It's a mixed crowd that arrives at "Bring 'Em Home Now," a concert held at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom on Monday, marking the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. The packed house is made up of just as many hip young things as old-school peace protesters, all leafing through handfuls of free political literature, while backstage, Cindy Sheehan unveils a yellow-ribbon-adorned "Bring 'Em Home Now" postage stamp. ("Can we get a photo of Cindy with DMX?" asks a smartly dressed organizer, tantalizingly. A shame that it's actually DMC of Run-DMC who's next to Sheehan.) The lineup -- Steve Earle for the connection to the '60s, hirsute neo-hippy Devendra Banhart for the hipsters, all around good sort Michael Stipe for the older crowd -- matches the audience, almost giving off the feeling of having been focus-grouped for maximum appeal.
Steve Earle wanders onstage to kick things off, looking a bit like some other artist's roadie, with thinning hair and faded T-shirt, and begins thumping at his acoustic guitar with a street musician's enthusiasm. "Fuck the FCC, fuck the CIA!" he bellows, and the audience whoops at each exhortation. Next up, Fischerspooner -- whom you may remember from their 15 seconds back in 2002 as part of the New York high-camp, high-fashion "scene" called electroclash -- are dressed in all-white Prince Charming outfits, and have a group of heavily made-up dancers in flowing costumes to interpret their thumping, disco tunes. One dancer proceeds to the end of a platform extending into the audience, where he violently mimes being shot by a machine gun, spraying "blood" from his mouth till it soaks through his T-shirt. It's silly, bizarre, funny and moving all at once, and when frontman Casey Spooner concludes the song by intoning, "This is fake blood but there's a lot of real blood being spilled," it's somehow not trite, but honest and affecting. Fischerspooner complete a breathless set with the uncompromising, Susan Sontag-penned "We Need a War" ("If they mess with us/ If we think they might mess with us/ If we say they might mess with us/ If we think we need a war, we need war") and the euphoric, decidedly more compromising electro-pop mini-hit "Emerge." By this point, 16 people are onstage dressed in various versions of red, white and blue: The whole thing is dazzlingly choreographed, powerful and immensely good fun.
After that, it's all a bit of a letdown. Devendra Banhart and his troupe of artfully bearded young Californians elicit squeals from the trendier elements of the audience, but their jam-band performance, while perfectly realized, feels contrived. Peaches, meanwhile, makes absolutely no sense in a venue as big as the Hammerstein; she's almost lost stomping around the empty stage in a frilly minidress, singing "Fuck the Pain Away" along to a CD and waving a children's plastic wand; yet somehow she carries the whole thing off with just enough chutzpah to see her through.
Chuck D's short speech serves mainly to make you wish he was performing and wonder why such a meticulously constructed lineup should ignore hip-hop. Rufus Wainwright brings his mom out for a stage-school interpretation of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow": The audience swoons as one, but his four songs seem to go on for an awfully long time. Connor Oberst has the right idea, bashing through an economical set, looking the part in disheveled military garb. His voice is weak, and his schoolboy charm hardly translates to the back of the large theater, but "When the President Talks to God" is a proper, no-messing protest song.
Finally, Michael Stipe arrives, along with a whole gang of serious musician buddies, including Smashing Pumpkin James Iha, singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur and one of the Phoenix clan. Obviously, the third anniversary of a bloody, disastrous war is not exactly an occasion for raucous celebration, but it's been a long night, and Stipe and company's earnest noodling is, well, kind of a downer. Clearly, it's no more likely that Casey Spooner's theatrics are able to stop a war than Michael Stipe's gloomy emoting can -- but for a brief, glorious moment during the night, it almost felt like they could.