By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
For five hours on Saturday, New York City's Central Park was dedicated to the idea that electric guitars could save the world.
On a cloudy night when the first chill of fall could be felt in the air, the Global Citizen Festival drew 60,000 people to the park's Great Lawn -- and countless more to an unprecedented web and television simulcast -- in an effort to draw attention and action to the cause of eradicating extreme poverty around the world.
In a musical landscape currently dominated by electronic beats and hip-hop rhymes, though, the headliners at the festival all fell squarely in the big rock tradition of the wailing six-string: the garage-blues blitz of the Black Keys, the Foo Fighters' brawny rave-ups, and the psychedelic stomp of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
In between the roughly hour-long sets by the headliners, there were dozens of speakers from foundations, charities, and corporations—including such celebrity representatives as Olivia Wilde, Selena Gomez, and Katharine McPhee—and videos highlighting a wide range of poverty-related causes from malaria and polio to education and maternal health.
Katie Couric started the event by invoking such historic Great Lawn moments as visits by the Pope and the Dalai Lama, and concerts by Diana Ross and Simon and Garfunkel -- all of which occurred before most of this show's well-heeled, well-behaved young audience were born.
The music kicked off with a brief set by charismatic Somalian-born singer/rapper K'Naan, whose global smash "Wavin' Flag" set an appropriate tone. Four songs from Band of Horses, visibly excited at being part of this bill, started the guitar-frenzy theme of the night, and showed that the group has added some hard-driving crunch and grunge-style texture to its roots in the The Band/Crosby, Stills, and Nash pocket of Americana.
Unannounced guest John Legend contributed the obligatory rendition of "Imagine" to the festival, with John Lennon's residence at the Dakota on Central Park West visible to some in the crowd.
The Black Keys then stormed through fourteen songs in fifty minutes, and proved that today's best rock band keeps getting better; singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach has become increasingly comfortable as a frontman, now able to command the attention of stadium-size audiences. Nor has this required any compromise of the Keys' spiky sound -- if anything, Auerbach was running his guitar through extra-scuzzy filters in his blistering solos on "She's Gone" and the walloping closer "I Got Mine."
The vaguely anthemic lyrics of Foo Fighters' hits like "My Hero," "Times Like These," and "Best of You" seemed like they could have taken on extra resonance in this show's context, but Dave Grohl preferred to just keep his head down (well, usually banging up-and-down) and blast away. This event came at the conclusion of the Foos' tour, and Grohl made several comments indicating "I don't know when we're going to do this again," possibly hinting at bigger news to follow. The band's meat-and-potatoes post-alt-rock set, with Grohl yelling gleefully and racing around the stage, was the crowd's favorite, with a visible exodus when they were done.
The festival's headliner, Neil Young, gave a characteristically ornery performance. He opened with a 14-minute version of the deep cut "Love and Only Love;" this one number was as long as K'Naan's whole set, and the concluding chords were given as much time to ring out as some of the Black Keys' whole songs.
Nose-to-nose with Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampedro, Young reeled off chorus after chorus of jagged, rumbling, careening guitar noise—bliss for his faithful fans, but a demanding way to start a show for a festival crowd. He followed with a set including more songs from his forthcoming album, "Psychedelic Pill," than familiar selections from his career; only "Powderfinger" and "The Needle and the Damage Done" would have been identifiable for a casual listener. (His choice to close the regular show, "F----' Up," must have delighted the networks and portals that were airing the concert.)That said, Young played with the passion and conviction that has defined his incomparable power for thirty-some years.
Also: More on Neil Young and Crazy Horse's 2012
The ending was inevitable -- all the bands returned to the stage, Grohl and Auerbach strapped their instruments back on, and everyone raised a wild squall for "Rockin' in the Free World." At a benefit where, perhaps because there was so much speech-making, the acts were conspicuously silent about the cause, here was Neil Young wailing about junkie single mothers, homeless despair, and global militarism. And yet when they hit the instrumental break, the stars were all grinning like kids, the screams of their guitars exploding across the park like fireworks.
Alan Light is the author of "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys." A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN, and was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tracks. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.
Southern man don't need him around anyhow!
I think the rub is that you have a bunch of wealthy and rich guys self advertising in order to get someone else to contribute to their chosen cause.