Neil Young and Crazy Horse, The Black Keys, and the Foo Fighters performed in front of more than 60,000 people on Central Park’s Great Lawn Saturday night for a five-hour long concert in support of a cause. “The Global Poverty Project’s” effort to end extreme poverty was the events central theme.
It was the largest syndicated charity concert in history.
Following a few speeches and a video from Beyonce, Somali-Canadian rapper/singer K’Naan kicked off the performances with a loud, inspiring three-song set that should have lasted much longer. He ended with “Waving Flag,” his refugee anthem that Mitt Romney once used as a campaign song. He prefaced it by saying a lot had happened to him with this song — it’s also been used for the World Cup and as a supergroup charity single for the Haiti earthquake — so he wanted to take the moment to reclaim it for himself, starting it with an a cappella verse about his life as an immigrant and rapper, featuring the line “if it wasn’t bling bling, it was N’Sync.”
Band of Horses came next and seemingly couldn’t believe they were on the bill. Frontman Ben Bridwell looked to be having a few “pinch me” moments while staring out to the crowd. Promising that they were going to play only their best songs, even if they were a bit sensitive, the quintet brought us “Knock Knock,” “The Great Salt Lake,” “No One’s Gonna Love You” and, of course, their best-known song “The Funeral,” ending the set by having their picture taken with their backs to the massive crowd.
As a surprise, John Legend made his way to the stage and started playing “Imagine” alone at a piano. “You might have heard this song. It was written by a guy named John Lennon,” he said, emphasizing the N’s in Lennon’s name just in case anyone was confused. The rendition was sparse and unembellished, allowing the power of the lyrics come through while fans could see the top of the Dakota, Lennon’s apartment building where he was killed, in the distance.
With the sun setting, the Black Keys came up next, marking the first extended set of the day. Opening with “Howlin’ for You,” the group seemed a little flat coming out of the gate, with frontman Dan Auerbach missing a few guitar licks. They warmed up soon though, bringing a fuzzed-out energy to “Little Black Submarines.” The Keys ended their 13-song set with only Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney bashing out “Lonely Boy” and “I Got Mine,” the best they sounded all night.
After more speeches from a variety of actresses (Olivia Wilde, Selena Gomez), musicians (Katharina McPhee, John Legend), activists and, yes, supermodels (Petra Nemcova Karolina Kurkova), it was time for Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl took the stage first and kicked off with “Times Like These,” performing alone at first before the rest of the band joined midway through. “We’re not playing for you, we’re playing with you,” he told the crowd.
Grohl was by far the most ebullient performer of the day, saying he wished they could play for three hours but also wanted to get done so he could watch Neil Young. He also revealed that it was the band’s last show for “a while” — “Honestly, I don’t know when we’re going to do it again,” he said — before playing “These Days,” clearly savoring the moment. The Foos ended with an extended version of “Everlong,” clawing out what was by far the most impressive set of the day.
Then it was time for the main event: Neil Young with Crazy Horse. His first song, “Love and Only Love,” set the guitar-heavy, jammed-out tone for their set, with Neil and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro trading guitar solos and rarely venturing more than 15 feet apart.
Neil Young’s 70-minute set had a special allure: It represented a reunion with his long-running Crazy Horse band after nine years apart. Together, they idealized their fat-bottomed sound — a messy plod that never lost its sense of momentum. On top of the beat, Young spun keening and mangy solos — at inspired length.
The band featured several promising new songs such as “Ontario” and “Walk Like A Giant,” which found Young looking back sadly at his own faded idealism — a sober warning for the night’s lofty goals. The star also featured well-known songs, like “Powderfinger” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.” But its essence came in its fetishistic love of pure electric guitar power.
“We’re joining forces up here for you,” Young said as a bunch of people walked on the stage in the darkness. The lights came up to reveal Dave Grohl and Dan Auerbach with their guitars plugged in, clearly overjoyed at the moment. With Band of Horses, K’Naan and the rest of the Foo Fighters crowding around a pair of microphones, the ensemble kicked into “Rockin’ in the Free World,” with the four guitars feeling like they could blow out the PA system.
It was a moment that was somewhat expected, given the circumstances, but it was still hard to believe that we were witnessing it. They traded solos, shouted along to the chorus — K’Naan seemed particularly psyched to be up there — and put their whole bodies into the music, ending on a huge flourish of crashes and squeals. But before the last notes faded, Neil yelled out “one more time!” and led the all-star lineup in another chorus. It was only the eighth song of his set, but it would’ve been foolish to come back out for anything else. With that, the tens of thousands of fans left Central Park, with more than a few repeatedly saying “wow” and shaking their heads in disbelief at the spectacle they just saw.
Neil Young and pals rocked Central Park on Saturday at free concert to fight poverty.