“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Michael Stipe asked the crowd soon after R.E.M. took the stage Thursday night at the venerable venue.
“Practice,” the crowd blurted in unison.
“Well, we didn’t,” Stipe responded. “So if you hear a bum note or something that doesn’t sound right, I urge you to sing louder in your head.”
The tour-shy Athens rockers and granola-pop folkie Jewel were among those on hand for an evening of spirited entertainment at “You Gotta Have Friends: Partners in the Fight Against AIDS,” a benefit for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. ( from the event.)
Judging by the evening’s power-packed roster and ticket sales and donations that brought in over $1.1 million, the GMHC – an AIDS prevention and awareness group that has provided advocacy, education and compassionate care for over 20 years – has a lot of dedicated friends to help them in their daunting tasks.
Clad in blue jeans and a tight black top, Jewel took the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and began her set by strumming “Jesus Loves You” from her most recent album, This Way. The social issues addressed in the lyrics seemed appropriate for the occasion: “They say abortion sends you to a fiery hell/ That is if the fanatics don’t beat Satan to the kill.”
Jewel seemed in good spirits as she plucked and strummed her passionate tunes, and she even took a cue from host/emcee Whoopi Goldberg’s self-deprecating banter by poking fun at her own appearance. “I went to a Japanese sushi restaurant earlier, and the waitress came up to me and said, ‘You have teeth just like Jewel,’ ” she quipped.
The jokes seemed kind of at odds with her bare, confessional music. The singer seemed especially emotionally involved with “Break Me,” which was alternately gentle, vibrato-laden and raspy. Jewel left “Who Will Save Your Soul?” for her final number, and delivered the catchy song with playful, coffee-house verve, scatting for about a minute at the end and holding the final high note for a few moments.
Goldberg, who kept the evening moving with jokes, clever observations and witty ad-libs between presentations and performances, introduced R.E.M. by saying, “In a world where most of the good stuff seems really abbreviated, they’ve only abbreviated their name.”
“This is gonna be loud. I hope that’s OK,” said enigmatic frontman Michael Stipe before the band, backed by rhythm guitarist Scott McCaughey and session drummer Joey Waronker, launched into “Imitation of Life,” the first single from last year’s Reveal.
Stipe began the show dressed in a long gray jacket, matching pants and sandals. After the second song, he removed the jacket to expose a white T-shirt and a bright yellow apron with sleeves dangling limbless at his sides. They may never receive the Joan Rivers fashion seal of approval, but R.E.M. don’t need to look phat to rock.
During “She Just Wants to Be,” guitarist Peter Buck leapt Townshend-style, but most of the set was devoid of rock and roll theatrics. Buck’s mandolin rang out beautifully through the hall during “Losing My Religion,” and an acoustic version of “The One I Love” sounded equally grandiose. “I’ve Been High” featured bassist Mike Mills playing church-organ keyboards while Buck gently strummed and Stipe bared his soul: “I fell down on my knees, was I wrong?/ I don’t know. I just needed to believe.”
“Daysleeper” was reverent and transcendent with Mills playing the melody on a grand piano, and “Walk Unafraid” upped the intensity level a few notches as Mills banged out dissonant keyboard lines and Buck played buzzing waves of sustained feedback.
For “Let Me In,” R.E.M. switched things up a bit when Buck played bass and Mills took on guitar duties, while Waronker played the song with a maraca in one hand and a drumstick in the other. The surprise of the night was “All the Right Friends,” a jangly, vigorous old track featured in the film “Vanilla Sky” which the band has performed only three times onstage since 1981.
R.E.M. closed their 45-minute set with “Man on the Moon,” which brought out Stipe’s most animated moves of the night. Every time he sang the line, “Andy are you goofing on Elvis?,” he wiggled his knees and flailed his arms to impersonate the King.
During the night, Goldberg, who welcomed the audience to “the white man’s Apollo Theater,” took ample opportunity to make fun of herself. After actress Sarah Jessica Parker took the stage and thanked AOL/Time Warner for its longstanding contributions to the fight against AIDS – oh, and also for hooking her up with “Sex in the City” – Goldberg said, “Hey, Time Warner, hire me! You could call the show “Old Black Women With Big Butts in the City.”
Bruce Vilanch, the flamboyant comic who has written scripts for the last eight Academy Awards ceremonies and penned jokes for the Grammys, Tonys and Emmys, bragged about looking like Linda Tripp and quipped, “I’ve done so many awards shows, I’m now up to ‘The American Bulimia Awards.’ ”
Not all of the speakers were so jovial. Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered dry, political speeches, while former Vivendi Universal Executive Vice Chairman Edgar Bronfman, Jr., and departing AOL Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin emphasized corporate commitment to continue working with organizations such as the GHMC.
Actress Rosie Perez, an active voice in the fight against AIDS, delivered a more somber speech in which she apologized for urging AIDS victims not to give up their meds and for not taking legal action against employers who have wrongfully terminated them after finding out they were HIV-positive. “It’s not our place to judge how these people should lead their lives, and I deeply apologize to anyone who I have upset or made sad,” she said, her voice cracking into a sob.
Neither Jewel nor R.E.M. said anything explicit about the GMHC and its 20-year history, though their performances served as a celebration of the organization’s many accomplishments.
The first musical performance of the night was by eclectic, political vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The group – five female singers and one woman who conveys the lyrics in sign language – performed songs such as “Patchwork Quilt,” which was graced with a Southern African flavor as four women sang in harmony and one made bass-like mouth noises, and “Ella’s Song,” during which one of the performers played maracas and another wielded an African drum decorated with dangling beads for added percussion.
The GMHC extended the night’s benefits to 13 other New York City-based AIDS organizations by donating several hundred tickets for them to use for their own fundraising.