'VH1 Honors' watchdog benefit was truly something to witness

April 30, 1996|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- Talk about strange evenings.

"VH1 Honors" on Sunday night at the Universal Amphitheatre was such an odd mixture of pure magic and disheartening mess that you wondered the next morning if it wasn't all just a dream.

In key moments, the "VH1 Honors" concert showed the potential to touch us with an almost spiritual grace. The 2 1/2 -hour program, televised live on VH1, saluted Witness, a watchdog organization co-founded in 1992 by rock singer Peter Gabriel that encourages people around the world to document human rights violations with video cameras and other means.

Sunday's highlights built beautifully on that theme: Mr. Gabriel joined by Natalie Merchant and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe on his cleansing "Red Rain," then teaming with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on a passionate new song Gloria Estefan offering an uplifting medley of her "Coming Out of the Dark" and "Reach" Pete Townshend delivering a solo version of "Won't Get Fooled Again" Stipe surprising us with "Last Day of Our Acquaintance," Sinead O'Connor's tale of betrayal.

But you knew we were in for a rocky journey when the telecast opened with Rod Stewart singing "Every Picture Tells a Story," complete with his usual pop-rock vaudeville antics of mike-stand twirling and exaggerated hip-shaking. The song's title may inadvertently underscore the theme of video documentation of state and police abuse, but it's a pretty tenuous connection, and the spirit of the number was all wrong.

Actor-director Tim Robbins was a classy host, staying focused on the issue in a gentle, understated way as he introduced the performers (who also included Don Henley and Bryan Adams) and celebrity narrators (Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Anthony Edwards, Laurence Fishburne, Jimmy Smits and Oliver Stone).

Near the end of the evening, Mr. Stipe expressed that power most eloquently -- without twirling his mike-stand or plugging his latest hit.

"In George Orwell's '1984,' those in power controlled the people by watching and monitoring their every move," the singer said, standing at the podium. "Now, the people can do the watching and informing on Big Brother. Let those in power be warned: Witness is watching."

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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