Singing for a good cause

by Mike Devlin

Mother Nature has a cruel way of reminding us that musicians really do matter.

When there’s an international tragedy, all manner of people in the public eye — actors, news anchors, politicians — do what they can, sometimes out of the spotlight. But for decades, the long road out of hell, be it 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, has been the home turf of musicians.

Friday’s star-studded Hope for Haiti and Canada for Haiti concerts proved as much. Let us not forget regular folks, who ponied up a reported $61 million US (for the U.S. telecast) and $17 million (for the Canadian telethon) for the cause. Without them, these events simply don’t happen.

But the money raised had plenty to do with the stars on screen, who forced us to tune in and urged us to donate.

In celebration of others who have mined similar territory in the past — and that includes Mozart, who staged a benefit concert in 1785 — here’s a primer on some of the greatest benefit concerts in history.

Farm Aid (1985-present)

It’s hard not to like Farm Aid, on the basis of its board of directors alone (that would be Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews). The annual event, which benefits U.S. farmers and their families, was first staged in 1985 with an utterly astounding group of all-stars, from Bob Dylan to Loretta Lynn. It has gone dark only twice in the decades since, earning its reputation as one of the best in the benefit business.

Live Aid (1985)

For many, the most notable benefit concert of all-time is Live Aid, a one-day, two-city juggernaut broadcast live on television to an estimated worldwide audience of 400 million. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure created Live Aid to fight famine in Ethiopia, a cause that drew some heavy hitters from the wings, including Phil Collins (who appeared in both Philadelphia and London), Queen, U2, The Who, Madonna, a reunited Black Sabbath and the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. 

America: A Tribute to Heroes (2001)

Organized by George Clooney (who was also behind Hope for Haiti) just 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, A Tribute to Heroes was full of still-fresh anger and emotion. As a result, most of the musical selections performed during the telethon took on a solemn tone, including those by Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and U2. 

Concert for Bangladesh (1971)

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison of the Beatles staged this concert for Bangladesh refugees, one of the first biggie benefit concerts to be expanded into a successful soundtrack and concert film. Spread over two concerts at Madison Square Garden, it featured performances by big-time acts of the era, including two Beatles (Harrison and Ringo Starr), two certified legends (Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan) and a host of others. It wasn’t a huge source of revenue, but the Concert for Bangladesh was an important first step in the history of all-star benefits. 

Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert (1992)

Years earlier, at Live Aid, Freddie Mercury of Queen made Wembley Stadium his own, so it was fitting that 1992’s AIDS-awareness concert staged in his honour went back to the site of his former triumph. The concert was televised live worldwide to more than one billion viewers, who watched the remaining members of Queen jam with Axl Rose, Liza Minnelli, David Bowie and Robert Plant. 

Live 8 (2005)

Geldof returned to the roots of Live Aid for Live 8, a string of concerts in 11 cities over two days. The issue, once again, was world poverty, but the medium for the message had changed drastically in the years since: A total of 182 television and 2,000 radio networks broadcast the event, which was notable for its U2-Paul McCartney duet and the first performance by Roger Waters and Pink Floyd in 24 years. 

SARS Benefit Concert (2003)

An audience of almost 500,000 descended on Toronto for the largest outdoor concert in Canadian history, a one-day event designed to help Toronto’s economy recover from the SARS outbreak. A spirited performance by the Rolling Stones was the topper, but strong sets by AC/DC, The Guess Who and Rush also drew raves. Justin Timberlake’s performance, not so much. 

Concert for New York City (2001)

Following America: Tribute to Heroes by a month, the Concert for New York City took over Madison Square Garden for a rollicking five-hour concert organized by the night’s headliner, Paul McCartney. The stars (David Bowie, Elton John, Eric Clapton) were considerable, but the now-legendary highlight was an impassioned performance by The Who, a four-song spectacle that seethed with intensity and had the audience of firefighters and police officers in fits. 

Live Earth (2007)

Al Gore was the impetus behind this series of environmental awareness concerts, a massive event that beamed 150 acts in 11 countries to an estimated audience in the hundreds of millions. It wasn’t without its controversy; in a biting bit of irony, the immense scale of Live Earth left a serious environmental impact. Its heart was in the right place, however, and the lineup (which included rare appearances from Spinal Tap and the former Cat Stevens) ranks among the best in benefit concert history. 

Concert for Diana (2007)

More than 63,000 people celebrated the late Princess of Wales during a Wembley Stadium benefit concert staged by her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, to raise money for a variety of charities. The scope of the Concert for Diana (it was broadcast to more than 500 million homes in 140 countries) was no surprise, given the breadth of her popularity, nor was the packed lineup (led by Elton John) of longtime friends and supporters.

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