Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hope for Haiti, and a Great International Battle of the Bands

What an amazing night of television.

I watched the Hope for Haiti telethon. I liked the softness of the performances, which was appropriate in the face of the tens of thousands who died, like the hushed tones you automatically adopt when you walk into a funeral home. But music brings hope and comfort as well. The songs ran through pop music’s entire songbook of inspirational songs. I loved Stevie Wonder’s “Bridge Over Trouble Water,” and Jennifer Hudson’s “Let It Be” was particularly moving in her invocation of Mother Mary: “And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”

But the highlight was Wyclef Jean playing the show out. The images of the destruction on stage were replaced with beautiful geometric patterns of his nation’s bright palette. He started in the tone of his fellow performers with “The Waters of Babylon,” then went into a Creole rap. Then he took off his guitar and said “let’s show them how we do it in Haiti” and let rip with a real Haitian beat, rhythmic and joyous. Life is for the living and the Haitian spirit is vibrant and defiant, sleek and cool. It’s who they are, and it was inspiring to see such life in service to alleviate the suffering of so many.

“Earthquake we seen the earth shake but the soul of the Haitian people it would never break”

A quirk of fate put Conan O’Brien’s last night hosting The Tonight Show on the same evening, following the telethon an hour and a half later. I’m not a fan of the sophomoric humor of late night, but I respect the tradition of these shows, and that they are the way a huge viewing audience relaxes after the late news.

I thought it would be uncomfortable to watch an American millionaire whining about losing his job right after the images of real suffering.

Instead I was surprised that his show had more dignity than I expected. Both Tom Hanks and Neil Young were on their way to the telethon after taping his show. Conan put up the web address, and so acknowledged the serious work of the evening.

Then he did his stuff. But the highlight was Conan joining Will Farrell and friends to play out the show jamming on “Free Bird” in front of a huge American flag. Farrell was decked out like a country singer, and I was afraid the set was going to be lame. But he totally brought it. ZZ Top and Beck were taking it seriously, and by the second chorus the ensemble was really rocking, Conan included. Once Farrell picks up the cow bell it all starts levitating. What a great salute to America. What a great complement to the Haitian band two hours before.

In his closing speech Conan asked his audience not to be cynical. It can be easy to look at Hollywood turning out for Clooney’s telethon and be cynical about it. It was an astonishing number of music and movie stars quietly in one place. But it’s what they can do. They aren’t doctors or nurses or firemen. They can help raise money. Let’s hope that the world’s generosity is put into the right hands to alleviate the suffering.

On a lighter note, someone should really think about replacing the winter Olympics with an international battle of the bands.