NEW YORK, NY—What do you get when you put Stevie Wonder together with Garth Brooks, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tommy Hilfiger, Miss USA, and P. Diddy? If you guessed the sign of the apocalypse, I’ll give you credit. It might seem that way. In this instance, however, it was the complete opposite. This was the coming together of chief leaders from all fields to benefit The Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. Of course that’s a good enough reason to stage a great fund-raising concert.
For those unaware, as I was prior to attending the show, Martin Luther King, Jr. was recently granted a place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., an honor previously only given to the most historic of Presidents. The condition to the agreement is that the memorial foundation must raise $100M in private donations to fund the construction of the memorial. That’s where the concert comes in.
As one might expect, single song-sets were separated by clips of King and requests for donations. That was perfectly acceptable. The “discrete” advertisements for lead corporate donors like VIACOM and Tommy Hilfiger, however, became frustratingly obvious and greatly distracted from the subject at hand—MLK and great music.
The evening began with respectable sets from newcomers Robin Thicke, Ryan Shaw, Joss Stone and John Legend. Against the wishes of concert organizers, Legend opted to replace his hit “Ordinary People” with his significantly less impressive, yet seemingly more appropriate, track “Freedom Now.” This reversal led to a natural quip from comic Cedric The Entertainer who said he wished Legend had played his other song. Expectedly, the crowd cheered in agreement.
Countering Cedric The Entertainer with perhaps the most hilarious moment of the night was the wonderfully raunchy rapper Ludacris, who entertained the grey-haired, predominantly Caucasian donors with his rendition of the wildly fitting ditty, “Moneymaker.” There’s just something inherently funny about that image. It’s ludicrous.
While I found great entertainment in the show’s most awkward moments, the audience reacted with great enthusiasm to what, on paper, would seem like the most awkward moments. Country singer Garth Brooks shot the crowd to its feet and Wyclef (why is he popular?) Jean had the crowd jumping up and down as he ran through the $5k seats and ranted about his bid for presidency. Someone should have tipped him off that immigrants technically aren’t eligible to hold the Oval Office… but he was so cheery no one had the heart to ruin his spirit.
The ever-humble guitarist Carlos Santana let his spirit sing on the instrumental “Victory Is Won,” while current Santana vocalist Andy Vargas worked the crowd on “Maria Maria” and an extended version of “Smooth.” Following Santana was “The Queen Of Soul” Aretha Franklin, who called for some much needed “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” This should have served as a moment of rejoiceing, but unfortunately her deteriorating health greatly distracted from her legendary vocals. It was hands down the saddest moment of the show.
Stevie Wonder, the man whose single “Happy Birthday” pushed for the creation of Martin Luther King Day, was unexpectedly bitter. He suggested that if King were here today, he’d be disappointed with where we’ve gone. A fair assessment on many levels, but it was clear no one expected such harsh words from the man who brought us such songs as “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.”
His setlist was quite strong despite being limited to just five songs. He began appropriately with “Love Is In Need Of Love Today,” followed by “Visions,” “Living For The City,” “Superstition,” and he closed the evening with “Happy Birthday.” The only part of the set that made absolutely no sense was when the singer for Train (Patrick Monahan) walked on stage and stole a verse in “Superstition.” Of all the artists in attendance, why him? Come on now Stevie, blindness is not an excuse.
Overall, the night featured great music for a great cause. Granted some areas could have been tweaked like eliminating all the corporate messages and giving more time to Santana and Stevie, but the night was pleasantly fun. Who would have guessed Garth Brooks and Wyclef would bring down the house? Seriously.