BEFORE IT GOT UNDER WAY, THE MAIN question about Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope benefit tour was one that's become increasingly common these days: Would the music be equal, of even relevant, to the cause? At the end of the tour's opening show at San Francisco's Cow Palace, the answer was a rousing, defiant yes.
Over five hours of world-class, world-conscious rock & roll ended on a note of hope and commitment as Sting, Bono, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Browne, Bryan Adams and Joan Baez stood together at the front of the Cow Palace stage for a passionate rendition of Bob Dylan's classic song of freedom and redemption, "I Shall Be Released."
Two nights later at the Los Angeles Forum, that same passion was in evidence as the show's lineup was expanded to include sets by Bob Dylan with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, and Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart (doing bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up"), as well as cameo finale appearances by Bonnie Raitt, Done Henley, Joni Mitchell and Lone Justice's Maria McKee.
No time was wasted establishing the tone of the tour: at just ten minutes past seven on the first night in San Francisco, a huge, crystal-clear video screen played the Special AKA's anti-apartheid anthem "(Free) Nelson Mandela" for the 13,000-plus crowd on hand. The concert itself consisted of seven sets varying in length from twenty to forty minutes.
The Neville Brothers got things going with an ebullient "Hey Pocky A-Way," one of their classic New Orleans dance grooves, then turned serious with "Everybody Better Wake Up," a song they introduced as "a prayer for peace." They were then joined by Joan Baez, who, in a friendly gesture to the current rock audience, broke into a version of Tears for Fears' "Shout."
The real surprise of the evening was how well the show's musically eclectic participants sounded side by side: the New York streetwise rock & roll of a black-leather-jacketed Lou Reed, the righteous Southern California consciousness-raising of Jackson Browne, the angular art-rock of Peter Gabriel (who performed a moving version of "Biko," his tribute to martyred South African dissident Steve Biko) and the anthemic mainstream rock of Bryan Adams.
But it was Sting and U2 who turned a great concert into a freedom party, bringing the crowd to their feet with two sets of stunning, emotion-packed music. At the end of a set that included "If You Love Somebody Set them Free," "When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around" and "Russians," Sting performed a haunting solo version of "Message in a Bottle," bringing to mind his inspired 1981 performance at Amnesty International's Secret Policeman's Other Ball.
U2 hit the stage with an inspired version of Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody," turning the rock standard into both an invitation and a challenge to the audience. The crowd responded with equal urgency, and promoter Bill Graham had to personally send dozens of kids who rush the stage back to their seats. In the midst of a rousing "Pride (In the Name of Love)," Bono - looking a bit like Jim Morrison with his long, shaggy hair and Wild Bill Hitchcock cowboy jacket - quieted the band: "Sing it for every prisoner in every jail," he told the audience. "Every prisoner rotting in jail. Are you with us?" By that time, there was no doubt about the answer.
"Sunday Bloody Sunday,: "New Year's Day" and "Bad" were offered up in typically explosive U2 style, but it was a rugged version of Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm," played into a medley of the Beatles "Help" and John Lennon's "Cold Turkey" that gave the band's performance a special poignance. U2 wrapped things up with a blistering "Sun City" (with Lou Reed jumping in to rap a verse) before the all-star chorus joined them onstage for the moving finale.
"I think it worked," shouted a deservedly happy Bono shortly after midnight. "It's a good thing we came here."
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