In the Canary Islands, descendants of an aboriginal people called the Guanches communicate via an ancient whistling language. As Diane Ackerman eloquently tells it in A Natural History of the Senses, "They trill and warble a little like quails and other birds, but more elaborately, and, from as far away as nine miles they hear one another and converse as their ancestors did." She writes, too, about the aboriginals in Australia who have to travel across a maze of invisible roads, or Songlines. And she posits a simple yet profound question: what evolutionary advantage does music afford?
Two weeks ago I sat sixth row center at a benefit concert for the Playing for Change foundation. I had seen the video of street musicians from around the world performing the same song – Stand by Me – and I was thrilled at the chance to see at least some of them perform live at Town Hall in New York. Music is nothing if not a uniting force. But it's one thing to produce and edit snippets of musical performances from diverse parts of the world (some punctuated with videos of Bono, Keb' Mo, and Bob Marley), another thing altogether to unite the musicians (minus the star power) for a concert. Granda Elliott, who hails from New Orleans, is an unqualified national treasure. Clarence Bekker (Amsterdam) has an infectious charm, not to mention a powerful voice brought to harmonizing subtlety when he sang with Titi Tsira (Guguletu, South Africa) and Mermans Kenkosenki (Matadi, Congo). If the performance was less than polished, more like a jam session, utter joy pervaded. The musicians danced, they sang, they played guitar and percussion and harmonica. They smiled. They wore shoes that looked spanking new.
One week ago I was lucky enough to have landed two tickets to night #2 of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Benefit Concert at Madison Square Garden. I was not so up close and personal, but it doesn't matter all that much at the Garden. The monitors provide all the close-ups you need, and besides, it's mostly about sound in this cavernous arena. The lights dim, out comes Tom Hanks, more to remind us of why we're there than to tell us about who we're going to hear. Not that introductions are needed. Jerry Lee Lewis makes his way to the front of the stage, piano at the ready, Great Balls of Fire. It's the only song he plays, and it's all he needs to. Aretha follows, all diva in red and pearls. She brings Annie Lennox onstage to join her for Chain of Fools, followed by Lenny Kravitz in a duet of Think.
It gets even better.
Between sets the screens roll in a photo montage, a continuum of images taking us back to the roots of rock and through its evolutionary shifts. The audience is abuzz. Who's playing next? Who's filling in for Eric Clapton, forced to bow out because of gallstone surgery? Is Mick Jagger really going to duet with Bono? Some extreme Clapton fans are rumored to want their money back. Too bad for them if they insisted. Jeff Beck, who would have been a surprise guest playing with Clapton, filled in with his phenomenal group, including Tal Wilkenfeld, the dynamic twenty-three-year-old Australian bass player who happens to be female. So even if the reality of hearing/seeing Clapton and U2 on the same night, on the same stage was what lured me to the second night of the concert, for my money – and from the standpoint of pure music – Jeff Beck's set would turn out to be my favorite, electrifying in every sense of the word. Sting joining him for a rendition of People Get Ready. Buddy Guy belting out Let Me Love You to a background of dueling guitars. Jeff Beck sending megawatt vibrations to the highest reaches of the Garden, accompanied by Billy Gibbons, playing Foxy Lady.
It gets even better.
You don't have to be a fan of heavy metal music to appreciate Metallica. Especially after seeing the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which underscores the passion that gives rise to any type of music. More especially after hearing Metallica play Sweet Jane with Lou Reed, and Iron Man with Ozzie Osbourne, and, in what may have been one of the most inspired pairings of the night, You Really Got Me with Ray Davies of the Kinks.
Did I say it gets even better?
U2 opens their set with Vertigo and Magnificent and a great deal of anticipation about surprise guests (Mick Jagger? Sir Paul McCartney?). Knowing that Bruce Springsteen headlined the first night, and knowing how much he loves playing to his fans, I harbor a secret feeling (wish?) that he might show up the second night. When he walks onto the stage, escorted by Patti Smith, and they launch into Because the Night, with Bono, the power of rock 'n' roll reaches a fevered pitch. Patti leaves the stage, Bruce stays, for a riveting I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, with Roy Bittan and U2. The party keeps heating up, with Black Eyed Peas bringing a hip hop edge to Mysterious Ways. Once Black Eyed Peas (minus Fergie) leave the stage and she coos those first haunting notes of Gimme Shelter, the final guest of the night, who is really no surprise at all, struts onto the stage.
The show comes to an end, I leave the Garden, walking on air. Singing to myself. Thinking, it doesn't get much better.