Monday, May 04, 2009

pete's birthday

pete's 90th birthday

Postcard from the road: Pete Seeger's all-star hootenanny

By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
More than 18,000 fans and friends showed up on Sunday night for a concert at Madison Square Garden honoring Pete Seeger's 90th birthday. USA TODAY was there, too.

The cause: Folk singer/songwriter, political/environmental activist and rock heroes' hero Pete Seeger turned 90 Sunday night, and some of his better-known disciples came out to celebrate. The birthday bash also was a benefit for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a non-profit group founded by Seeger to preserve the Hudson.

The songs: Classic tunes that Seeger wrote or helped popularize were joined by songs reflecting his socially conscious spirit, including Bob Dylan's Maggie's Farm and Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad, which the Boss performed with Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello. Morello and Taj Mahal teamed for Seeger's anti-war anthem Waist Deep in the Big Muddy. Joan Baez strummed a guitar through Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and John Mellencamp followed a lean acoustic If I Had a Hammer with his own Seeger-inspired A Ride Back Home. Dave Matthews remembered his mother bringing him to see Seeger ("my first concert") before singing Rye Whiskey.

Thejams: Several numbers brought folkies of various ages, and folkie families, together. Emmylou Harris joined second-generation troubadour Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda Thompson), Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Kate's children Rufus and Martha Wainwright — along with the New York City Labor Chorus and Sparrow Duo — for The Water Is Wide. Tim Robbins joined the Wainwrights on Michael, Row the Boat Ashore, and We Shall Overcome was a rousing ensemble number. The birthday boy performed in various groupings: with Mahal and Steve Earle, among others, for Sailin' Up, Sailin' Down; with the crowd for This Land Is Your Land; and with grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and other relatives.

Other team efforts:Maggie's Farm brought together Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Richie Havens, Warren Haynes and Mahal. Kristofferson and Ani DiFranco offered Hole in the Bucket, while DiFranco and Bruce Cockburn covered Which Side Are You On. Arlo Guthrie, Del McCoury and U.S. Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., were part of the eclectic outfit performing Oh Mary Don't You Weep; Roger McGuinn, Ben Bridwell and Tyler Ramsey played Turn, Turn, Turn; and The Torn Flag featured Bela Fleck and Ruby Dee, the latter reading Seeger's poem.

The Boss' boss: Springsteen spoke with obvious affection before his set, referring to Seeger as "an archive of America's history and conscience." Seeger "carries inside him a steely toughness that belies a grandfatherly facade. He's going to look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your a—."

The lighter side: British folk rocker Billy Bragg joked about "strange times when a labor union can own a car company (Chrysler)." Sesame Street's Oscar the Grouch joined Tom Chapin in a cheeky nod to Seeger's eco-consciousness on Garbage. And Seeger turned Amazing Grace into a singalong, telling the audience, "There's no such thing as a wrong note as long as you're singing."

Before the show: Harris said Seeger taught her that music "is all about the song, not about the person," and that it "can change and inform people." Morello saw inspiration "in how he combines uncompromising activism with heart and soul and generous spirit." Baez hailed Seeger as "the number one, the big daddy" of socially conscious musicians, adding that she sings the elegiac Flowers all over the world. "Its message is universal."

Robbins credited Seeger with proving that music can "not only lift up the spirit but enlighten."

In his own words: "Normally, I'm against big things," Seeger said of the event backstage. "I think the world's going to be solved by millions of small things." But "needless to say, I'm very honored."

The encore: Artists filled the stage for an encore set that included When the Saints Go Marching In and a medley of Well May the World Go and This Little Light of Mine.

The prices: Tickets started at $19.19 (the year of Seeger's birth). Most seats sold, fittingly, for $19.19 and 90.00