Twenty-five years ago, Amnesty International was little known in the States, until two tours sponsored by them, ‘Conspiracy of Hope’ and ‘Human Rights Now!’, literally doubled the venerable and highly respected organization’s American membership. AI has occasionally put on concerts since then, and on Wednesday, February 5th at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, they had the ‘Bring Human Rights Home’ concert, with a parade of musicians – The Flaming Lips, Yoko Ono, Tegan & Sara, Bob Geldof, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Imagine Dragons, CAKE, Blondie, The Fray, Colbie Caillat, and Cold War Kids – and speakers – Pussy Riot, Madonna, Susan Sarandon, Bridget Moynahan, and more. Not everything went smoothly, but the purpose and emotion of the evening shined through.
The press conference that began everything was packed with not only reporters (and cameramen) but also people behind the table, so much so that members of Imagine Dragons had to stand on the side, while it at least looked like Bob Geldof and Wayne Coyne were sharing a chair on the other side. And everybody up there had a speech to start things off, which meant hearing from three different people at Amnesty International, AI Chair Anne Burroughs, Executive Director Stephen Hawkins, and Secretary-General Salil Shetty, before Geldof, Coyne, and Isaac Slade of The Fray, and finally Pussy Riot. The most interesting of the speeches was clearly Geldof’s, where the contrarian distinctly downplayed what could be accomplished, how the internet wasn’t real (250,000 signatures is worth “fuck all”), and that all generations fail to wake people up, but there are a few successes in there. The rest largely spoke positively of Amnesty International (which Geldof did as well), and talked about a “new generation” of musician-activists; Burroughs in particular cited Geldof (as did Coyne, to Geldof’s embarrassment), as she had been a “prisoner of conscience” in South Africa in the eighties, but the kind of work he and other musicians had done then had mattered to her. Coyne also had some nice comments not just about Geldof, but also his hometown of Oklahoma City (which isn’t just for “people who read the Bible and go to bed at 8:00 PM” – not that he thought that there was anything wrong with that, though Geldof joked it was going to be so early that was the problem…), citing the area of the town he lives in, a low-income area, and how people don’t have to deal with big issues, overseas, but rather there’s stuff right at home. It was a good connection to the ‘Bring Human Rights Home’ theme that otherwise wasn’t addressed as much as it should have been in the press conference.
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezdha Tolokonnikova, in contrast, didn’t have a particularly memorable prepared speech (hindered by both speaking in Russian and being the last of the many speakers), but were naturally the focus of nearly all the press questions. They said they will be creating a human rights organization, “zone of law” for prisons, but that was overshadowed by the questions about Russia and Pussy Riot itself. Their comments on Sochi included that no one can guarantee the safety of gays at the Olympics – Shetty added that Amnesty International is particularly worried about what happens after the Olympics, when focus is off of Russia, though noted that there is going to be a G8 summit in Sochi soon as well. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova said that they will be returning to Russia, living in Russia, for at least one piece of new ‘news’, as well as a shout-out to the protesters in Ukraine by saying that they’d like to say to Putin, “Bandu Het!”, the motto of the Ukrainian Revolution (“Out with the gang!”). On other members of Pussy Riot saying that the two are no longer in the organization, Alyokhina explained that when they were jailed, Pussy Riot became an international organization, that anyone can be in it, “just put on a mask and protest,” with Tolokonnikova adding that they didn’t come to the event, to America, as the ‘leaders of Pussy Riot’, just as two people who’d been in jail. On music, they said how punk inspired them because, in the style, you can just pick up a guitar (and don’t necessarily need to know how to play it, which they hadn’t), citing Angelic Upstarts in particular – and when asked about now being in a “pop culture” event, joked that such a title was “insulting” to the musicians here.
Meanwhile, a South African news outfit asked Bob Geldof about generational failure, with which he managed to cite the recently departed Pete Seeger and how that strain of U.S. protest history is not celebrated enough by the U.S. media, called out Al-Jazeera (who had a reporter in the front row) on not reporting on what’s happening in Qatar (the network is owned by the Qatari royal family), and even quoted notorious U.K. right-wing politician Enoch Powell, who said, “All political careers end in failure” – “All generations end in failure.” He went on to speak more in the hall outside afterwards.
After the press conference there was the red carpet, which reportedly (your writer stayed far away from that…) was a confusing mess, or at least that’s what photographers were saying afterwards. No, neither Madonna nor Yoko Ono walked it, only the performers and Amnesty people, plus Susan Sarandon (who was also seen downstairs at catering, amongst the Barclays employees working at the event and reporters sneaking into the catering line to get free food…), though Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova came to the carpet so late that all of the photographers had already left.
But enough about what press folks experienced – how about the actual show? It was a long one at over four hours (and photographers had to shoot the whole thing – great access, but be careful what you wish for…), though with so many acts, and thus so many stage changes, each artist basically only did three, even just two songs. That is the downside of having so many acts: you get less of each one. Though, on the other hand, it also means they have to only play ‘the hits’ – no time for filler.
Cold War Kids were up first, and thus got the shortest shrift of anyone, at only two songs, “Miracle Mile” and “Hospital Beds”, though band’s energy wasn’t dimmed. There wasn’t even time for their breakthrough “Hang Me Out To Dry”, or the would-have-been-appropriate “Saint John” – it’s opening lyrics are, “Supper time in the hole”, and chorus is, “Old Saint John on death row / He’s just waiting for a pardon”. Maybe any positive reference to pardons would have clashed with the actually pardoned Pussy Riot, who didn’t want the pardon from Putin on a conviction they considered illegitimate.
While the concert was definitely weighted towards the mainstream-friendly alternative music scene, it did also reach for diversity, such as the adult contemporary Colbie Caillat. She was also one to do a new single, “Hold On”, and while an outlier on the night, was the first to get the crowd to stand up (admittedly by literally inviting them to for her last song, “Brighter Than the Sun”).
While The Fray were one of the biggest artists on the night, and particularly involved in setting the whole thing up, they played relatively early. However, their overwrought nature with such songs as hit “How To Save a Life” was acceptable at such an event. Singer Isaac Slade also had a nice comment, which might have been unintentional in its alliteration, thanking COld War Kids and COlbie Caillat, then adding that they’re from “Denver, CO…”
The oldest group on the evening was Blondie, but that just meant that they could play “One Way Or Another”, a classic song that was a great pick. Following that up with a new piece, “A Rose By Any Name”, not such a great move, but they closed with “Call Me” – if you’ve only got three songs, make them count. CAKE did “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”, though didn’t go “The Distance”, and were relatively forgettable.
In between acts there were videos and speakers; having so many acts, and thus so much set-up time, did enable Amnesty International to get their messages out. Admittedly, the videos on the original eighties AI tours did make one wish that the likes of U2 or Bruce Springsteen were playing (well, wish for 1980s U2 or Springsteen…) – none of the artists that night could quite compare, and this was ‘just’ at Barclays Center, not the likes of Giants Stadium as with the original tour. Other videos came off mostly as commercials, though there were two nice ones on Russia before Pussy Riot came on stage.
While there were a few celebrity speakers in Susan Sarandon and Bridget Moynahan (randomly, not the first time QRO has been at a concert with either – QRO photos with Sarandon – QRO live review with Moynahan), it was mostly activists. The president of Local 199 wasn’t able to rally the crowd early with group chant of “The people united / Won’t be divided,” but Iranian blogger Kianoosh Sanjari won hearts by telling everyone that this was his first public speech in English, so please forgive his errors, and saying that he dreams of a day when Madonna can play the Azadi (which means “Freedom” in Persian) Stadium in Tehran. Yet most moving was Kerry Max Cook, an exonerated Texas death row inmate. The issue of death row resonated particularly well, as it’s an issue right here in America (Sarandon got cheers when she brought it up, and even cited that executing the truly guilty solves nothing), and Cook’s story was even more powerful: a bartender at a gay bar, he was arrested and convicted on a rape and murder on basically because he worked there, and thus must be gay, and gays must hate women; his family members passed away while behind bars, but he was eventually freed thanks to Amnesty International, and now has a thirteen-year-old son, Kerry Justice Cook, who the proud papa had stand up in the crowd.
But the main speakers were Pussy Riot, with Madonna introducing them. Madonna cited her playing Russia when Pussy Riot went on trial, and being accused of promoting “gay behavior” (including using air quotes), which a bit clashed with Pussy Riot’s advocating boycotts during the press conference, but perhaps that trial had begun too late for Madonna to cancel. Madonna rightly mentioned people who attended her shows as being arrested for promoting “gay behavior”, and that she is thankful that she lives in America, where she has free speech – less convincing was her statement that she had “paid for her stances.” Oh, and she came out with the cane she had from The Grammys, though not the full-on Colonel Sanders get-up she wore to that performance/mass marriage.
After seeing Maria Alyokhina and Nadezdha Tolokonnikova’s press conference, their appearance on stage didn’t carry a ton of weight at first, as they were basically saying what they had already said. But then the two got to something very current and relevant, a sentencing happening that very day in Moscow of members of the May 6th Movement, protesters of Putin’s inauguration/coronation last year. Both of them read letters from the defendants, and despite the readings having to then be translated, the two women’s emotion came through in their voices. It was so powerful for them that, after the last letter, they basically had to throw down the pieces of paper, lest they break out in tears (the teleprompter at the other end of Barclays seemed to be unreadable for those on stage – Sanjari had to shade his eyes, while Madonna brought up a paper copy of what she was going to read).
That appearance was not just the highpoint of the evening emotionally, but also in general. Imagine Dragons had only two songs, though their percussion and emotion actually worked well together, especially appropriate hit single “Radioactive”. Ms. Lauryn Hill wasn’t late to her performance, and was able to fit on more songs by doing a pseudo-medley, including “Ready Or Not”, “Black Rage”, and a rendition of “King Without a Crown” that was restrained to vocals and percussion, giving an African world music kind of feel. Unfortunately, after her was also the time that people started to leave (admittedly, one could no longer buy beer…).
Bob Geldof isn’t nearly as well known in America as he is overseas, and the crowd didn’t get to hear him at the press conference to know that he’d be an interesting speaker on stage. After quoting Bernard Shaw and mentioning that this show was supposed to get the young people involved, but he couldn’t see anyone under sixty (to be fair, a lot of them had left), he simply stated, “I’ll do three songs, and then I’ll shut up. You don’t even know…” Dedicating the songs to Pete Seeger, it was great to hear “I Don’t Like Mondays” as a protest, not pop song (though it was still catchy).
It was getting late, and Tegan & Sara thanked those were still there for staying late. It had been disappointing that the twins weren’t at the press conference (it would have been interesting to hear how they, as homosexuals, would feel about playing in Russia or other nations with homophobic laws), and while “Closer” is an amazing song, perhaps they shouldn’t have had all three of their pieces that night from their latest album, Heartthrob (QRO review).
The switch over from act-to-act was smooth all night, helped in great part by Barclays Center’s massive stage and crew, as there was a big revolving dolly up there, so people could set up the next drum kit and more in the back during a performance, and then just revolve it around to the front when up (and disassemble the last act’s kit). That was particularly helpful for the final act of the night, The Flaming Lips, who have a big stage set-up even when toned down – when the dolly revolved to reveal massive amounts of shiny tinsel streamers and more, the crowd cheered. However, first up was actually Yoko Ono, who performed the crazy rock of “It’s Alright” with The Flaming Lips & more, yet it was after she left that The Lips did an appropriately psychedelic “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” (as they did the following night with Sean Lennon as part of ‘Beatles Week’ on Late Show with David Letterman – QRO Music on Late Night TV), which included glitter cannons (‘cause this is still The Flaming Lips, after all…). They did do one piece of their own, “Do You Realize?”, but closed with Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”, the song that closed out Martin Scorsese’s famous concert film, The Last Waltz, inviting a bunch of people on stage (“Though some people are too drunk…”), including (eventually) Amnesty International volunteers.
No one seemed to know the lyrics, and couldn’t read the teleprompter, so copies were floating around Sean Lennon, Geldof, John McCrea of CAKE, and others. Yet the most disorganized element of the night was the video screen. The event thankfully had multiple video cameras covering it and being put up on the big screen above the stage, but as the night wore on, something seemed to happen to at least what was being put on the screen. The camera displaying up there would swing wildly at times, and was often out of focus. When Wayne Coyne was speaking, it was pointed way above his head and stayed there, so all you saw was the top of his big hair. And for the last song of the night, it seemingly just gave up; instead of any live image, it was just the logo for the evening on the screen, especially disappointing to those who’d stayed late and wanted to see the finale.
In general, there was a lot of confusion and even disappointments, though much of that was inherent in the nature of the event itself. Amnesty International ‘Bring Human Rights Home’ was a press conference, a red carpet, and a concert – is it any wonder it couldn’t get everything right? There was so much going on, from reporting to speeches to music, and so many different people speaking, performing, etc., that no one could be the focus – and no one was there for everything. And in trying to get a new generation of artists and activists, there was no way that the on stage talent of today’s internet-diffused day could match the draw of those of yesterday (and would you have wanted Justin Bieber up there?…) – and back then they probably didn’t have security keeping people from dancing in the aisles and actually having fun.
Bob Geldof was probably right that big things like generations & political careers end in failure (which is why Pete Seeger always said he liked small things more), but also that there are successes along the way. Amnesty International ‘Bring Human Rights Home’ concert didn’t free anyone, and while it certainly got more members for the storied organization, didn’t double its U.S. membership like the original eighties tours did (nor could it have). If you came only for a certain act, or for some ‘breaking news’, there was probably disappointment & leaving early – and if you were there for the whole thing, you were worn out by the end. But there were successes amidst the failures, candles lit against the darkness. Amnesty International itself faces tons of failures for all of its success, prisoners not released, crimes still being committed, voices still being silenced – what’s important is that they keep trying, that we all keep trying.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Robert Altman