The lineup for Wednesday's 12/12/12 show at Madison Square Garden brims with superstars: Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Kanye West, the Rolling Stones and The Who, among many others. But in one sense, the most significant performer on the packed bill is Eric Clapton.
The guitar great formerly know as "God" offers a direct link to The Concert for Bangladesh – the 1971 landmark show that forever tied rock and causes, giving an early taste of the power of musicians to raise money and awareness in times of major crisis.
Four decades later, the 12/12/12 fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Sandy is poised to become the most-watched benefit yet, with a record 2 billion viewers worldwide able to join the 20,000 fans packing the Garden, via television and the Internet.
When George Harrison asked Clapton, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan and other pals to join him at the Garden for two shows on Aug. 1, 1971, he couldn't have known what would come. Getting the lineup together proved the easy part – some funds were tied up for years.
Still, the concert served as both inspiration – and cautionary tale – for all that followed, most notably the epic Bob Geldof-organized Live Aid in 1985, a cross-Atlantic affair that included Clapton. Since then, we've come to expect benefit shows in times of trouble, from The Concert for New York after 9/11 to the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon, which followed the 2010 earthquake that devastated the Caribbean nation.
There’s a danger with the proliferation of star-studded benefits that the events will start to run into one another in the collective memory – or even worse, overshadow the cause. It’s likely that Live Aid is better known by many for the Led Zeppelin reunion and the classic performance by Queen (not to mention Clapton’s rendition of “Layla”), than for the reason Geldof sprung into action: famine in Ethiopia.
Whatever the cause, music-driven charity efforts are maturing and growing with time and technology. Farm Aid is still going 27 year later. Bono, whose U2 was among the headliners of the 2005 Live 8 concerts, formalized the bonds between aid, commerce and celebrity with the (PRODUCT) RED program to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. The “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon became among the first to effectively exploit the clout of the Internet, spreading the show – and cause – to a wide audience. That event was available to a then-record 640 million homes around the world. The reach of the Internet has only increased in the nearly three years since, setting the stage for an even larger audience for Wednesday’s fundraiser. Music brings people together. And while it can’t instantly heal, perhaps it can at least help start the process. Sure, there will be major performers on the Garden stage for the show, which benefits the Robin Hood Foundation. But the most important stars will be the worldwide audience sharing a communal experience, which, hopefully, will spur folks to take action any way they can.
Contributing is a personal decision, but there's no excuse not to tune in. God – er, Clapton – will be watching.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.