Big Apple to the Big Easy
Madison Square Garden, New York
Tuesday, Sept. 20
By Frank Scheck
Thanks to Da’Vi for the illustration – not sure who drew it, but interested to find out!
The evening might have begun with a funeral dirge, but the atmosphere Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden was hardly funereal.
Rather, this all-star benefit concert for the Gulf Coast victims of Hurricane Katrina was a celebratory affair that proudly rejoiced in the rich musical heritage of New Orleans.
Cleverly titled “From the Big Apple to the Big Easy,” the show served as an affectionate musical tribute and a powerful show of support from one previously beleaguered city to another.
Much like the concert that took place in the same venue in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the evening transcended its entertainment values, rich as they were. With its preponderance of performers representing the best of the New Orleans tradition, it was an invaluable reminder of just important this heritage is. For the occasion, the arena was transformed into a virtual French Quarter, with beads and banners and the usual fare of hot dogs and pizza supplanted with jambalaya and gumbo.
While no doubt many in the audience were there to see such classic baby boomer acts as Jimmy Buffett, John Fogerty, Elton John, Bette Midler, Simon & Garfunkel, etc., they also were treated to a rich sampling of New Orleans artists. From the opening set by Allen Toussaint to the closing performances by the Neville Brothers and the Meters, the evening resonated with the joyful sounds of the Big Easy.
It says something that one of the biggest ovations went to Clarence “Frogman” Henry, who delivered the thematically appropriate and highly rousing “Ain’t Got No Home” with his distinctive blend of falsetto and croak. Similar rapture was displayed for such performers as Aaron Neville, who promised that “A Change Is Gonna Come”; Irma Thomas, who lent her soulful pipes to such classics as “Time Is on My Side”; the Dixie Cups, inciting a joyful audience sing-along on “Chapel of Love”; the Meters, performing in New York for the first time in decades; and the Neville Brothers, participating in a first-ever duet with the Meters on “Hey Pocky Way.”
The headliners certainly did their part as well. John tore through such well-chosen numbers as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “Love Lies Bleeding,” Buffett had the audience dancing merrily through his set of mellow party anthems, Midler delivered a highly emotive “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” and Fogerty rocked the house with blistering versions of “Born on the Bayou” and “Bad Moon Rising.” Dave Matthews, popping in briefly (he headlined another show that night at Radio City Music Hall), joined Buffett for Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.”
Such performers as Elvis Costello and Lenny Kravitz took a more adventurous approach, forgoing their hits in favor of classic if little-known New Orleans jazz numbers. Kravitz also participated in one of the show’s highlights, a sit-down blues session that featured Ry Cooder and Buckwheat Zydeco.
Simon & Garfunkel, clearly a crowd favorite, sang such classics as “Homeward Bound” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with Aaron Neville lending his angelic tenor to the latter. “As many times as I’ve sung this song, I don’t think it’s ever meant as much to me as it does tonight,” Garfunkel said.
President Clinton, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., and Paul Newman were among those who provided introductions.
The evening’s emotional dynamics were well illustrated in the show’s conclusion, which occurred about 5 1/2 hours after it began. Aaron Neville delivered a goosebump-inducing “Amazing Grace,” followed by a roof-shaking “When the Saints Go Marching In” featuring all of the New Orleans musicians, demonstrating the spirit that will make the Big Easy live again.