Call it a lucky fluke of concert booking, but Sunday night's Music Without Borders Live concert mirrored in its lineup the mixed reaction our society has had to the post- Sept. 11 world.
Each of the acts gracing the Air Canada Centre stage last night during the six-hour concert seemed to embody a different response to the destruction and death in Washington, Manhattan, and Afghanistan.
Should we counter these horrors by celebrating our own sense of community (The Tragically Hip)? Escape to the cocoon of new age-y spirituality (Alanis Morissette)? Succumb to vague anxiety (Our Lady Peace)? Arm ourselves with Teflon professionalism (Barenaked Ladies)? Enlighten ourselves with information (Bruce Cockburn)? Party in the face of horror (Choclair)? Or wrap ourselves both literally and figuratively in the flag (selected audience members)?
At the risk of stating the obvious, artists are just plain folks with no special claim on the truth, but a vague notion that something ought to be done about what has happened to our world in the past weeks. Hence Music Without Borders, the hastily convened charity event which was expected to raise $700,000 for the United Nations Donor Appeal and Warchild charities (with more money likely to be raised during a televised portion of the concert).
When all those divergent approaches collected onstage at the show's finale a ragged, all-hands-on-deck charge through Neil Young's "Keep On Rockin' In The Free World" it was a bit of a train wreck, with most parties searching the lyric cheat-sheet affixed to the stage, leaving BNL's Steven Page to seize the moment and get the performance back on track. But what the show's climax lacked in polish, it more than compensated with the generous spirit that ought to be the concert's finest legacy.
When The Hip launched into their headlining set, it became instantly obvious that the polite enthusiasm that had met the undercard was merely a foretaste of the greeting that would shower the main event. The band's following, deprived of their heroes for the better part of a year, erupted with the first slinky notes of "Grace, Too," and scarcely let up through the nine-song set, which concluded with an elegant "Ahead By A Century."
After spending a summer in singer-songwriter mode promoting his solo project "Coke Machine Glow," it was fascinating to see how easily Gordon Downie can slip back into his arena-rock guise to front The Hip. The delicate "Flamenco" and "Bobcaygeon" were a balm to the spiky delivery of "Poets" and "Fully Completely." While the set was toned down by the band's own standard, they hardly exhibited any rust from the sabbatical they've taken from performing together.
Morissette, looking more hirsute than ever and sporting a tee emblazoned with the word "peace," kicked off her set with the well-received "Jagged Little Pill" wish-list "All I Really Want." The singer's characteristic lunging dance style of past tours has been enlivened with some unhinged hair-whipping and pogo-ing, and the new song "Sister Blister" (from her forthcoming CD "Under Rug Swept"), complete with an enhanced flair for incorporating keyboard textures into her sound, bodes well for her new direction.
Attention to the singer faltered during "Still" (from the soundtrack to Kevin Smith's "Dogma"), but returned for a beatifically delivered "Thank U" a gutsy-if-unlikely choice for this occasion, given some of the song's lyrics ("thank you terror...").
Our Lady Peace's Raine Maida wears the weight of the world as visibly and excessively as he appears to wear hair-care products. So the gravity of the cause was etched in his dour face and rang from his angst-addled vocals as the group ripped through sing-along renditions of "Naveed," "Starseed", and "Superman's Dead."
It was a stark contrast to the approach taken by Barenaked Ladies, who gave a masterful accounting of themselves with a hit-packed, expertly paced set. After being introduced by pal Jason Priestly, the group hit the stage at a gallop with "It's All Been Done," "The Old Apartment", and "Pinch Me," before improvising a goofy funk jam, blasting into "One Week," settling in for an affectionate "If I Had $1,000,000", and bringing it all home with "Brian Wilson."
When they stopped for breath, guitarist-singer Ed Robertson told the crowd, "What we have here is a good deal... It's a rare match when you get to have a good time and do good things." Which is just about the most sensible non-musical statement heard all night.
Bruce Cockburn who was introduced by fellow Ottawan Morissette has made a career out of enlightening the world to the plight of refugees (the major beneficiary of the show), so his solo acoustic set carried real authority. Sporting a silver beard that lends him an unsettling resemblance to Peter Gzowski, Cockburn pulled no lyrical punches with his set, firing off "The Trouble With Normal," "Justice", and "Last Night Of The World" before inviting BNL's Page to join him on "Lovers In A Dangerous Time" the only incidence of cross-act co-operation prior to the encore.
Toronto-bred hip-hop star Choclair whose presence on the bill was not announced during the show's original rush of publicity had the unenviable task of opening the epic-length concert with a brief set before a scattered, thin crowd of early-birds. The sound mix was abominable, and clearly, this was not a great night for the rapper, who nonetheless was introduced by Toronto Raptor Vince Carter and soldiered on bravely despite the challenges.