The artists tend to work with a grand palette and paint the obvious tropes so that even those in the cheap seats can hear what’s happening. The result is a lack of subtlety and fuzziness.
Let me make my biases clear. I am not a fan of Amnesty International as an organization. While I may agree with many of their criticisms of human rights violations and their support of groups such as Pussy Riot, I also find their assessments of other political entities specious and duplicitous. This review focuses on the double-disc compilation taken from four Human Rights Concerts held in New Jersey, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Paris between 1986-1998. While the net proceeds from the CD sales benefit Amnesty International, my concerns solely address the music. My criteria can be summed up in one short sentence: Does it kick butt?
And unfortunately, despite the plethora of talent (e.g., Peter Gabriel, Radiohead, Lou Reed, and the Police), the answer is simply no. That’s not to say there aren't some fine performances. The problem more generally lies in the recording of large outdoor concerts. The artists tend to work with a grand palette and paint the obvious tropes so that even those in the cheap seats can hear what’s happening. The result is a lack of subtlety and a fuzziness to the vocals and instrumentation.
Consider U2’s "MLK/Pride (In the Name of Love)" from the 1986 A Conspiracy of Hope show at Giants Stadium. The song was still fresh (a 1984 release), the crowd pumped and singing along, the lyrical content relevant to political activism, the anthemic nature of the tune infectious, etc. On paper, this seems the perfect moment for U2 to create a transcendent moment. Instead, it turns into a somewhat clichéd back of forth of "oh-oh-ohs" between the crowd and Bono before he blithely tells them to "Sing it for Jimi Hendrix, for John Lennon, for Reverend Martin Luther King." The spiritual meaning of the song gets lost as a simple paean for the dead which dissipates the enthusiasm in which the band was received. The track is forgettable at best.
The best cut from the first ten culled from the Jersey show is Joni Mitchell’s "Hejira". The Canadian singer-songwriter quiets the crowd down and raises the intensity through her thoughtful and literate description of life’s journey to a throbbing bass line. She mixes "hope and hopelessness" into something beautiful, sympathetic and, well, essentially human. She reveals the importance of every being on the planet, the stated cause, by simply expressing herself as an artist. If you are a fan of Mitchell, it’s worth the price of the CD for this cut alone.
The selections from the Argentinian concert in 1988 benefit from Bruce Springsteen’s contributions on three of the six tracks. The Boss's ability to work a crowd is well known, and he gives it his all. That said, there is nothing essential here. Another live version of "Born in the USA" with the E Street Band rocks hard, but a longish take on "Chimes of Freedom" with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N’Dour starts to drag, and Springsteen’s duet with Sting on "Every Breath You Take" in a country known for its secret police and torture not long in the past seems embarrassingly stupid.
The four tracks from Chile 1990 reveal more variety with the acts Inti-Illimani, Jackson Brown, Sinead O’Connor, and Sting sharing little in common. Again, the performances are simply not that good. This is probably due to the open air acoustics that prevent the musicians from hearing and reacting well to each other.
The French 1998 show’s eight cuts were better produced and recorded. Everything from Tracy Chapman’s "Fast Car" to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s "Rock and Roll" come off clear and strong. That said, most performances still come off as more affected than effective. The main exception is Springsteen who turns his own rollicking composition "No Surrender" into an acoustic folk tale that could pass for Dylan circa 1963, complete with harmonica. Like Mitchell on "Hejira", Springsteen's being quiet intensifies the moment. The impression gets a little lost during the sing along at the end, but the Boss's magic still lingers in the air.
So whether or not this two-disc anthology is worth your money remains a somewhat open question. For a Mitchell of Springsteen completest, sure, go for it. Fans of the other acts may prefer to skip this.