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Published: 2013/10/24
by Mark Allen

Global Citizen Festival, Central Park, New York, NY- 9/28

The mission of the Global Citizen Festival September 28th in New York’s Central Park is certainly admirable—to bring people together through citizen action to raise awareness around extreme poverty, with the goal of eradicating it by 2030.

It’s a noble cause. But the festival left the impression that many who gathered, including the crowd, presenters, and artists, appear to be lukewarm in their commitment.

Don’t get me wrong—it was a great day of music. But despite a stellar bill that featured Kings of Leon, Alicia Keys, John Mayer, and Stevie Wonder, there often lacked, um, passion.

The vast majority of the event tickets were not sold, but rather earned through online advocacy for a variety of causes via the website globalcitizen.org. Points are earned through networking and petitioning for various causes related to global poverty. With those points, participants are rewarded with bidding opportunities for event tickets to various performers’ shows, including the live festival event in New York (2013 being the second annual iteration.)

The result, however, was that many tickets appeared to go unused, even on a delightfully gorgeous September day in New York. And the crowd that did gather showed flashes of enthusiasm, but perhaps the variety of styles reflected by the performers leant to compartmentalized passion for the music among the attendees.

Kings of Leon opened the show with “Supersoaker” to enthusiastic reception from their fans. Their set contained songs new and old, but it became apparent early in the festival that the sound was, well, almost adequate. The volume was sufficient, but was absent punch. Despite several impressively flown speaker arrays, even those proximal to the stage never had their conversations threatened by the performances.

As many of their fans departed early, Elvis Costello made a brief and unannounced appearance to play solo through an electric guitar-driven medley of “Tripwire,” off his September release “Wake Up Ghost” collaborated with The Roots, into Nick Lowe’s composition “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding?”

Shortly thereafter, U2’s Bono presented the first democratically elected female President in Africa, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with a Global Citizen Award for her work in women’s equality issues.

Russell Simmons introduced Alicia Keys; her set was polished and professional, but included some glaring power failures to the main PA. For several songs, the sound reinforcement endured being eclipsed by hovering helicopters. Even the topical anthem “Empire State of Mind” failed to stir more than a moderate buzz from the throng gathered in Central Park. Keys herself was spectacular; the production, however, was incredibly inadequate.

Janelle Monáe performed “Smile,” a song written in part by Charlie Chaplin and covered famously by Nat King Cole. Monáe incorrectly attributed its composition to Stevie Wonder, but few noticed as she proceeded to deliver a heartfelt and stirring rendition.

John Mayer and his band followed after a few more presenters, and gave perhaps the most solid performance, from a production standpoint, of the festival. His version of the traditional “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad,” as arranged and made popular by the Grateful Dead, elicited some noticeable response from the crowd as darkness set upon the park. It was a couple songs later, however, when his “Waiting on the World to Change” captured the mood of the day. Mayer interspersed elements of Marvin Gaye’s dire “Inner City Blues” into the song.

Two of the most passionate moments displayed on the day came in the form of introductions: Bono’s extended accolades to introduce headliner Stevie Wonder, and then a few songs into his set, Stevie’s introduction of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (whom Mr. Wonder termed a “rock star.”) Stevie gave impassioned performances as well, including his set-opening cover of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is,” which embarrassingly began with the main vocal mic turned down to inaudible levels. A rousing version of “Master Blaster” followed, which came as close to unifying the crowd as anything played on the day. Janelle Monáe then joined for a romp through “Higher Ground.” However, the horn section present on stage was noticeably jamming, but could not be heard at all in the mix. This became obvious to just about everyone as “Sir Duke” subsequently began with hardly a notice of the signature horn riffs that open the song. The levels were soon adjusted, somewhat, as the song continued, but the power of the horns never completely presented itself.

Nonetheless, Stevie surprised many with an R&B send-up of the Beatles’ “Daytripper,” then followed with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” The crowd loved the performer and the set that was unfolding, but the poor production was almost certainly dampening the spirit of the collective.

“My Cherie Amour” preceded a shortened version of “That Girl” that gave way to a somewhat stirring “Living for the City.” Then Mr. Wonder spoke of the souls of those present in the park who had gone on before us, including his mother, his brother, and “a man who lived not far from here.” He spoke of the need to end gun violence in our nation, and joked of even blind people having guns, they are so common. Then perhaps the most emotional moment of the day came in the form of Stevie covering John Lennon’s “Imagine” within earshot of the spot where the famed Beatle was gunned down. Yet another Marvin Gaye reference was thrown in, in the form of a line from “What’s Going On.” (Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying.)

The ensuing “Superstition” climaxed the evening. Stevie broke the song down and elicited the crowd’s participation on a line “We are global citizens, we will change the world.” But even Stevie’s repeated efforts to stir the crowd were not met to his satisfaction. After abandoning hope of finding passion in the crowd, Maxwell joined Stevie, incredulously saying outright “I can’t believe this is happening” as he partnered on “Isn’t She Lovely.” The band teased “I Wish” before breaking into “Do I Do” and closing with “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Stevie Wonder proved that, at 63, he commands the full majesty of his genius and talent.

Yet the lack of sound reinforcement left the crowd noticeably unfulfilled and the event lacking the much needed passion that could have helped move those in attendance to better connect with the message; a most unfortunate circumstance that should certainly be addressed in future iterations of this unique and ambitious event.

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