By Roy Trakin.
Imagine: John Lennon 75th Birthday Concert – Madison Square Garden (AMC)
John Lennon’s songs are not easy to cover; his versions were so idiosyncratic, and so much tied into his own persona, that it made the feat near impossible. Which is to say, this odd assortment of performers offered takes from the sublime (Aloe Blacc, The Roots, John Fogerty) to the head-scratching (Brandon Flowers, Sheryl Crow, Juanes).
Needless to say, they had their work cut out for them on this televised show taped at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, even with an excellent back-up band featuring, among others, veteran keyboardist Greg Phillinganes directing and expert drummer Kenny Aronoff, guiding them through their paces.
Front and center – either leading the cheers or offering some furtive tears – was the keeper of the flame herself, Merry Widow Yoko Ono, though curiously, neither of John’s two sons – Sean nor Julian – were anywhere in sight.
After Steven Tyler reprised his “Come Together” from the ill-fated Sgt. Pepper’s movie, the first ominous sign arrived with the evening’s MC, Kevin Bacon, whose presence no amount of six degrees of separation could explain.
There were highlights – couldn’t argue with Blacc’s moving “Watching the Wheels,” Train vocalist Pat Monahan’s pleasantly surprising, show-stopping “Jealous Guy,” Spoon’s jagged “Hey Bulldog,” Fogerty’s touching “In My Life,” The Roots’ raw-throated “Mother” or even Tom Morello fronting (and stoking with propulsive, turntable-twisting guitar moves) the multi-racial New York Freedom Choir through the fist-pumping “Power to the People.”
The country guys in the line-up more than held their own, with breakthrough artist Chris Stapleton fronting Flowers and Crow on a searing “Don’t Let Me Down,” Eric Church doing justice to a soaring “Mind Games” and even Willie Nelson, strumming on his battered, holy guitar, for a plaintive, benedictory “Imagine.”
Still, by the time everyone gathered for a set-closing “All You Need Is Love,” it felt surprisingly anti-climactic, the person whose 75th birthday was being celebrated leaving a gaping hole in the middle of what should’ve been a celebration, but was tempered with the kind of loss that belied its own message of hope.
In the end, sometimes the love you take doesn’t quite equal the love you make, no matter what Paul says.