By Nikki M. Mascali

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Amnesty International not only fights for those who cannot fight for themselves and gives a voice to the voiceless around the globe, but it also throws a pretty good concert.

In its first call-to-action concert in 16 years, AI took over the Barclays Center Wednesday night to provide a platform for some of its biggest issues, most notably, Russia.  Two newly free members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, speaking through a translator, thanked staunch supporter Madonna, who introduced them on stage, AI and all those who wrote them letters during their 21 months behind bars saying, “it kept us alive.”  Members of the feminist punk-rock protest group were arrested for hooliganism in 2012 following a performance at a Moscow cathedral, where they spewed obscenities and criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin.  After reading closing statements from the still-imprisoned Pussy Riot members’ trials that took place earlier this week, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina loudly chanted, “Russia will be free!” before leaving the stage.

In her lighthearted, yet poignant, introduction, Madonna thanked Pussy Riot for “making pussy a sayable word in my household” for her two 8-year-olds.  She also spoke about receiving backlash when she performed in Russian soon after the group’s arrest, including a $1 million fine for promoting gay people, “which I’ve been known to do,” she quipped.


Cold War Kids kicked off the show with a solid one-two punch of “Miracle Mile” and “Hospital Beds,” while pop singer/songwriter Colbie Caillat followed with three energetic songs, including her hit “Realize.”  The Fray performed “You Found Me,” an unnecessarily extended version of “How To Save a Life” and the very festive, country-tinged “Love Don’t Die.”

Blondie easily gave the performance of the night, kicking its set off with an explosive rendition of “One Way Or Another,” followed by a track from the group’s forthcoming album, “Ghosts of Download,” called “A Rose By Any Name.”  The song began with some ’80s-metal guitar before seamlessly switching to that disco-rock Blondie is known for, making this unheard song at once familiar.  Blondie closed its set with a raucous “Call Me;” the too-short set proved that husky-voiced frontwoman Debbie Harry, at 68, is still as sexy as she was when she was cementing herself as a punk icon.

Nineties alt rockers Cake followed with a great set of its own that included “Sick of You,” “Never There” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” while Imagine Dragons delivered solid and symphonic renditions of “Tiptoe,” “Amsterdam” and “Radioactive,” which came to a frenetic end amid a barrage of flashing lights.

Ms. Lauryn Hill performed a long set that featured “Ready or Not,” her 1996 hit with the Fugees. Following her performance, much of the sizeable crowd started to head out due to it being nearly midnight, which was a shame because they missed a fantastic performance by Sir Bob Geldof, who said to the remaining audience with a laugh, “You have no fucking clue what I do.”  He performed “I Don’t Like Mondays,” “Systematic 6-Pack” and “Great Song of Indifference,” and his self-described “three protest songs” were a show highlight.

Just as some concertgoers were starting to yawn and mumble “How much longer?” (a direct quote from someone sitting near this reviewer), Tegan and Sara gave the audience a much-needed shot in the arm with their festive hit, “Closer.”  “Now I’m All Messed Up” and “Drove Me Wild” closed out their portion of the show.

The show ended with an almost installation-esque performance by The Flaming Lips and Yoko Ono with her son Sean Lennon.  Ono sang for the first song, and it was just as one might expect, odd, with lots of warbly yelping.  Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, clad in a shiny jacket of silver tinsel as he stood on an elevated mic stand, took over for a trippy rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and a beautiful version of “Do You Realize?” 

“We’re honored to be the band that gets to play the big finale,” Coyne said as Lennon and many Amnesty International workers came to the stage for a big sing-along of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”  It should have been a powerful end to a powerful night; instead it looked half-assed and unrehearsed.

That could sum up most of the show. While all the performances were good, the execution of the show could have gone a lot better. There were a lot of speakers between the musical performances, including actor and advocate Susan Sarandon, AI officials and former death-row inmate Kerry Max Cook, who spent more than 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  Instead of having the speakers talk or AI’s advertorial videos shown while gear was being switched out, there was about a 10-minute lull after each performer before the videos aired and the speeches were given.  Drum kits were brilliantly set up on a Lazy Susan-like contraption, which more festival-like shows should employ because it did cut down on breakdown time, but the show, which ended at 12:50 a.m., still felt like it went on about an hour and a half too long. 

Is sleep deprivation a small price to pay for such an eclectic lineup and a cause many deem worthy?  That’s in the bleary eye of the concertgoer (though this writer says yes).

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