The worst benefit concert ever!

Forget the Paul McCartney show -- Michael Jackson's interminably long, incompetently presented Washington show hit a new low in charity.

Published October 22, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

I really wanted to like the concert. "United We Stand" it was called, an all-day benefit Sunday at RFK Stadium in Washington. I really wanted it to be a great time.

We all did. After all, what's not to like about helping the victims of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon? And if it involves a day of performances by more than 20 of the biggest stars of pop music -- so much the better, right?

Organized by Michael Jackson, and scheduled to be broadcast on ABC in November, the theme of the show was "What More Can I Give" -- not coincidentally Jackson's new Sept. 11-related single, being debuted live that evening. Unlike New York, D.C. has had few opportunities to publicly grieve and give support to one another. This show seemed a good opportunity to give back to the community, and spend some time healing with 50,000 of my neighbors.

Unfortunately, among the things being given back were the invites to perform by top billers Mick Jagger, Kiss and others. None of them showed up. With other announced participants Ricky Martin, Aaron Carter and MC Hammer MIA, the lineup for the show had become rather fluid. So much of the lineup had been replaced by showtime that it was an altogether different show than the one fans bought tickets for.

But the organizer, Clear Channel Entertainment, part of the massive radio and concert promotion firm that dominates the music industry right now, was a professional outfit -- the sort of operation that could handle anything, right? And hey -- it was a benefit concert. It didn't matter who performed -- everyone will like the concert for the cause, right?


No. To all of the above. This was the worst benefit concert ever. As President Bush might say: "The cause is just." But the show was just terrible.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

There is much reason for hope early on for the show. After all, it is billed as the first time the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync ever shared a stage -- unless you count the Super Bowl. It is the first time Michael Jackson has performed since ... well, there was the MTV Video Music Awards, and a couple of shows before Sept. 11. It is the first time Mariah Carey has performed since her various breakdowns and her unrelated crappy movie was released. It is the first time I had ever seen any of the above in concert, but only because I don't get out much.

The Backstreet Boys open with a heavily harmonized "Star Spangled Banner," which was also how the group kicked off the Super Bowl. In fact, over half the set is similar to what they played during the weekend's other big rock benefit, Paul McCartney's Concert for NYC. No problem, but you would have thought that with the advance warning, and previous night's practice, the technical problems would be worked out.

They aren't. The audio is choppy, and continues to be so for the following act, Crystal, and '80s rocker Huey Lewis. No one worries. It is early -- they are just working out the bugs!

Note: This is foreshadowing. They never did work out the bugs. Apparently, Roosevelt Jr. High School's 8th Grade AV Club was unavailable to do sound and tech, and they had to get a less-experienced crew.

Some early highlights:

  • James Brown's mike is silent for the first half of "Living in America." Maybe he just isn't singing, but I doubt it. No one sweats that much mutely lip-syncing.

  • The pre-taped audio track for pre-teen C&W sprite Billy Gillman gives out midway though his single "Down Here on Earth." The kid soldiers on, and gives one of the best performances of the entire event.

  • There is a pixel problem on the Jumbotron. It distorts the logo for the concert, making it "Unit We Stand." Various immature people in my row find this quite amusing. OK, only me.

  • It takes one hour to set up a mike for Carole King's acoustic rendering of her classic "Far Away. The settings are too high; the mike is "hot," making her even more shrill than usual.

  • John Stamos and Kevin Spacey welcome us to the show, three hours after it has already begun. However, the too-high volume, mixed with poor acoustics, and RFK's delayed echo, make their potentially inspiring words totally and completely incomprehensible.

  • O Town, from the ABC show "Making the Band," performs, and unfortunately, you can hear them perfectly.
  • The performances get better as the day wears on, though the waits between sets make the development absolutely meaningless. They really should have called this thing "United We Please Stand By, We're Experiencing Technical Difficulties." Each time a good band performs, the audience leaps up and cheers, inspired, energized. Then, after 15 minutes, the stage goes black, and it's back to sitting in the seats for a half-hour, stewing.

    Which is too bad, because there were strong performances from a diverse lineup: Aerosmith and Bette Midler, Al Green and P. Diddy. Less-strong performances from Ce Ce Penniston and America lead one to wonder, with the show three hours behind schedule, why they are there, and, more important, why we have to wait 30 minutes for their performances.

    The most surprising set of the night is by hip-hop artist Pink, who is neither hip-hop nor pink. Sporting blond locks and no pink clothing at all, she performs not "Lady Marmalade," her hit of the moment, but two acoustic -- heck, let's call them folk -- songs. One is "My Vietnam," off her newest album, and the other was Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee." It is the latter that was surprising, with Pink matching Joplin's throaty words with gritty enthusiasm -- yet showcasing a wider range of notes than Joplin ever reached. It is great. Color me impressed. Ugh, did I actually just write that?

    In the stands, however, people are getting antsy. As night begins to fall, concessionaires are running out of food and beverages. The waits became interminable, and surreal, as John Stamos pops up from time to time to welcome us, yet again, to the show. He proclaims that we would see several bands that have already performed, and promises a good time.

    I guess they want multiple takes for the TV special. We cheer well for the cameras.

    Long after fan-base bedtimes, 'N Sync finally performs. The mass exodus upon its last number looks like a refugee crisis out of Khandahar. Stamos encourages the rest of us to stay. To be on the safe side, he records a "Thanks, good night!" for the cameras, while there is still enough crowd to cheer.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    I'd like to take a moment to reflect on the common wardrobe theme of all the performers: The flag.

  • Destiny's Child: Flag pants. Each member has her own variation. All three were nice, but I'd look silly in them.

  • Steven Tyler of Aerosmith: Leather flag jacket. Flashy, and looks warm. Could prove popular this winter, but I'd look silly in it.

  • J.C. of 'N Sync: Heart-shaped flag T-shirt. Makes him look like a patriotic Care Bear. He looked less silly than I would have, but still quite silly.

  • James Brown and P. Diddy: Flags as capes. Very dramatic, but just an etiquette note. You can't let them drag on the ground like that. Weren't you ever Boy Scouts? Now they have to be respectfully burned.

  • Pink and the bassist of the Goo Goo Dolls: Button-down flag shirt. Nice! But the downward-facing flag is backward on it. The field of blue is supposed to go over the left side, not the right, which is a sign of distress. I don't know why they both have this shirt, or why both were in distress. Maybe they are acknowledging the bored plight of the ever-waiting audience.
  • - - - - - - - - - - - -

    The waits continued, the show seemingly lasting forever. Most of the performers have to enroll their kids in the D.C. school system. Rod Stewart is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. Whomever you came with you're now legally married to. DMV employees in the audience have gotten impatient and left.

    The stadium is totally out of food. Tired and hungry, we scan the skies in hope of a U.S. Army humanitarian aid drop of MREs.

    In the bleachers, people have swiped toilet paper rolls from the bathroom, and are flinging them into the crowd. Hunger has devolved us. Soon, we'll be rendered into Michael Jackson-craving monkeys, slinging our feces to and fro.

    The earth slows. The molten core of the planet cools. Glaciers spread, then melt. Mountains crumble. Seas rise, then fall. Some future evolved species, maybe the dogs, will happen upon the ruins of the stadium. They will find us all frozen, yet still plaintively awaiting word from John Stamos saying we can go home.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Why we stay: It's a benefit concert, for Chrissakes. Besides, after all this time, we're soldered to the seats with butt sweat.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    The crowd iss nothing but unruly by the time the oft-napping roadies bring out a strange little box of mirrors and lights, such as Siegfried and Roy might make endangered tigers disappear within.

    But no tigers come, just more roadies. For 45 minutes they continued to tinker with the box, until the crowd has had enough.

    It's time for a united audience to take a stand.

    The boos start quietly, then grow to a fevered pitch. The roadies get a bit nervous, then flee. Suddenly, poor Mariah Carey appears from offstage, with little introduction, singing a torch song that sounds slightly unexpected.

    We made Mariah appear with our boos! It's a lesson we all file away. And her song "Never Too Far" elicited some non-boos too. For some reason, she can't hit any of the high notes, but that's OK. All is forgiven. By song's end, she disappears in the box, with the cheers of exhausted fans behind her.

    The lights dim. This is the biggest production value of the evening. We are all quite excited.

    And then: It opens up. Just that. It is just a big dumb mirrored box with the ability to open up. Carey sings something from her failed movie "Glitter," complete with copious "Glitter" logos in the graphics on the screens. In the box, there is a prop glittered telephone, and a flashy glittered motorcycle. Neither is used for the song. They serve no purpose. She doesn't even look at them. There are more "Glitter" logos. The song "The DJ Saved My Life" makes no reference I could decipher to telephones and motorcycles, or the Pentagon -- unless the DJs are lingo for 911 operators. The crowd is dumbfounded and silent. Aware she has lost us, Mariah asks the crowd to "make some noise."

    We do. It is not, however, a good noise.

    Now, it may be mean to boo a woman suffering from depression. At a benefit show. But then again, it's a benefit show, and we are there to support terror victims, not Mariah's new CD. The "Glitter" logos lighting the Jumbotron seem cheap and crass, like advertising at a wake.

    And after all that time, she doesn't even use the motorcycle in the song? I'd boo my own mom.

    I'm sorry you're depressed, Mariah. But no one misses you after your bodyguards and dancers pull you offstage, seconds after the song ends.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    It is quite late, after midnight. There are maybe 1,500 people left at the show in a very large stadium, and every one of them needs a nap.

    The organizers have to be cognizant how far this show has slipped from them, yet they do everything in their power to make things worse. They bring Chris Tucker out to introduce Michael Jackson, to booming cheers -- and then, nothing. John Stamos comes out one last time, and introduces Michael Jackson, to booming cheers. And then nothing. Stamos then reintroduces Michael Jackson, since he screws up the first time by referring to our city as Los Angeles, not Washington, D.C.

    We learn the reason for the screw-up when he rudely informs us he is leaving, flying back to the coast. The Firestone Tire factory has less hissing. Stamos is an idiot. The Olson Twins would have had more support as emcees.

    When Michael Jackson takes the stage, and yes, he ultimately does, it is as showy, egocentric and craven as you could imagine.

    It starts with a film retrospective of Jacko's humanitarian work in Africa, to the instrumental strains of "We Are the World." What this self-stroking has to do with the Pentagon was unknown as of press time. Maybe a promise to the hungry Pentagon survivors in the crowd that he will feed us, too?

    But the response he gets from the crowd is nothing short of mass cultlike love. As he appears onstage, breaking instantly into "Man in the Mirror," there is more screaming and dancing than even 'N Sync enjoyed. No one cares about the ego, about the waiting, or, it would appear, about the Pentagon at this moment. They are here for Michael.

    And he is in top form, near as I can tell. His dancing was on. Meanwhile, the video played on, images of JFK, RFK, MLK, Jesus ... you see Mother Teresa, hear applause, and think it was for her. But no, it is just M.J. dancing on a steam grate. His stage presence was greater than all who came before him. When he climbs onto a cherry picker that takes him slightly above the front rows of the crowd, it is impressive. When he jumps off onto the stage, it gets me out of my pissy funk. It's a fun song, so who cares how pretentious and inappropriate the video is? This is his concert, and for many in the crowd, it is worth the wait.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    A quick observation. At some point, a woman runs up onto the stage and grabs Michael, hugging him, and screams "I love you" over and over to his face -- you don't have to be a lip reader to see those words. It seems like minutes before security notices and pulls her off. Through it all, a showbiz trooper, M.J. keeps singing, and doesn't miss one note.

    But there's the problem. At several points, the crazed fan's face is closer to the mike than M.J.'s mouth. Yet we never hear her voice, we only hear Michael. Maybe she is just mouthing the words, respectfully, so as not to ruin the song! Maybe the ever-alert audio crew -- folks I wouldn't trust to press play on a tape recorder -- are able to mix her out of the sound on the fly!

    Or maybe M.J. is lip-syncing. I doubt we'll ever know.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Another observation: Like James Brown and P. Diddy, Jackson drapes himself throughout his song with an American flag, and uses it for effect throughout the song. However, at a particularly enthusiastic moment, he swings it around, and throws it to the ground, the flag hanging limply off the lip of the stage for the rest of the song.

    Someone has to discourage the use of the U.S. flag as prop by musicians until they attend some kind of seminar in Not Desecrating the U.S. Flag for Dummies.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Finale time, and a now costume-changed Gloved One (who wasn't wearing any gloves, but it's fun to call him that) begins to speak. Calling for a time of healing, he introduces his new song, "What More Can I Give." There are many other songs this evening written for and dedicated to the tragedies -- even more performed in New York on Saturday, and who knows how many more are down the pike? But with "We Are the World" on his résumé, Michael Jackson has the inside track on writing the song, and we all wonder what it would sound like.

    As promised, he brings out many of the performers from the day. 'N Sync. The Goo Goo Dolls. Mariah Carey. The Backstreet Boys and Aerosmith had to head off to other concerts, but luckily there were several performers and actors to take their place, many of whom had nothing to do with the show. But not one note is sung before the real star of the show appeared.

    I'm talking, of course, about Technical Problems. M.J.'s mike -- in fact, all the mikes it seemed -- were hot, and squealed throughout the song. The other performers seem lost as they sing, if they sing at all. Michael runs like a cheerleader down the line, trying to get them in order. At one point, several techies run in front of the stars, trying to pull cords. How these people are employed during a time of recession I'll never understand.

    And as the song ends, the smoke machines come on, filling the stage with gray clouds. Then glitter cannons go off, and the sky over RFK was filled with fluttering, shiny, multicolored pieces of tinsel.

    Yes -- for a finale of a Sept. 11 benefit show, the stage is covered in smoke and falling debris.

    The song is a disaster, and with its merciful end, the show does well. But Michael speaks: They're going to do it again!

    But not for us in the audience. He thanks us and tells us to go home.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    The walk from the stadium is not a happy one. For 12 hours of attendance, there was maybe four or five hours of music. Many in the crowd grumble about being unwilling extras. They should: This was supposed to be a benefit concert, but it turned out to be as fake as the applause they'll add to the retaped "finale." We were not informed on our tickets that the show was merely a chance for Mariah and Michael to plug new music, or for ABC-TV to plug John Stamos' new TV show.

    If there's any justice, no one will watch Stamos. If there's further justice, no one will watch this benefit, or even ABC, ever again. I'm really hoping for charred earth retaliation right now. That the victims of the Pentagon disaster will see some charity from this cluster fuck of a show is the only worthwhile aspect of the day, and probably the only thing keeping the masses from rioting. Just to be on the safe side, there appears to be more armed police as we leave then when we arrived.

    The stadium behind me, my mind harks back to an early technical problem. It caused an attendee near me to misread the title of the show as "What More Can I Stand?"

    No more benefit concerts, that's for sure.

    By Eric Lipton

    Eric F. Lipton is a writer and journalist in Chicago. Despite it all, he still has a little crush on Princess Leia.

    MORE FROM Eric Lipton

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Michael Jackson Music