Touted as Garth Brooks’ last concert for at least a year, and Joni Mitchell’s second live U.S. performance in 10 years, AIDS Project Los Angeles’ Jan. 19 ”Commitment to Life VIII” benefit instead turned out to be a star-trip-free extravaganza of top-notch, equal-opportunity entertainment, including Sheryl Crow, Little Richard, and Tammy Wynette. The annual fund-raiser for APLA, a nonprofit organization serving people with AIDS and HIV, is one of Hollywood’s glitziest, most prestigious events. It was here that, two years ago, Barbra Streisand made one of her rare live appearances.
This year’s three-hour spectacular — honoring Elton John, Tom Hanks, and Creative Artists Agency president Ron Meyer — established its blend of gender-bending insouciance and rock & roll drive with opening act RuPaul, who sashayed onto the Universal Amphitheatre stage in slit-up-to-there red spangles for a campy version of Aerosmith’s ”Dude (Looks Like a Lady).”
Rocking the crowd of 6,600 were everyone from Terence Trent D’Arby to Julie Andrews to Marianne Faithfull to Salt ‘N’ Pepa, whose high-energy hip-hop seemed to leave the stodgier faction of the crowd yearning for the more standard show tunes of Liza Minnelli (who performed at last year’s APLA benefit). More to their taste: Clint Black’s harmonica-heavy ”Viva Las Vegas,” complete with plumed showgirls and go-go dancers.
Garth Brooks, accompanied only by songwriter Jenny Yates on acoustic guitar, took the low-key road. He asked that the moving ballad ”A World Without You” speak for itself: ”I can see a world where there is no fear/Where hatred is long disappeared/Where children are safe to do what children do/But I can’t see a world without you.”
Mitchell (who rarely plays live, in part because it can’t match the perfection of a studio recording) was equally effective with just a guitar. Her soulful, elegant renditions of ”Sex Kills” from her current album and ”Moon at the Window” from 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast proved how powerful an acoustic performance can be.
But if there was a star of the evening, it was Melissa Etheridge, who breathed new life into the well-worn Rod Stewart classic ”Maggie May” and brought the near-sellout audience to its feet. The only other standing ovation went to Elton John, for his duet with George Michael on ”Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Ostensibly Reynolds-wrapped in blinding silver from head to toe, John soloed on ”Believe,” a ballad from his upcoming new album, then launched into ”I’m Still Standing” with revival-meeting fervor, joined by the entire cast. It was a fitting finale to a night spent celebrating life, love, and lame.