation that he might be …. Naaaaah.
Back on stage Frampton, Crow and Blacc were joined by a children’s choir for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”. Beyond the signature songs such as “Imagine” and “In My Life”, this song remains the one that makes me miss John more than any other every single time I hear it. Meticulously arranged with Frampton on the low verses, Blacc on the high ones, and Crow soaring above the choir in the choruses, the communal singalong – right here during Christmastime in the city (HIS city) made this one an emotional highlight of the evening.
Back to the screens for some comments and a tip of the hat from Sir Paul, though his message was not accompanied by any musical performance. It remains to be seen if one will be added for the broadcast (“Here Today” from the Citifield concert DVD would seem fitting. Just sayin’).
The ensemble finale for this celebration was a fitting “All You Need Is Love” which, while mostly solid and had gotten got everyone up and singing along, was marred by an obviously under-rehearsed cast (when returning to the 3rd verse after the instrumental, no one stepped up until about the last line, when Tyler stepped in). Whether this will be edited or faded under the closing credits is in the hands of the AMC team.
Inclusive of the intermission and production breaks, the show ran just under three hours, so a two-hour broadcast seems likely.
The 5,500 seat theater, which resides on the site of the old Felt Forum, is a great room with low ceilings making for generally superb sound, with excellent sightlines from any seat in the house (in the past, I’ve seen Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Elvis Costello and even The Who there). For the Lennon tribute, it was about 95 percent full, in no small part due to the ticket pricing, which ran from $99 to $1000, with most seats in the $150-$250-$350 range.
Merchandise, which is available from www.blackbirdmusicgroup.com included two different t-shirts, two different event posters, and a hooded sweatshirt.
While we can all make our dream lists of performers we’d have liked to seen at the event (beyond Paul and Ringo, I mean), and particular favorite songs (the embarrassment of riches in the catalog kept songs like “I Am The Walrus”, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “(Just Like) Starting Over” off the table), this was an evening to celebrate what we DO have — and that’s John’s lasting musical and cultural legacy.
“It’s beautiful to see so many wonderful and talented musicians come together for this special show to celebrate John’s birthday,” said Yoko Ono. “John’s art continues to give hope, light and happiness to generations of people everywhere. His belief that each of us can change the world continues to inspire the human race to believe in themselves, and his influence is everlasting in everyone’s hearts as we all share in the possibilities and power of music.”
And so this is Christmas, indeed.
— Tom Frangione