Actor Peter Coyote wasted no time Tuesday night in assuring the estimated 9,000 people at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa that it was OK to have a good time.
"Contrary to popular belief, this is not a political rally… This is a party," Coyote said at the start of the four-hour benefit concert to support Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of murdering two FBI agents in 1975.
The "Cowboys for Indians and Justice for Leonard Peltier" concert, featuring Willie Nelson, Joni Mitchell and comedian Robin Williams, became a cause celebre when Richard T. Bretzing, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, said Friday that he was "utterly revolted" over the benefit. About 20 placard-carrying demonstrators, led by state Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights), protested outside the amphitheater before the show.
In his opening remarks Coyote, obviously referring to the controversy, added: "In the middle [of the concert], I'm going to take five minutes and explain why we are here.... But that is about as slow as the show will get."
That kind of reassurance—that it was OK to have fun—would have been welcome a few years ago when benefit concerts, more often than not, fell into one of two equally tedious camps.
If the affair was a non-political benefit, such as for a hospital or disaster victims, audiences were frequently subjected to a parade of show-biz personalities congratulating one another for having donated their time. The performances were mostly perfunctory.
Or if the affair was political, the night was likely to be somber, filled with ponderous or patronizing speeches.
Times have changed.
Rock 'n' roll hasn't just altered the nature of pop music over the last four decades, it has helped redefine benefits. You no longer feel that ads for these concerts should carry warning stickers.
In a decade of such highly publicized events as Live Aid, Farm Aid and the Amnesty International tour, musicians—recoiling from the traditional nature of charity affairs—have found ways to support causes without embarrassing themselves or insulting their audiences.
The result is that some of pop music's most inspired moments now occur at benefits: The shows are now low on polemics but high on art.
The performers Tuesday kept Coyote's pledge about no speeches, breaking from the music only for a few biting song introductions— such as Jackson Browne dedicating "Revenge Will Come" to the "FBI, CIA and other power elites that keep the world the way it is."
Still, there weren't many moments where you lost track of the sociopolitical component. Social comment has become an integral part of the work of most of pop's most commanding figures—including many of those on the stage Tuesday. Despite what many nostalgists believe, "messages" did not disappear from pop music with the passing of the '60s.
It's hard to imagine a more socially committed pop attraction than the Grafitti Band, which opened Tuesday's program. The group's tales of social ideals and injustice are energized by the strong-willed vision of poet John Trudell and guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, both of whom are Native Americans. Browne joined the Grafitti Band for two numbers, including "Doctor My Eyes," his own early '70s expression of disillusionment.
Joni Mitchell, supported by a jazz-accented band including saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Larry Klein, followed with a 40-minute set that reinforced her reputation as a daring, independent-minded songwriter and singer. Rather than lean toward her most melodic and best-known early work, she concentrated on recent material, previewing a song ("Lakota") from her upcoming album and offering a dramatic rendition of "Tax Free." The latter tune, from her 1985 "Dog Eat Dog" LP, rips at rightist televangelism with uncompromising ridicule and fury.
Because the music was unfamiliar to most of the crowd, the audience was a bit noisy, distracting Mitchell enough at one point to stop midsong to ask for quiet.
Kristofferson's set was the most consistently political, frequently focusing on U.S. policies in Central America. Though some of his new tunes are a bit strident, the best of them suggest the confidence and flow in his prized early work, such as "Me and Bobby McGee," with which he closed.
Robin Williams, the only non-musician on the bill, was at his improvisational best in a 20-minute appearance in which he stepped down from the stage to play off members of the audience, moving through topics ranging from safe sex and TV evangelists to the Pope and stock market jitters. He reflected the wonderfully inventive comic intensity associated with Williams' own hero, Jonathan Winters.
Combining topical targets, Williams envisioned a hard-strapped yuppie someday looking back on the crash of '87 and telling his children, "Your mother and I were so poor we had to snort dirt."
There was no overt political message in Nelson's music, but there is a sensitivity and range that underscores human qualities in ways that make members of the audience feel connected. Accustomed to much longer shows, however, Nelson and his Family band seemed rushed, rarely pausing long enough to give the material his usual strong interpretive edge.
Billy Vera joined Nelson for two songs, including the oldies-minded "At This Moment" and a duet on Hank Williams' "Hey, Good Lookin'." Most of the cast then returned at the end for a gospel medley that ended the night on a soft, endearing, hopeful note.
Except for Nelson, the musicians didn't rely on their hits, risking alienating the audience. Even at benefits, audience members are also fans, who enjoy hearing old favorites. But the Pacific crowd seemed content to let the artists pursue their own instincts.
A few wisecracks could be heard during Mitchell's set ("Thank you, Joni, good night," someone behind me said midway through her performance), but mostly it was an atmosphere of respect. As such, the evening was as much a tribute to the maturity of audiences as to the maturity of the artists.
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