Tonight’s George Clooney-organized, multi-network Hope For Haiti Now telethon was a subdued, classy affair, thankfully free of any awkward “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moments. In all, the two-hour telecast included 19 musical performances, most of which were terrific. I could name two female artists who were a bit out of their league, but since they were singing for charity, I won’t. Instead, I’ll run down what were, in my humble opinion, the 10 best numbers of the night. (You can download them all, by the way, on iTunes.)
10. Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris I confess I’d never heard of Matt Morris before. But after his and Timberlake’s sensitive, almost half-tempo duet performance of Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered “Hallelujah,” I’m a convert.
9. Bruce Springsteen The Boss recorded Pete Seeger’s protest anthem “We Shall Overcome” for his 2006 Pete Seeger Sessions release. But I was crazy about his choice of instrumentation tonight: guitar, accordion, four backup singers, and trumpet.
8. Stevie Wonder Time constraints surely forced him to perform an abridged version (no pun intended) of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But Wonder conveyed deep emotion (not to mention amazing vocal range) in half the time.
7. Wyclef Jean The Haitian native began his medley with the reggae classic “Rivers of Babylon” (from one of the best albums I’ve ever heard, the soundtrack to 1972’s The Harder They Come) and ended it with an hard-driving number that felt kind of like a commercial for Anderson Cooper 360 (the anchor, who ably cohosted tonight, received two shout-outs). But it was the perfect ending to the evening.
6. Christina Aguilera We’ve always known Xtina was a gifted singer. But her belt-tastic performance of her new ballad “Lift Me Up” (a track from her upcoming Bionic CD) was reminiscent of Whitney Houston in her prime.
5. Beyoncé There was so much to love about her stripped-down version of “Halo.” For starters, there was Chris Martin on piano. And the lyric change from “Baby, I can see your halo” to “Haiti, I can see your halo” was appropriate and lovely.
4. Alicia Keys The ridiculously talented singer-songwriter opened the telethon with the plaintive “Prelude to a Kiss” from her As I Am record. Her impassioned wailing at the end represented all the crying victims we’ve seen in the streets of Haiti.
3. Sting Just when the show was starting to get a little too ballad-heavy, out came Sting to perform a seminal uptempo Police track from 1980, “Driven to Tears,” complete with horns. Leave it to one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring musicians to have the tightest band of the night.
2. Jennifer Hudson The Oscar winner’s take on the Beatles’ “Let It Be” was part soul, part Caribbean, all diva. This is a woman who knows pain and heartache, and it showed.
1. Mary J. Blige I’ve loved Stephen Foster’s Civil War lament “Hard Times Come Again No More” ever since I heard Mare Winningham perform it in the 1995 film Georgia. (Bob Dylan is perhaps its most celebrated interpreter.) But Blige brought it 150 years forward with her incredibly moving rendition. If this didn’t get people watching to call and offer help, I don’t know what will.
Who was your favorite performer of the telethon?