Inside Amnesty’s rich musical history, and last week’s Brooklyn show featuring Imagine Dragons, Madonna, and The Fray
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of music history knows how culturally important Amnesty International has been in the past couple of decades. The organization has a reputation for being just as much about promoting concerts as it is about human rights. Last week at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, they continued that interesting tradition. Their big show, dubbed Amnesty’s Bring Human Rights Home Concert, brought in a cavalcade of artists spanning the genres. There was something for every age group and taste, and each act shone in their own respective ways.
Founded in the UK in 1961, Amnesty International’s musical mission didn’t really take hold until the 80s. In that decade, two major forces converged to make Amnesty International a juggernaut: the countless human rights issues that plagued the world throughout the ’80s, and the popularity of arena rock at that time. It also didn’t hurt that fundraising concerts were in- vogue at the time; from Live Aid to even Comic Relief, shows to raise awareness for a certain cause flourished in the ’80s. However, how much good they do has been a topic up for debate ever since. In a 2010 Forbes article ominously titled “The Truth About Celebrity Concerts,” writer Dorothy Pomerantz observes, “a benefit concert gives the celebrities the feeling that they are using their particular skills to do something good, and it makes donors feel good because they become a part of a bigger pool of giving. It also obviously helps the people who will receive the aid money.” But is that enough- the idea it gives celebrities a “feeling” they’re doing something good?
Regardless of your opinion, at last week’s show at the Brooklyn, New York’s two-year old Barclays, it at least appeared that everyone involved had their hearts in the right place. No artist came to really “plug” anything, and since the concert wasn’t televised, the artists performing weren’t seeking maximum exposure as well. It was all for the cause, which is noble in itself. This could also be said for some of Amnesty’s other well known concerts, including 1988’s Human Rights Now! tour (which featured the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Peter Gabriel.) Brooklyn’s concert, however, featured few holdouts from Amnesty’s ’80s shows. Instead, they opened up the proceedings with Cold War Kids, the California-based rock collective which respectably busted out three songs, despite the fact they were playing as most audience members were still shuffling in.
Two other rock acts also took command of the stage to varying degrees. There was Cake, another California-based band who’s last album hit shelves in 2011 and perhaps peaked in popularity in the late 90s, and had a literal table full of quirky instruments to perform three of their own tracks, including “Long Time.” More relevantly, The Fray (the only act of the night with an album on the immediate horizon,) sang a pitch-perfect rendition of their latest hit, “Love Don’t Die.” Produced by OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, the rock/bluegrass/pop track sounds like it could become another hit for the band, who is best known for the ballad “How To Save A Life,” (which, appropriately, they also performed.)
The two best performances of the night, however, belonged to two wildly different artists. Blondie, the Katy Perry of the ’80s, had more energy than most of the other younger acts combined, and forcefully sang “One Way or Another” with the crowd on their feet. However, it was Imagine Dragons, fresh off their critically praised performances on the Grammys and “Saturday Night Live,” who brought the house down with “Radioactive,” their smash single. Considering the musical aspects of the song were first created on a computer by producer Alex da Kid (he told American Songwriter in September 2012: “‘Radioactive’ was just a beat I made, and once we decided it was for Imagine Dragons, we had the band play over it”), they took complete instrumental ownership of the song, complete with a chorus of drums that blew away everyone at the Barclays.
As the concert stretched on, however, it was clear the audience started to get restless. At around the fourth hour, when Bob Geldolf (the ’80s stalwart who organized Live Aid) took the stage and began a rambling speech which included deriding the basic idea of the internet, the arena was only about 60 percent full. In addition, the long breaks in between each act also tested the audience’s patience. Alternately, when Madonna appeared to speak (which brought everyone to their feet as if she were the Pope), and introduced formerly-jailed Russian punk band Pussy Riot, the Barclays crowd welcomed them with open arms and ate up every word. However, it’s these basic contrasts which makes Amnesty International what it is. It was certainly easy to lose focus of the main message (human rights at home and abroad), and it’s a delicate balance to make an entertaining night a thoughtful one as well.
Overall, while the night wasn’t firing on all cylinders, it was indeed worthwhile, and even if the concert only raised a mere few thousand dollars for oppressed people (and it obviously raised much more than that), how can anyone ever complain about their effort? With a good cause, good music, and good intentions, here’s hoping Amnesty’s cultural impact continues on for many more decades.
For more information about the work of Amnesty International, or to donate to their cause, please visit amnestyusa.org.