SHOW REVIEW

Blueprint for fund-raising concerts...

No weepy lectures, just brisk entertainment at Elton John's AIDS Foundation benefit. Apart from the money it raised and goodwill it fostered, the "America: A Tribute to Heroes" telethon left behind an aesthetically pleasing side effect: It reminded that these well-intended events needn't be tediously drawn-out affairs to make their point.

Brevity has its benefits - such was the attitude adopted by Elton John and the organizers of "The Concert: 20 Years With AIDS", a sparkling, smoothly paced charity concert held Wednesday at Universal Amphitheatre. (Proceeds, reportedly in excess of $1 million, have been earmarked for Elton's AIDS Foundation and the AIDS Project Los Angeles.)

The show was run as if fed live to VH1 - few if any awkward breaks, a rotating stage keeping the action moving at all times and lots of innuendo-laden asides that would have made for great sound bites. (Elton introducing Sting: "There's nothing I wouldn't do for him. But there are probably lots of things he wouldn't do for me.") Clearly the directive given to the evening's superstars and newcomers - ranging from Matchbox Twenty and Jon Bon Jovi to Alicia Keys and Pete Yorn - was keep it simple. Get on stage, make your musical mark, move along - and don't bother with sweeping statements, just have fun.

Thus every act performed only three songs, though opener Sting took four and Elton closed with an hour-long set. Nearly everyone, however, had a bring-the-house- down moment; almost all of them were worth that response.

Sting, who wisely gave 'Fragile' the night off, burned from the get-go and held the otherwise staid but ceaselessly chatty crowd rapt with the booming chant of 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You', which yielded to an energetic 'Every Breath You Take'.

British sensation Craig David ditched the two-step techno that bolsters his style in favor of an acoustic turn, complementing 'Fill Me In' with outstanding beat-box skills and rewriting P. Diddy's 'Bad Boy for Life'.

Yorn also went acoustic, accompanied by pianist Joseph Kennedy for stirring takes on 'Life on a Chain' and 'Lose You'. The moment that grabbed the audience's attention, however, was his intense, Vedderesque version of Springsteen's 'Dancing in the Dark'.

LeAnn Rimes, who shifted away from her cutesy country-darling side to emerge here as a Celine Dion-esque diva in a flashy black gown and lace-up, stiletto-heeled boots, garnered a well-deserved standing ovation for her soulful rendition of 'Amazing Grace'.

Charmingly cocky Alicia Keys had the crowd in her back pocket from the moment she appeared, traipsing through Prince's 'How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?' Needing to catch what she said was the last plane out that night, she had to cut 'Fallin' short - though only so she could squeeze in her show-stopper, a passionately delivered 'Ave Maria'.

Rufus Wainwright, on the other hand, had a rough night. Facing the unenviable task of following this year's 'It Girl' - and having to cope with monitor problems - he came off uncomfortably and atypically nervous. Still, even his mini-set had a one-of-a-kind collaboration: Elton and dad Loudon Wainwright III joining him for the laid-back 'One-Man Guy'.

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, second only to the headliner in garnering enthusiastic response, delivered a routine version of Lennon's 'Imagine', while Rob Thomas and crew offered a somewhat flat-footed but still engaging cover of 'Instant Karma'.

It wasn't until Elton's set, however, that the show's purpose hit home, via two moving songs from his 'Songs From the West Coast' album. The first, 'The Ballad of the Boy With the Red Shoes', was dedicated to its inspiration, a dancer who died from AIDS in the early '80s - a time when the federal government was doing everything to sweep the epidemic under the rug. The second, the grippingly dramatic 'American Triangle', was for Matthew Shepard, who was killed by gay-haters in Wyoming in 1998.

Otherwise, cheery Reg's performance was about entertainment: 'Philadelphia Freedom', 'Bennie and the Jets', an extended 'Rocket Man', the wonderful new single 'I Want Love', a magnificent 'Levon' and a barn-storming version of 'The Bitch Is Back', the latter two abetted by Sambora and Bon Jovi.

No weepy, all-cast finale. No closing lectures. Just a brisk beginning to what will be a weekend of selfless benefit concerts, including three for the Silver Lake Silver Lining Foundation this weekend - again featuring Elton and Sting (at the secluded Paramount Estate) but also the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jaguares, at the Hollywood Palladium.

Here's hoping they all take a how-it's-done cue from this one.

(c) The Orange County Register by Ben Wener

Concert Benefiting AIDS Project L.A. and the Elton John AIDS Foundation...

Now that he's a knight of the realm, it's not too much of a stretch to view the benefit concert for Elton John's AIDS Foundation as a kind of royal summit: Some of the biggest names in pop (Sting, Bon Jovi, Leann Rimes, Matchbox Twenty), along with a few worthy newcomers (Pete Yorn, Alicia Keys, Rufus Wainwright, Craig David), answering the call to help Sir Elton's charity. Add appearances by Jeffrey Katzenberg, John's erstwhile collaborator Bernie Taupin and Elizabeth Taylor, and you have the makings of a memorably star-studded evening - one that raised over a million dollars.

With the bands playing on a revolving stage, the show moved along briskly, without any superstar egos, the performers delivering hit-filled 20 minute sets. Sting started off the night in crowd-pleasing fashion. Performed by a nine piece band, 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' and 'Fields of Gold' sounded brighter and less self-important than in the past. His only miscue was a rushed 'Every Breath You Take' that came off like an ill-advised dance remix.

Accompanied only by an acoustic guitarist, Craig David showed that he has more up his sleeve than 'Re-Rewind'. He took the stage with a leonine grace and showed that he can purr and rap with equal command.

Blessed with impressive pipes but lacking any taste or subtlety, Rimes was the evening's least impressive act - and not for lack of trying. On tunes such as 'Breathe' and 'Amazing Grace', she runs through the gamut of vocal gymnastics - soaring melismas, octavewide leaps, impressively held notes.

But it's all show and little feeling. She could learn by watching Alicia Keys. Sitting alone at a piano, Keys showed it was possible to offer up both impeccable technique and deeply felt emotion. 'How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore' was effortlessly soulful, and her version of 'Ave Maria' showed off her vocal chops.

Yorn and Wainwright gave pleasantly low-key performances: Yorn shined brightest on a slowed down cover of Bruce Springsteen's 'Dancing in the Dark', and Wainwright was joined by his father Loudon and John ("I'm their love child," he joked) for 'One Man Guy'.

Wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots, Jon Bon Jovi, joined with Richie Sambora in a suede duster, looked like he was ready to play the Grand Ole Opry. Backed by a bassist, conga player and fiddler, his set had a pleasingly rustic quality. 'Livin' on a Prayer' could be renamed 'Livin' on a Prairie', and his cover of John Lennon's 'Imagine' had a pretty lilt, but nothing could save the overblown power ballad 'Dead or Alive'.

Rob Thomas has been called in to revive the careers of Carlos Santana and Mick Jagger, and Matchbox Twenty's slot just before John's could be seen as further proof that Thomas is now the aging rocker's best friend. The band's set provided the evening with a shot of youthful rock energy, and Thomas is a genuinely modest and appealing front man, but Matchbox Twenty's set, save for a winning cover of Lennon's 'Instant Karma', was generic grunge-lite.

John's entrance was surprisingly modest - he simply walked onstage, sat at his piano and thanked everyone for coming. But his hourlong set was an energetic run-though of some of his biggest hits, with a sampling from his new album 'Songs From the West Coast' (Rocket/MCA), which is a welcome return to form. 'Philadelphia Freedom', 'Bennie and the Jets' and 'Take Me to the Pilot' proved he is still a joyfully high-spirited performer. Rufus Wainwright joined him for the Matthew Shepard tribute 'American Triangle', and Bon Jovi playfully took the stage for Levon and 'The Bitch Is Back', the latter a rousing finale to a three-hour evening that was as successful musically as it was charitably.

(c) Daily Variety by Steven Mirkin

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