Live 8 vs. Live Aid -- We sift through hours of music to find out how the concerts measure up

By Raymond Fiore
July 08, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Live 8 vs. Live Aid

Like any good blockbuster sequel, the Live 8 spectacle was all about topping its predecessor. Bob Geldof, who masterminded both 1985’s original Live Aid and the new version held July 2, decided to expand from 2 cities to 10 (London, Philadelphia, Tokyo, Moscow, Rome, Berlin, Paris, Johannesburg, Cornwall, En-gland, and Barrie, Canada) in an effort to pressure the leaders of the G8 nations to ”make poverty history” in Africa.

And in this rare instance, the sequel was superior by virtue of its vastness, providing an impressive array of musical talent that satisfied a spectrum of regional tastes. Of course, digesting it all was pretty much impossible. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t try. Starting at 8 a.m. on the day of the show, we holed up with a computer (aolmusic.com broadcast six entire shows live and has many free songs available for the next six weeks), a TV (MTV showed eight hours of commercial-heavy, prepackaged coverage, while ABC weighed in with two hours of taped highlights), and a radio (XM Satellite Radio provided extensive audio feeds from the same six concerts as AOL). In other words, we absorbed a lot of Live 8.

So which city ruled? From this English-speaking vantage point, London easily took the prize. U2 kicked off the show, and though they seemed a bit sleepy, their duet with Paul McCartney on ”Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” provided a thrilling, if overly literal (”It was 20 years ago today. . .”), opening salvo. Coldplay — whose frontman, Chris Martin, has repeatedly said he wants to eclipse U2 as the world’s biggest band — immediately followed, but their set confirmed, at least for now, that the group isn’t even close to swiping U2’s crown. Seemingly overwhelmed by the hugeness of the gig (200,000 people packed into London’s Hyde Park), they unwisely followed a cool cover of ”Bittersweet Symphony” (fronted by ex-Verve singer Richard Ashcroft) with the much less familiar new ballad ”Fix You,” which fell flat coming right after such an anthemic favorite.

But a few hours into the 10-hour concert, the London show really hit its inspirational stride. Geldof took the stage and introduced some Ethiopian famine footage that had been shown 20 years ago. When it ended, he brought out Birhan Woldu, a healthy and beautiful 24-year-old woman who had appeared in the video and, he said, barely escaped death thanks to funds raised by Live Aid. It was a powerful moment, and it could have been marred when Geldof immediately introduced, the next performer, Madonna. But unexpectedly, the juxtaposition worked: Madge and Woldu’s embrace will likely become Live 8’s most enduring image.

As Madonna fought back tears, she quickly launched into her set opener, a gospel-fired rendition of ”Like a Prayer” that built a solemn moment into a truly uplifting performance. That joyous mood was sustained by dance-pop hits ”Ray of Light” and ”Music,” which she extended into an epic vamp that had most of the crowd clapping and singing along. But it was U.K. superstar Robbie Williams who elicited the most frenzied audience response. The former boy-band member, who took the stage two hours later, has consistently failed to translate Stateside, but watching the fawning masses sing every word of his massive hit ”Angels” made it hard to understand why.

Mariah Carey was a notable misstep, as her saccharine, dated material (”Hero,” ”Make It Happen”) and desperate pleas for crowd participation (”It’s the Children’s Choir of Africa, people!”) were far from endearing. But all was forgotten when the penultimate act, Pink Floyd (reunited with Roger Waters after 24 years), quietly cast a spell with majestic run-throughs of ”Wish You Were Here” and ”Comfortably Numb.” Finally, McCartney closed the concert, taking the stage around 11:30 p.m. London time. His last song, ”The Long and Winding Road,” led into the coda of ”Hey Jude,” as an all-star cast including George Michael, Geldof, Annie Lennox, Pink Floyd, Carey, and her choir of African orphans belted out the ”Na Na”s for several minutes. Not quite as memorable as the throngs of superstars howling ”Do They Know It’s Christmas?” at Live Aid’s finale, but a happy ending nonetheless.

Compared with London, Philly’s lineup seemed downright B-list, despite the presence of Alicia Keys, Destiny’s Child, Dave Matthews Band, and Toby Keith. The show had several worthy performances, but it lacked anything approaching a Moment, and the apolitical vibe of many performers made it seem like just another big summer festival. The Black Eyed Peas and Kanye West connected with spirited sets, and hometown hero Will Smith kicked it up a few gears with crowd-pleasing versions of the in-season ”Summertime” and, oddly enough, his Fresh Prince of Bel-Air TV show theme song (somehow it worked). Jay-Z’s five-track mash-up collabo with Linkin Park was another highlight.

Most of the other participating cities featured local-pleasing lineups with a few token English speakers thrown in. Björk was weird and wonderful in Tokyo, which also featured Japanese stars like Rize. The Cure dipped into their early catalog in Paris following acts such as France’s Kyo and Belgium’s Axelle Red. Faith Hill and Tim McGraw drew blank stares in Rome, where Italian rapper Jovanotti got a raucous reaction. After sets from Barenaked Ladies and Bryan Adams, Neil Young returned to the stage after his March brain aneurysm with a biting ”Rockin’ in the Free World” in Barrie.

In the end, however, Live 8’s most winning musical statement came from Green Day, one of the few American acts to play at the Berlin concert. The band delivered a blistering barrage of pop-punk hits, including the Who-worthy assault of ”Minority.” Green Day closed their set (in a fitting homage to Queen’s famous performance at the original Live Aid) with a surprisingly faithful and triumphant rendition of ”We Are the Champions.” And from what we saw of Live 8, they really were.

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