Sex, drugs and rock and roll have been closely linked since, well, the dawn of rock and roll itself. But those who have been lucky enough to make a living in the rough-and-tumble world of rock have also frequently given themselves over to more noble pursuits. George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh wasn’t the first time a rock superstar had performed for charity, but The Quiet Beatle’s star-studded event is rightfully considered the first benefit concert of such stature. Since then, there have been numerous other events bringing together rock’s biggest and brightest have come together for a good cause, from Live Aid to the recent 12-12-12 in support of Hurricane Sandy relief. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization Amnesty International, founded in 1961, began its series of Secret Policeman’s Balls in 1976, raising money for its human rights crusades with artists like Pete Townshend and the Monty Python troupe. The scale of its benefit events grew notably in 1988 with the 25-city Human Rights Now world tour, headlined by Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel and others. Since then, Amnesty has staged of a number of remarkable concert events to support its mission “to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.” The impressive new 6-DVD box set Released! The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998 (826663-13562 and its companion 2-CD set of highlights (826663-13568) not only provide hours of musical entertainment from a legendary group of artists, but support Amnesty’s work. The net proceeds from both releases, available now from Shout! Factory in the U.S., go to the organization.
The most striking aspect about these releases, particularly the DVD set, is just how all-encompassing and comprehensive they are. The collector-oriented box set is a completely immersive presentation, with documentaries and bonus material – 32 separate segments, in all – covering virtually every aspect of these concerts. Most significant, perhaps, might be the hour-and-a-quarter of new documentary material – Peter Shelton’s film Light a Candle! The Story Behind The Human Rights Concerts and two separate interview features with Bruce Springsteen and Sting. The always-passionate and eloquent Springsteen delivers what is essentially an uninterrupted monologue, candidly reflecting on his role with Amnesty over the years. He ruminates on the importance of freedom in rock and roll not just in the personal sense, but to the world at large, and recalls the “harrowing” and “intense” news conferences surrounding the Human Rights Now! tour. “Our place in the world changed a little bit,” Springsteen says, and he gained “an enormous sense of the globe as one place.” On a lighter note, he recalls a night in 1988 when his fellow performers decided to surprise him onstage by dressing in his usual attire, or the night a decade later when the multi-lingual Peter Gabriel bailed him out when he was at a loss for words with a French-speaking crowd!
Sting is relaxed and wry in his featurette, which unlike Springsteen’s stream-of-consciousness talk is divided into brief segments each devoted to one topic. What’s most clear is Sting’s pride in his involvement with Amnesty over the years. Like Springsteen, he was affected by those he met on the tour – political prisoners, their families, et. als. – as well as with the camaraderie he established with his fellow musicians including the Garden State’s favorite son. He stresses Amnesty’s embrace of world music, and doesn’t flinch from discussing the risks incurred whenever a person in the public eye takes a political stand.
After the jump, we'll take a closer look at Released!
Springsteen and Sting are just two of the performers featured on both the DVD and the CD sets. The DVD box set features performances from 36 artists, with a whopping 120 songs and 12 hours of music. It includes four films, all newly restored from the original masters. The first film is dedicated to the all-day final concert of A Conspiracy of Hope, Amnesty’s 25th anniversary concert tour of the USA in June 1986. Held at Giants Stadium, it brought together an amazing array of artists from multiple musical genres, among them Peter, Paul and Mary, Jackson Browne, Yoko Ono, Miles Davis, Howard Jones, Carlos Santana and Fela Kuti, Joan Baez, Peter Gabriel, The Neville Brothers, Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, U2, The Police, Steven Van Zandt, Bob Geldof, and the late, great Lou Reed. (Whew!) Though Bob Dylan wasn’t present, his songs were a major part of the evening, with Peter, Paul and Mary offering “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Joan Baez singing “The Times They Are A-Changin,” U2 doing “Maggie’s Farm,” and the all-star finale set to “I Shall Be Released.”
The second film features highlights from the Human Rights Now! tour, led by Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Youssou N’Dour. Once again, a Dylan song closes the concert film, this time “Chimes of Freedom.” The third presentation is An Embrace of Hope, the October 1990 concert in Chile celebrating that nation’s liberation following nearly two decades of dictatorship. It features a slightly lower-key line-up, with Sting, Browne and Gabriel joined by Wynton Marsalis, Sinead O’Connor, Ruben Blades, New Kids on the Block (!) and the Chilean folk music ensemble Inti-Illimani. The fourth and final film in the box set is The Struggle Continues…, recorded in Paris in 1998 on the exact 50th anniversary of the signing in that city of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That was the show in which Peter Gabriel lent Bruce Springsteen a helping hand; other highlights include performances from Tracy Chapman, Youssou N’Dour, Shania Twain, Radiohead and the reunited Jimmy Page and Robert Plant with a four-song set.
In the tradition of numerous benefit concerts, these gigs presented the opportunity for favorite artists to perform in unexpected duets. Various duet combinations of Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, Youssou N’Dour, Aaron Neville, Steven Van Zandt, Bob Geldof and Bryan Adams are among the concerts’ most exciting moments. The 2-CD highlights set offers some of these moments, such as Springsteen and Sting’s “Every Breath You Take,” Bob Geldof and Steven Van Zandt’s charged “Redemption Song,” Joan Baez and the Neville Brothers on “No Woman, No Cry,” and group performances of “I Shall Be Released” (with lead vocals by Lou Reed, Bono, Sting, Bryan Adams, Joan Baez and Jackson Browne!), “Chimes of Freedom” (Springsteen, Sting, Gabriel, Chapman and N’Dour) and “Get Up Stand Up” (Gabriel, Chapman, Springsteen. N’Dour). All told, the CDs’ 30 tracks (also featuring Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Peter, Paul and Mary and others) are culled from all four concert films.
Even more artists appear on the copious DVD bonus material, which draws on footage from other musical projects benefitting Amnesty. From the organization’s 2007 John Lennon tribute Instant Karma comes Green Day’s “Working Class Hero,” and Lennon is also feted with Ozzy Osbourne’s “How?” (2010) and a music video of “Imagine” featuring children from around the world. From Amnesty’s 2012 Bob Dylan project Chimes of Freedom, you’ll see Jeff Beck and Seal teaming up for “Like a Rolling Stone,” Evan Rachel Wood (Across the Universe) turning “I’ll Have You Anytime” into a torch song, and Pete Seeger singing what could be his credo: “Forever Young.”
Each disc in the sturdily slipcased DVD box set is housed in an individual slim case, and a generous 40-page, full-color booklet provides even more background on the performances and Amnesty’s mission. The 2-CD set is housed in a jewel case, and also contains a booklet – of 16 pages – with a new essay by Gregory Weinkauf.
Released! The Human Rights Concerts – in either CD or DVD form – is a provocative yet entertaining journey with familiar musicians finding common ground around the world via the power of rock music. As Sting points out in his new interview, one song or one concert might not literally be able to change the world overnight, but either could certainly plant a seed. These concerts-with-conscience will leave you with hours of exciting and passionate music, as well as plenty of food for thought.