Rocking out at Carnegie Hall

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007 | All Things, Events, Family, Music

In the interests of equal opportunity family time, I met J for a concert at Carnegie Hall tonight. The thirty-year collaboration of composer/performer Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin was being honored at an all-star tribute to benefit Music for Youth — UJA-Federation of New York’s initiative to support music education for underprivileged youth.

Now that J is back in New York, it seemed only fitting to introduce him to the midtown non-secret that is the Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien, since they apparently serve “one of the 20 hamburgers you must eat before you die.” Despite the continuing onslaught of coverage, the faux-dive behind the hotel lobby’s brown curtain seemed somewhat less packed than usual. Perhaps the price increase had something to do with it. $7 for a cheeseburger now — outrageous! And since when did the Joint start offering grilled cheese sandwiches ($5)? It’s still a pretty good burger, and a relative bargain for the neighborhood, but these days Shake Shack is looking better and better.

Carnegie Hall

J and I collected our tickets and took our seats in the Dress Circle as we waited for the parade of performers to take the stage. Producer/promoter (and Knitting Factory founder) Michael Dorf‘s second Music for Youth concert was typically grand in scale: 21 artists, emerging and established. The first concert, on April 5, honored Bruce Springsteen. Unlike Sir Elton, though, the Boss actually showed up for his own tribute, even performing with the other musicians in one grand finale.

Elton was with his longtime friend Billie Jean King in the Philadelphia area that night, hosting the 15th annual Advanta World TeamTennis Smash Hits at Villanova University. The annual charity event raised more than $400,000 for the Elton John AIDS Foundation and Philadelphia-based ActionAIDS. Bernie was on hand, though, and seated across the concert hall from us in the first balcony — within clear view of our binoculars, which we used to gauge his reactions after each performance.

The eclectic and talented group of musicians chose their material from the duo’s extensive song catalog, unearthing songs from the famous (Naked Eyes lead singer Pete Byrne’s kick-off rendition of “Rocket Man“) to the more obscure (“Friends” as sung by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds). The fourth performer, Phoebe Snow brought the crowd to its feet with her poignant rendering of “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny),” — Elton and Bernie’s tribute to John Lennon — all the more touching if you know anything about Snow’s backstory.

Other stars of the evening included “Godfather of Acid Jazz” Roy Ayers, Page McConnell of Phish (performing “Amoreena” solo on piano), Jill Sobule (who sang “Levon” with a string quartet), Shawn Colvin (“Sacrifice“), and Aimee Mann, seen here performing “My Father’s Gun” from Elton’s “Tumbleweed Connection” album. (As J observed, she is very tall.)

Aimee Mann

I was impressed with some of the less established artists, many of whom were performing songs released well before they were born. Newcomer Joshua Radin, who counts Zach Braff among his devotees, reintroduced me to the loveliness of “Border Song (Holy Moses).” Los Angeles-based recording artist Buddy offered up a stripped down, wispily introspective rendition of “I’m Still Standing,” giving the song an entirely different feel. Jazz singer Lizz Wright delivered chills with a sultry “Come Down in Time.” And Raul Malo of the Mavericks put his smooth baritone through the paces with “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” — one of the few times J and I saw Bernie show any enthusiasm.

But my favorite moment of the evening came when English singer/songwriter Howard Jones took the stage. HoJo launched into the familiar tinkling intro to “Tiny Dancer” at the electronic keyboard, but a minute in, when faulty speakers continued to burst through with loud pops and crackles, he halted the performance mid-verse. Abandoning the keyboard entirely, he gamely decamped for the grand piano on stage right as he declared: “When you’re in Carnegie Hall, you’ve gotta play the Steinway!” The audience erupted in cheers (and gave him a standing ovation.)

Howard Jones

(Of course, I cannot mention “Tiny Dancer” without referencing my second favorite musical moment from a Cameron Crowe film. My favorite being… well, c’mon now.)

Throughout the evening, we were teased repeatedly with hints of a “special guest” to come, and until the end, J at least still held out hope that Elton John would emerge from the wings. But no. The show closed out with the unbilled British Invasion-era pop duo Peter & Gordon. J and I had no idea who they were – and judging from the buzzing around us, we were not alone in our ignorance. I googled their names at home later that night, and learned that the men are longtime friends of Elton John’s, best known for their 1964 hit “A World Without Love,” which happens to be the only song Paul McCartney ever wrote for another group while with the Beatles. But perhaps more interestingly, if you check out their website, you will note that the man on the right in the vintage photo, Peter (Asher), is totally the original Austin Powers! Yeah, baby!

When the snow falls
And Central Park looks like a Christmas card
I just looked beyond the bagman
And the madness that makes this city hard

— “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters, Part Two,” Elton John and Bernie Taupin

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