When I Say “Debt” You Say “Relief”: Live 8 in Philadelphia

At first, I had no intention of going. In fact, I was going to leave town and miss it completely.

The thought of hundreds of thousands of people descending upon the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for an all-day concert sent shudders through me, and through many others throughout Philadelphia. We know how jammed it gets every year for the big 4th of July concert/fireworks display on the Parkway. That’s the annual culmination of a week of events celebrating America’s fight for independence, when thousands of tourists from across America show up to remind us that we have a lot of history to see here. I went to last year’s show featuring the Isley Brothers, and the lines for the porta-potties were ridiculous. But Live 8 promised to be even bigger than that, and as is the Philadelphian spirit, thoughts immediately turned to the worst.

The major issues centered on logistics: basically, where would we put all these people? Would there be enough hotel rooms even beyond the normal traffic for the 4th? How would we deal with the traffic? How big would the cleanup be, considering that we would still have our regular concert (if any show starring Sir Elton John and Patti LaBelle, among others, could be considered regular) two days later? And would enough money be made to cover all the police overtime such a concert would require?

Then the vendors raised a fuss. Specifically, African-American vendors and other entrepreneurs, who marched on City Hall to make sure that they were allowed to get in on the action. They were joined by dozens of brides- and grooms-to-be, whose plans for a Saturday wedding or reception at a Parkway venue were thrown into disarray. In short, the run-up to Live 8 in Philadelphia was, well, typically Philadelphian.

There was also some grumbling about the line-up. The heavy hitters for this latest attempt to mix music and activism, U2, Coldplay, and of course Sir Bob Geldof, would all be in Europe for the big dance, leaving Philly (the only American site, and only because no large-enough spot in Washington DC would be available) with . . . P. Diddy? Jars of Clay? Def Leppard? Ah, there’s three acts that make me think of “influencing world economic policy”. Everywhere else had either big-time rock activists or international music stars; Philly got the Top of the Pops.

And not even a reasonably coherent version of the pop charts. It was as though someone looked at demographics more carefully than they considered tour schedules. You want pop? Destiny’s Child, Black Eyed Peas, Alicia Keys. You want country? Keith Urban. You want singer-songwriters? Sarah Maclachan and Josh Groban. You want to headbang? Linkin Park. You want hometown flava? Will Smith, in a rare concert appearance, and Maroon 5. You want hip-hop? Kanye West and Jay-Z (but not Philly natives the Roots, who were told that they didn’t fit the bill, but that they could back up Jay-Z if they wanted. They declined, having already done that once in this life). Straight-up rock? Rob Thomas. Rock with edge? The Kaiser Chiefs. And filling the social conscience slots: Stevie Wonder and the Dave Matthews Band.

Perhaps it would have been a grand social experiment, or special marketing opportunity, to see if Keith Urban could snare some love from Jay-Z’s faithful. But on the face of it, the Philly line-up read like it was generated by SoundScan, the music sales recording system. It’s not that the line-ups weren’t necessarily bleeding-edge, but that every musical taste with a significant share of the buying public (except Latino styles) was conveniently represented, as if to insure that everyone in the house would have someone to root for. Noah’s Ark Concert Promotions LLP, at your service.

Even more curious was the treatment the stars would be receiving. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that each performer would be receiving, as a token of the organizers’ appreciation, goodie bags worth thousands of dollars. The bags themselves were only worth US$53, but they were stuffed with designer clothing, jewelry, sports gear, satellite radios and subscriptions, and guitars. Backstage, they’d dine at miniature versions of posh Philly restaurants. Local PR firms saw the opportunity to schmooze some of the pop music elite as a major coup. Others with a slightly less mercenary take wondered about the propriety of such extravagance at an event designed to call attention to the plight of developing nations in Africa and elsewhere.

Oh yeah, Africa: the concert is supposed to be about that, right? Conveniently enough, Philly happens to be home to a sizeable African immigrant population. But we didn’t hear much from them during the run-up, at least not through the star-struck local media, and if a single member of that community was actively involved in the event on any level besides T-shirt hawker, I’d be amazed (to their credit, the Inquirer and the Free Library of Philadelphia sponsored educational and cultural events around the issues the continent is facing).

For the final days before the show, it was all Live 8, all the time on the news. Reports of acts added to the lineup at the last minute (Diddy and 50 Cent couldn’t make it – darn!) were breathlessly announced. The progress of erecting the stage was a staple of live TV shots. The mayor’s cabinet was in front of the cameras all week, urging Philadelphians that everything was under control. People were urged to use mass transit – apparently a radical thought around here, as folks had to be advised which trains to use to get them here from, as one station actually put it, “the burbs”.

Still and all, everything was coming into place quite nicely. I decided to stick around, if only to see what a throng of a million people actually looked like. The heat wouldn’t be too oppressive and humid that day, and everyone pretty much knew what to expect. The gates opened at 6am Saturday.

* * *

By 5am, the place was already abuzz with activity. Vendors were setting up, concert-goers were making their way to the site, and those who’d camped out along the Parkway (despite warnings against such behavior) were rustling from their slumber.

To protect against the mother of all traffic jams, the Fairmount/Art Museum neighborhood just north of the Parkway was closed to traffic, unless you could prove you lived or worked there. That was an inconvenience to those who ride buses through the area, since they were all rerouted. But the residents seemed not to be bothered. In spite of all the inconvenience, the mood was festive. On the main drags, the bars were open early, and all the stores were doing brisk business selling supplies for the day. Even the side streets seemed livelier than usual. Was this merely a function of Live 8 excitement, or was it what could happen when you banish car traffic from a neighborhood?

I finally started my trek towards the Parkway around 11am. With all due apologies to Joni Mitchell, by the time I got to Live 8, we were half a million strong, easy (not that anybody had any idea how to count that many people). It certainly felt like half a million when my wandering through the scene ended up in a pack of human gridlock, with people trying to move in any direction while some cops tried to clear a path for an ambulance. At some point during all this, the Kaiser Chiefs started their set, unannounced and basically ignored. It was the actual beginning of the concert, only it went down without so much as a “Welcome to Live 8” acknowledgement.

Eventually, I found myself in a clear spot, so I plunked my chair down and claimed turf while I tried to locate my friends (what did people meeting up at mass events do in the days before cell phones?). They were making their way off the train up 22nd Street, and we connected across from a Ben & Jerry’s stand just as the Black Eyed Peas, the “official” opening act, were winding up their set. They concluded with an appearance by Rita and Stephen Marley, a last-minute tack-on ostensibly to address the glaring lack of performers from elsewhere besides America and/or with a reputation for standing up for the downtrodden.

Our party made its way down the Parkway until we could pretty much go no further, which was under the flag of Malawi (the Parkway carries the flags of the world during the spring and summer), about a US football field and change from the first big jumbotron. That was an even further distance from the actual stage at the foot of the Art Museum. Perhaps the best seats in the house were enjoyed by residents atop an apartment building just off the Parkway.

After the Peas came Bon Jovi, doing three of their most obvious hits, none of which had anything remotely to do with world hunger or global priorities. That’s obviously not their fault, but it speaks to the disconnect of the whole day. Things settled into a familiar pattern: the actors (Don Cheadle, Jimmy Smits, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Connelly, Chris Tucker, et al) made the global-hunger speeches when they introduced their artists, who did an abbreviated greatest-hits-live set of three or so songs (some went longer). There were countless exhortations to email or text message our names to a petition, but exactly what this petition would be used for once completed was never spelled out. Maybe we were supposed to know all that from the hype of the run-up, but such minor subtleties were not part of the mix in Philly. Here the mindset was “let’s get ready for a big-ass party,” and ready they were.

The mix-and-match nature of the lineup also made for some predictable patterns. Basically, if you didn’t care for the band on stage, that was your cue for a food break or potty run. (Amazingly, I didn’t have the experience of waiting in that line, for which I am quite grateful). After a while, everyone just wanted to hang out, be part of a historically large gathering, and see his or her faves for free. And some of those faves turned in good work. Kanye West was up for the occasion, as was Smith, who led the throng in a singalong of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song.

My body decided to sleep through Dave Matthews (no offense), but woke up in time to hear Keys give the day’s most heartfelt speech by a performer (and one of exactly two tributes to Luther Vandross, who died the day before the show), sing the chestnut “For All We Know”, then walk offstage. She only did one song, and I heard a few boos from the audience. Perhaps she graciously ceded some of her time to the Roots’ Black Thought, who seized the mic for an unscheduled, blistering freestyle entitled “Imagine” that had nothing to do with John Lennon.

Those closer to the stage had the benefit of feeling more of the performers’ energy, but where we were and further back, folks needed something visceral to rivet attention. Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s rap-rock mashup worked better live than on record, at least in our section of the throng. Urban’s upbeat, good-time set was well received, but Maclachan’s sensitive fare got lost amongst the restless multitude (not that such material ever works well before any restless multitude). By 5pm, the people leaving easily outnumbered those moving in closer for a better view.

Our spot was relatively empty, at least since earlier in the day, when Stevie Wonder finally went on, an hour after the posted time. He was resplendent in all white, and gracious enough to allow Thomas and the guy from Maroon 5 to join him on some of the hits. Wonder performed three songs from his new CD, which most folks didn’t know because it hasn’t been released yet (they’ve only been playing the single “What the Fuss” for months, and two announced release dates have come and gone with no new date forthcoming). By around a quarter to 7 it was over – no fanfare, no all-hands-on-stage finale, just “thanks” and “good night” and “don’t forget to do that text message thing.” And so it ended, with folks heading back to their lives and vendors trying to unload the last of their wares.

* * *

So was anybody’s mind or heart changed by all this pop music largesse? That never seemed to be the point in Philly. Here, it was “let’s get ready for the day and have a great time, and everybody keep your fingers crossed.”

By that perspective, the concert came off amazingly well. There were few arrests for rowdy behavior, the city functioned well, and the whole thing really was a great festival. The only snag was experienced by those who waited hours for trains to take them home. We left behind 135 tons of trash, which were all but gone the next day as if Live 8 had never happened – and it had to be that way, since there was another event scheduled for the Parkway Sunday, plus the Elton John gig Monday night.

Clearly, Philly knows how to throw a party this big. But if the point of all this was more than just a party – if the idea was to convince people through the power of seeing their stars for free on a jumbotron in the middle of a street that they could make a difference to the leaders of the industrialized world – it didn’t much happen. The only people working the throng to talk about the issues were college kids singing up people for CARE; apparently, no one had the concession for those white “Make Poverty History” bracelets. Mass events aren’t the place to do educating and organizing over complex issues like the state of affairs vis-à-vis Africa, but it would be hard to imagine how many of the million-plus of us understood why the event was happening from being at the actual event, much less remembered that text message address once their ears stopped ringing.

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