While earthquake relief in Haiti was the reason for and inspiration behind “Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief,” there’s no question that it featured some amazing, one-of-a-kind musical performances.
The songs chosen by most of the artists had a thematic connection to the occasion, and the soaring lyrics delivered by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Mary J. Blige and Justin Timberlake underlined the hope for the country that’s coming from around the world. The songs’ unplugged, often gentle renditions underscored the seriousness of the situation.
George Clooney helped organize the event, and his hope is that the songs carry the event beyond the evening and into the following weeks, months and years. “We’re gonna have some amazing performances, and I think that’s gonna make it last a little longer than just a telethon,” he said earlier this week.
Indeed it will: iTunes customers can exclusively pre-order the “Hope for Haiti Now” full-performance album ($7.99) and the full two-hour video telecast ($1.99). Pre-orders will be delivered in the days following the telethon. Individual audio performances will also be available for purchase and download for 99 cents each in the days following the telethon. Apple, the record labels and the artists will donate their share of the proceeds to Haiti relief funds managed by “Hope for Haiti Now” charities, including the Red Cross and Wyclef’s Yele Haiti foundation. Performances will also be available for purchase in the days following the event through Amazon’s MP3 service and Rhapsody, through distribution provided by INgrooves.
Alicia Keys: “Prelude to a Kiss”
The opening number of the night came courtesy of Keys’ third album, 2007’s As I Am. The song was written, produced and arranged entirely by the New York-bred singer. The piano-driven number struck a perfect introduction to foreshadow the night’s activities.
“Sometimes I feel so heavyhearted,” Keys sang with visceral emotion. “But I can’t explain, ’cause I’m so guarded/ But that’s a lonely road to travel/ And a heavy load to bear.”
Footage of a Haitian baby crying added depth to the poignant performance. “Can you send an angel?” she sang, as if she were pleading to heaven on the chorus.
Coldplay: “A Message”
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin said he wrote the melancholy “A Message” during the wee hours of the night. “In the middle of the night I thought I was either going to be sick or go write that song,” he explained.
Perhaps that’s why the guitar-heavy track, from the band’s third album, 2005’s X&Y, starts off so sparsely. Martin’s voice soothes the mild strings as the song opens. By the end of the first verse, though, “A Message” builds into a sweeping plea for love and companionship. As Martin met the song’s peak, he struck a falsetto turn.
“My song is love, it’s love unknown,” Martin sang during the performance. “And I’ve got to get that message home.”
Bruce Springsteen: “We Shall Overcome”
This emotional protest song is long on history; it was popularized during the civil-rights movement and its lyrics were derived from a hymn written by Maryland minister Charles Albert Tindley. Springsteen is just one of countless artists who have covered the tune; he did so for Where Have All the Flowers Gone, a tribute album to the song’s credited composer, Pete Seeger. The folk legend heard working versions of the song as a child and later registered it as his own at the behest of his publisher (profits from the rights to the song are donated to charitable foundations). Notable covers stretch wide, including performances by Diana Ross, Mahalia Jackson and folk singer Joan Baez. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy also memorably made use of the refrain during speeches.
Backed by a six-person set of backup singers and amid muted lighting during “Hope for Haiti Now,” Springsteen’s restrained vocals pierced deep. “We are not afraid today,” he sang. “Deep in my heart, I do believe, we are not afraid today.”
Stevie Wonder: “A Time to Love”/ “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
“A Time to Love” is the title track to Wonder’s 28th album, which was released in 2005, and featured guest vocals from India.Arie and Sir Paul McCartney on guitar. “Bridge Over Trouble Water” is the title track to Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album together, released in 1970, and won both Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the 1971 Grammy Awards. Interestingly, each singer suggested that the other sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”; Garfunkel eventually acquiesced to Simon, who wrote the song with his soon-to-be-former partner in mind.
Wonder, as he has done throughout his career in moments of hope, found the pulse of the audience with his moving performance.
Shakira: “I’ll Stand by You”
With its message of compassion and unconditional love, this 1994 ballad from the Pretenders has a swaying rhythm and warm lyrical embrace that captured the evening’s show of support for the Haitian people. “I’ll stand by you/ I’ll stand by you/ Won’t let nobody hurt you,” Shakira sang in her trademark quaver.
The tune, written by Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde in collaboration with Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, is featured on the band’s Last of the Independents album and was covered by “American Idol” winner Carrie Underwood in 2007 as a charity fundraiser for “Idol Gives Back.” It was also covered by the English pop group Girls Aloud as a charity single in 2004.
With her four backup singers swaying to the Roots’ thrumming rhythms, the song built to a peak in which Shakira unleashed one of her powerful yodels, the backup singers meeting her challenge and raising their voices in gospel harmony.
John Legend: “Motherless Child”
Derived from the classic spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” this song has been covered by a wide array of artists, from classic rocker Eric Clapton to jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong to soul duo Ike & Tina Turner. Legend, in fact, first covered the number for his independent project 2004’s Solo Sessions Vol. 1: Live at the Knitting Factory. Released prior to his proper debut album, the collection featured an emerging Legend previewing some of his forthcoming music alongside covers of well-noted compositions like “Motherless Child,” which dates back to the 1800s.
Alone at his piano, Legend’s stirring rendition triumphed; he was accompanied by a string section that elegantly complemented the singer’s emotional vocals.
Mary J. Blige: “Hard Times”
“Hard Times Come Again No More” — written more than 150 years ago by the “father of American music,” Stephen Foster — has long been a popular folk favorite for artists looking to strike the careful balance between the celebration of good fortune and the acknowledgment of hard times. The song has been covered numerous times by rock, folk and pop artists, from the late folk icon Kate McGarrigle to Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, as well as another of Friday night’s performers, Bruce Springsteen, who performed it live on his 2009 Working on a Dream Tour.
In the hands of the church-reared Blige, it became a gospel benediction, paying homage to the version recorded by former Staples Singers member and gospel great Mavis Staples. “While we seek mirth and beauty and music, light and gay/ There are frail forms fainting at the door/ Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say/ Oh hard times, come again no more.”
Taylor Swift: “Breathless”
The young country superstar covered alt-rock band Better Than Ezra’s “Breathless,” from the collective’s 2001 album Before the Robot. The trio performed during a number of benefits in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and donated money to help rebuild their hometown.
Swift’s take on the track was breathtaking and seemed far beyond her young age. “When you feel the world is crashing, all around your feet, come running headlong into my arms, breathless,” Swift sang. “I’ll never judge you, I can only love you.”
Christina Aguilera: “Lift Me Up”
Produced and composed by longtime Aguilera collaborator Linda Perry, this soaring track will be included on the pop superstar’s next album, Bionic. Perry and Aguilera have worked on a number of successful songs together, including “Hurt,” “Candyman,” “Keeps Gettin’ Better” and 2002’s memorable hit “Beautiful.”
Perry accompanied Aguilera, playing piano during the singer’s performance. The elegant singer belted out “Lift Me Up” with vigor and a chilling vitality. “When you see me crashing and there’s nowhere left to fall, will you life me higher?” she sang.
Sting: “Driven To Tears”
“Driven to Tears” appeared on the Police’s 1980 album Zenyatta Mondatta and represented one of Sting’s earliest forays into writing politically charged lyrics. “Seems that when some innocent die/ All we can offer them is a page in some magazine/ Too many cameras and not enough food/ ‘Cause this is what we’ve seen,” he sang. Sting has said the song was inspired by images of starving children he saw while watching television on tour.
Sting performed “Driven to Tears” solo at the Live Aid concert to fight the Ethiopian famine in 1985 and with the reunited Police at the environmental-awareness festival Live Earth in 2007. At “Hope for Haiti,” he was backed by the Roots, who acted as the house band for the event’s New York performances.
Plucking the track from her 2009 LP, I Am … Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé’s “Halo” has become one of her signature songs. Ryan Tedder and Evan Bogart composed the song for B, which is a nominee for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance at the Grammy Awards later this month.
Live from London, the former Destiny’s Child star was accompanied by her friend, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, on a piano for the acoustic rendition. Sporting long bangs and a black jacket, Beyoncé injected Haiti directly into her lyrics: “Haiti, we can see your halo, you know you’re my saving grace,” she sang. “You’re everything I need and more, it’s written all over your face/ Haiti, we can see your halo, I pray you won’t fade away.”
Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban and Kid Rock: “Lean on Me”
Written by Bill Withers and released in 1972 on his second album Still Bill, “Lean on Me” was inspired by Withers’ small-town upbringing in the mining community of Slab Fork, West Virginia — a close-knit atmosphere Withers pined for after moving to L.A. The song hit #1 on July 8, 1972, and remained on the charts for 19 weeks. Despite its popularity, the track did not receive a Grammy until it was re-recorded and funkified by the R&B group Club Nouveau in 1987. The quintet also scored a #1 hit with their rendition.
Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban and Kid Rock took turns on the inspirational song’s vocals, giving the R&B song a country feel.
Madonna: “Like a Prayer”
Initially, the controversy surrounding the video for “Like a Prayer” overshadowed this stirring song, which was the lead single and title track from the singer’s fourth album. Pepsi courted the Material Girl as a spokesperson and used “Like a Prayer” in a huge campaign before the world saw the imagery from the video, which included stigmata and hints of an interracial love scene with St. Martin de Porres.
Madonna’s “Hope for Haiti Now” performance was filled with respect. Backed by a choir, the iconic singer belted out a hushed rendition of “Like a Prayer.” And the song’s chorus — “When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer, I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there” — was as inspirational as ever.
Justin Timberlake: “Hallelujah”
Seated behind a piano, Justin Timberlake performed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” accompanied by Matt Morris on guitar and vocals. With his stirring rendition, Timberlake joined the ranks of nearly 200 performers who have recorded the melancholy ballad. Written by singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and released on his 1984 studio album Various Positions, the song reportedly took a year to write and includes 80 available verses and at least two wholly original renditions. The song contains several biblical references, including allusions to Samson and Delilah and King David and Bathsheba, heightening the song’s hymn-like quality.
In 1994, Jeff Buckley released arguably the most famous cover of the song on his album Grace. Nearly 200 additional covers have been recorded by artists as diverse as k.d. lang, Bob Dylan and Rufus Wainwright, whose version was included on the “Shrek” soundtrack, though it was John Cale’s rendition that was used in the film. In 2008, “American Idol” contestant Jason Castro performed the song on the competition series, earning accolades from notoriously fickle judge Simon Cowell, who called his performance “absolutely brilliant.”
Jennifer Hudson: “Let It Be”
One of the most covered songs in the Beatles’ catalog — and the rock era — this song is the legendary title track of the group’s swan-song LP and its accompanying film. Written by Paul McCartney (although co-credited to John Lennon for contractual reasons), the song was recorded in January 1969 but not released until 14 months later. The song was offered to Aretha Franklin, whom McCartney believed would bring out the song’s gospel flavor. He was not wrong, and Aretha’s version of the song was released two months before the Beatles’, on her 1970 LP, This Girl’s in Love With You. The song has been covered countless times in the intervening years — by Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner and many others — and McCartney helmed an all-star charity single of the song in 1987 (also featuring Kate Bush and Boy George) to benefit families of the victims of the 1987 Herald of Free Enterprise ferry shipwreck, in which 193 people were killed after the ship capsized off the Belgian coast.
At “Hope for Haiti Now,” Jennifer Hudson and her backing singers strongly evoked Aretha’s version, bringing gospel passion to the timeless song.
Emeline Michel: “Many Rivers To Cross”
“Many Rivers to Cross” was written in 1969 by Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff and was later featured on the soundtrack to the film “The Harder They Come,” in which Cliff starred. The song’s lyrics are a testament to survival and perseverance even during the most difficult, confusing moments of a person’s life. It’s been performed in concert by U2, the Black Crowes, the Walkmen, Lenny Kravitz, Bruce Springsteen and Annie Lennox.
While new to most U.S. viewers, Michel has been dubbed “the Haitian Joni Mitchell” and showed the world just what a talent she truly is.
Jay-Z with U2’s Bono and The Edge (featuring Rihanna): “Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour)”
Produced by Swizz Beatz and tweaked by The Edge, this high-powered collaboration was created over the phone when the hip-hop beatsmith and Bono came up with the chorus together. Hours later, Hov — who helped conceive the effort with Swizz — jumped on the phone and got wind of the melody. “I knew that Jay would be able to tell a story,” Swizz said of the track. “And that Bono would be able to sing and bring it home.” Rihanna completes the lyrical trifecta. “The last component that I added was Rihanna, and she’s kinda like the angel that’s on the track, softening it up and giving it that caring feeling, because this hook is so powerful.”
The live performance of the song belied its quick origins: The team sounded like they’d performed it together dozens of times.
Dave Matthews & Neil Young: “Alone & Forsaken”
This little-known Hank Williams song was written by the country legend during the first half of last century. Its primitive, stripped-down chords come off as equal parts biblical and folksy. The song was at the heart of Timeless, a Williams tribute album released in 2001.
Emmylou Harris covered the song on that compilation, capturing its isolation — as did Dave Matthews and Neil Young, whose performance underscored the seriousness of “Hope for Haiti Now.”
Wyclef Jean: “Rivers of Babylon”
After a night of stirring performances, it was only right that Wyclef Jean closed out “Hope for Haiti Now.” The Haitian-born star — who immediately traveled to his homeland in the aftermath of the earthquake and has raised millions of dollars for relief efforts — delivered a moving rendition of the reggae classic “Rivers of Babylon.” The biblically inspired “Rivers” was written and performed by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaican trio the Melodians in 1972, and it was included on the soundtrack to the classic Jamaican crime film “The Harder They Come.” Its lyrics are based largely on Psalm 137, which details the Jewish people’s despair after being exiled from Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
A 1978 cover version of “Rivers of Babylon” by the disco group Boney M hit #1 in the United Kingdom and stayed there for five weeks; it peaked on the U.S. pop charts at #30. Sublime’s 1992 debut 40 Oz. to Freedom featured a live version of the track, which has also been covered by Paul Simon and Sinead O’Connor. “Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight here tonight,” ‘Clef sang. That meditation, taken from Psalm 19, seemed like a fitting epigram for a night filled with appeals for awareness and assistance.
iTunes customers can exclusively pre-order the “Hope for Haiti Now” full-performance album ($7.99) and the full two-hour video telecast ($1.99). Pre-orders will be delivered in the days following the telethon. Individual audio performances will also be available for purchase and download for 99 cents each in the days following the telethon. Apple, the record labels and the artists will donate their share of the proceeds to Haiti relief funds managed by “Hope for Haiti Now” charities, including the Red Cross and Wyclef’s Yele Haiti foundation. Performances will also be available for purchase in the days following the event through Amazon’s MP3 service and Rhapsody, through distribution provided by INgrooves.