`Equality Rocks' a rainbow coalition

Music: Benefit for gay and lesbian rights reaches out to a diverse group of performers.

April 29, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Performing at a big benefit concert is usually perceived as enlightened self-interest.

Neil Young, who has an autistic child, organized the Bridge Concerts to raise money for the Bridge School, which treats such children. Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys is a Buddhist, so he helped organize the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. Because Sting is big on environmental activism, he's a regular part of the annual rain forest benefit concerts.

So it's not surprising that Melissa Etheridge was the first artist brought on board for Equality Rocks, the gay and lesbian rights concert being held at Washington's RFK Stadium today. Etheridge has long been outspoken about her lesbianism and has worked hard for the cause of hate crimes legislation.

But the second big artist announced for the concert was Garth Brooks -- a straight artist not normally identified with the movement.

Indeed, the artist roster for Equality Rocks runs the gamut, not only from straight to gay, but also from rock to country and from to R&B to Latin.

In addition to Etheridge and Brooks, musicians performing include chanteuse k.d. lang, '80s icon George Michael, British duo the Pet Shop Boys, Cuban legend Albita, cabaret song connoisseur Michael Feinstein, soul diva Chaka Khan and singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright.

Getting such a wide range of performers was "absolutely by design," says Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian rights advocacy group.

"As the gay movement for equality matures in this country, we have to get outside ourselves," she says. "When we can reach out and understand what other people face, I think that makes us a stronger, more relevant movement."

Birch sees two reasons for this philosophy: One is the growing number of gays who are becoming parents. "We're in the middle of the gay-bie boom," she says. "Suddenly, a lot of people who are gay are waking up and saying, `You know what? I think I have more in common with other parents than with anyone else.' "

And as the HRC lobbies for stronger legislation against hate crimes, Birch and her co-workers recognize that the pain survivors feel does not discriminate. She mentions the cases of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten and left to die in a field in Wyoming, and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to his death in Texas. Each was killed for different reasons, Birch notes, but "the fact is, the raw grief faced by James Byrd's parents is no different than what Judy and Dennis Shepard face."

Equality Rocks is tied into Sunday's Millennium March on Washington for Equality, in which hundreds of thousands are expected to participate.

But, Birch stresses, the concert will stand on its own as a musical event.

"This concert has something for everybody, like George Michael and Garth Brooks," she says. "You'll see Chaka Khan singing with all the girls. There are really incredible moments in this show, and it's going to end on a high. We're hoping to lift the sky."

`Equality Rocks'

When: Today, 6 p.m. (Gates open at 4 p.m.)

Where: RFK Stadium, Washington

Tickets: $35-$1,000

Call: 410-481-7328

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