By Eric Renner Brown
December 02, 2014 at 12:00 PM EST
Debra L Rothenberg/WireImage

This Frankenstein’s monster of a benefit show shouldn’t have worked.

As part of World AIDS Day, U2 announced a surprise show yesterday afternoon: Times Square, 7:30 p.m., to be broadcast on YouTube and ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown. The Irish rock royalty—the same guys who implanted their most recent record into millions of iTunes libraries back in September—know high-stakes spotlights well, but Monday evening they were without iconic frontman Bono, who was injured last month in a bicycle accident.

Instead, U2 and Bono’s charity organization (RED) moved forward with an assemblage of top-notch artists that few would have envisioned sharing a bill, much less a stage. Dubbing themselves “U2 Minus 1,” the band invited Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Bruce Springsteen to fill Bono’s shoes, and recruited Carrie Underwood and Kanye West to give solo performances. Despite drearily persistent rain, the show didn’t disappoint.

Surprise guest Bill Clinton kicked the event off with a rousing testament to the advances in AIDS treatment since his presidency. Sent by Bono to preside over the concert in his stead, Clinton assured the crowd, “You have only about a minute and a half of halfway-serious talk, and then it’s all fun after that.”

Clinton wasn’t quite right—videos from figureheads including Barack Obama buffered all the performances—but he had the evening’s essence down. With the subject matter, the rain, and Bono’s absence, the whole show could’ve been a somber mess, but the charismatic performers on the bill prevented that.

U2 first took the stage with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who bounced around, biceps flexing, and paused to tell the audience that “dreams do come true.” Martin led the band through two of its most stadium-worthy, Coldplay-sounding hits, “Beautiful Day” and “With or Without You.” U2 and Coldplay’s shared musical aesthetic, social activism, and commercial appeal came across onstage; the pairing was a match made in M.O.R. heaven.

Carrie Underwood hit the stage next, performing a semi-acoustic version of “Change” with the Edge and another guitarist, before disposing of U2 altogether and bringing out her own band for “Something in the Water.” The Edge was barely audible, but that didn’t matter. Underwood brought crucial diversity to the event, which needed more female performers, and her pipes always amaze.

Kanye followed and, after an introduction as “the most groundbreaking artist in music today,” barreled through a career-spanning five-song medley that confirmed just that. As only he could, Kanye kicked off his portion of the AIDS benefit show with his testament to ego, “Power.” As lights the crowd hadn’t known existed began to flash, U2 and Underwood faded into mere prelude. This was Kanye’s show.

The MC then turned to his most socially conscious song, “Jesus Walks,” before absolutely obliterating “Black Skinhead,” a Yeezus cut that assumes new meaning in the post-Ferguson world. Kanye collapsed to the ground, and appeared finished. Then the Daft Punk riff in “Stronger”—a song that somehow continues to get better in the same way as a fine wine—kicked in and Kanye blew through that, milking every last second out of the outro before yelling at his DJ to “Cut, we on TV!” An ebullient rendition of “Touch the Sky” and a mic drop later, Kanye exited the stage as quickly as he had entered, without a word to the audience.

Kanye’s a headliner partially because so few acts exist that could follow his bombast and electricity. But, returning with Bruce Springsteen in tow, U2 managed to do just that. The Boss seemed a little rigid and often searched for vocal cues from the U2 dudes, but that made absolutely no difference in the end result.

In all the ways that Martin looked like U2’s talented student, Springsteen was the band’s peer and analog. Springsteen’s mix of heartland pride and preachy promise is the closest thing Americans have to classic-era U2, and he accordingly gave “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” new life Monday night. The performance was an excellent union of Springsteen and U2’s styles, and easily topped everything that came before it. Kanye was beyond cool—but U2’s final songs meant something, and closed out the show with a profound bang.

Watch the whole set below.

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