John Lennon concert brings out Cyndi Lauper, Patti Smith, Aimee Mann for 30th year at Beacon Theater

JIM FARBER / November 15, 2010

John Lennon would have turned 70 last month and, if pressed, one might imagine just as many ways to interpret each one of his songs. It's doubtful, however, that before this weekend anyone thought to perform one of his pieces aided by a juggler.

That unforeseen twist — which featured ball-tossing YouTube sensation Chris Bliss on "Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds" -- gave the 30th annual John Lennon Tribute concert, its most novel moment, if nothing else. The rest, which took place at the Beacon Theater Friday night, mere blocks from where Lennon was murdered three decades ago, featured a solid, if common, line up of star/devotees, including Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Patti Smith, Joan Osborne, Aimee Mann, Taj Mahal and Shelby Lynne.


The Lennon concert series began back in 1981 under the care of the modest drama group The Theater Within. Aided by the round number of Lennon's birthday this year, and the significant anniversary of his murder (arriving December 8th), the Beacon show sold out.

That's a nice turn for the cause it benefits: the "Playing For Change" foundation, which promotes peace, education, and general good vibes, through the building of music schools around the world.

Perhaps inspired by the mission to teach, Friday's show featured a little too much lecturing. No fewer than five different speakers broke up the music, about three too many. Thankfully, the actual music struck a respectable balance between the rote and the inventive.

Alejandro Escovedo offered a fascinating inversion of "Help," turning it from a manic statement of youthful desire to a desperate plea for intervention. Unannounced guest Bettye LaVette did equal wonders with "The Word." Looking bad-ass and smashing at 64, she made the song a gripping rock-soul rave-up.

Joan Osborne brought her own eros and soul to a roiling take on "Hey, Bulldog."

Meshell Ndegeocello went for something more radical with "God." Using just her bass and her voice, she mutated the song into a jazzy meditation, ending up with something more pretty than Lennon's original. On the other hand, Shelby Lynne took the icon's original intention with "Mother" to the tenth power. Lynne has the pipes to turn Lennon's primal scream piece literal. Her version gained even more power through its subtext. Lynne's father murdered her mother when she was just a child.

Context also lent depth to Patti Smith's take on "Oh Yoko." She said she chose it because seeing how Ono dealt with the loss of John showed her how to live as a widow. Smith lost her own husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, in 1994.

The show's top liners had more trouble finding their footing. Jackson Browne seemed an odd choice for "Revolution," given the inward nature of his voice and character. And though Cyndi Lauper brought a hymnal resonance to "Across The Universe," she lost her way during an under-rehearsed "A Day In The Life." It didn't help that she made a wildly unlikely partner on the song with Browne.

Then again, that pairing proved no stranger than the appearance of the juggler. To top that, maybe next year they should try a ventriloquist.

Set List:

Aimee Mann & Alejandro Escovedo "#9 Dream"
Rich Pagnano "Gimme Some Truth"
The Kennedys "And Your Bird Can Sing"
Meshell Ndegeocello "God"
Wendy Osserman Dance Company "Free As A Bird"
Alejandro Escovedo "Help"
Vusi Mahlasela & Taj Mahal "Watching The Wheels"
Shelby Lynne "Mother"
Joan Osborne "Hey Bulldog"
Chris Bliss & Joan Osborne "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"
Keb Mo' "In My Life"
Taj Mahal & Diva Mahal "Come Together"
Taj Mahal & Keb Mo' "You Can't Do That"
Bettye Lavette "The Word"
Aimee Mann "Jealous Guy"
Martin Sexton "Working Class Hero"
Patti Smith "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Oh Yoko"
Jackson Browne "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"
Jackson Browne & Playing For Change "Revolution"
Playing For Change "Instant Karma," "All You Need Is Love"
Cyndi Lauper "Across The Universe"
Cyndi Lauper & Jackson Browne "A Day In The Life"
Whole Cast "Power To The People," "Give Peace A Chance"