Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Hand to Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Relief (Scooter Braun & Bun B, aired September 12, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 5 p.m. yesterday I switched the TV on in vain hoping that the much-ballyhooed telethon Hand in Hand, devoted to raising money for relief efforts for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, would be shown in real time at 5 p.m. (8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central). Alas, after competition from the Internet has pushed up the big awards shows so at least we get to see them in real time, we on the West Coast were once again reminded by the East Coast-centric mavens of the media world that we suck hind tit, now and always. So I waited for the show to come on at 8 p.m. on tape-delay (in case you haven’t got the message, I hate tape delays and really resent the way we on the West Coast are made second-class media citizens by the time shift) and in the meantime watched my usual favorites on MS-NBC, Chris Hayes’ All In, the Rachel Maddow Show and Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell — and they seemed oddly relieved to be able (mostly) to stop talking about the natural catastrophes that have been afflicting Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands (ironically the U.S. State Department has been assisting relief efforts to get U.S. citizens off the British Virgin Islands to the north of ours, but it seems no one in the U.S. government was off the block to get help to the residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, even though they’re legally part of this country, have U.S. citizenship and even have an elected, though non-voting, member of the House of Representatives) and get back to what they really want to talk about: Trump and Russia! Trump and Russia! Trump and Russia! After those three programs (though I bypassed the second half of O’Donnell’s show as usual so I could watch Jeopardy!, in which the woman who’d won the night before successfully defended her championship and this time all three panelists got the Final Jeopardy right and I missed it — the singer who’s won Album, Record and Song of the Year Grammys twice in the 21st century: I guesed Taylor Swift but it was really Adele, which was embarrassing since I have all three of her CD’s), and afterwards I left the TV on NBC to watch Hand in Hand

That turned out to be a major disappointment: though it was billed as a “telethon” it was only an hour long, and though it was blessedly shown without commercial interruptions (thougn one could credibly argue that the entire show was an hour-long commercial for hurricane relief!) there were only seven musical performances, not the long sets by established artists that had given previous aid shows like Live Aid, Live 8 and the 9/11, Katrina and Sandy telethons their sense of scope and power. Instead there were a lot of unidentified stars (almost no one was identified by name on this show — apparently the producers, Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun and Bun B “of the great Texas hip-hop duo UGK,” according to Mikael Wood in the Los Angeles Times (as far as I’m concerned the words “great” and “hip-hop,” the alias for rap used by people who like it, don’t belong in the same sentence, though at least the producers did not include a rap act in the show) getting trotted out to do pretty middle-of-the-road material. It opened with Stevie Wonder, backed by a great Black woman soul singer who was nominally one of his backup voices but deserves a chance to sing leads, doing — not one of his own inspirational songs, like “Higher Ground,” but Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” Wonder began his performance with an odd little speech saying that people who didn’t believe humans are causing climate change are “blind and/or stupid,” a weird thing for one of the world’s most famous blind people to say but indicative of a political subtext that ran through the event (and which Los Angeles Times TV reviewer Mikael Wood made the focus of his article,, even though it was considerably more muted than Wood made it seem) — climate scientists have been saying at least since Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago (has it been that long?) that human-caused climate change isn’t causing more hurricanes but is making the ones that would ordinarily occur considerably worse and more damaging. 

After Wonder’s “Lean on Me” came a duet between Blake Shelton and the Black singer Usher on “Stand By Me” (a song with its roots in the Black gospel tradition from which all the pop music of the 20th and 21st centurie — ragtime, jazz, blues, rock and rap — derives), along with Tori Kelly (a Braun client) and the Spanish-language singer Luis Fonsi doing a bilingual duet on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” (Who’d have thought “Hallelujah” — an album track Cohen recorded long after his career peak which was pretty much ignored on its initial release — and not “Suzanne,” which was virtually inescapable in the late 1960’s, would be the song by which Cohen would be remembered after he passed?) It was hardly in a league with the best versions of “Hallelujah” — Cohen’s, Jeff Buckley’s and k. d. lang’s — but it was still effective. After that came one of the high points of the night, Dave Matthews (with, as Charles joked, even less hair than he had at his career peak) performing a solo version of the song “Mercy,” whose pleas to “lift up your heart, lift up your mind” and “we gotta get together” seemed appropriate to the occasion. After that came a performance by an oddly jumbled group of people from Nashville — Darius Rucker, who after the breakup of his pop-rock band Hootie and the Blowfish did a surprisingly successful career transition to country music and became only the second major African-American country star (after Charley Pride), Brad Paisley and Demi Lovato on the Beatles’ classic “With a Little Help from My Friends” — alas, the performance covered Joe Cocker’s sucky version (the nadir of this white guy from England’s ongoing attempts to emulate Ray Charles) instead of the Beatles’ joyous original. Then was the last song, and musical high point, of the evening: another oddly assorted group, this time from San Antonio, Texas, with Robert Earl Keen, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert (so she and her ex-husband Blake Shelton were finally visible on the same show, albeit not only in different segments but from different cities over 1,500 miles apart!), Lyle Lovett and George Strait doing a Strait song called “Texas” whose gravamen seems to be that if Texas hadn’t existed, none of the people singing the song would, either. (I couldn’t help but think of particularly favorite musicians of mine that hailed from Texas, including Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Maren Morris; the first four are long dead but Morris, an incredible talent whose song “My Church” won my heart forever, deserved a place on this show.) I believe (no pun intended) that the version of “Texas” segued into a bit of a different song called “I Believe” (not the horrible piece of pseudo-religious treacle Frankie Laine did his best with in 1953 or the charming faux-spiritual Artie Shaw recorded with Mel Tormé in 1946), but it could have just been a coda, which would shrink the total number of songs performed on this show from seven to six. 

The Hand to Hand telecast was only an hour long, and most of that hour was spent telling presumably moving or heartbreaking stories about the people who had survived the hurricanes, as well as a few who didn’t (including a young mother who saved her son’s life at the cost of her own), of which the one I found most memorable was that of a woman who was about to be evacuated by a helicopter, only she wanted to bring a large bag with her. The helicopter crew member told her she could come but she would have to leave the bag behind because it was too heavy. “But my babies are in there!” she said — and when the crew member opened the bag, it turned out she was right: she had a two-year-old in the bag holding her even younger child. There was also a quirky segment on the evacuation of household pets (or should I be P.C. and call them “companion animals”?), which is actually a relatively new development in disaster evacuations: up until Katrina the standard practice among rescuers was to save the people but tell them to leave their pets behind, but so many would-be evacuees during Katrina flatly refused to leave their animals that disaster relief agencies rethought things and got it through their heads that not only are companion animals frequently virtual family members to whom people get as emotionally attached as they are to their kids, but having their pets with them would be a good experience and helpful for people who’ve been uprooted from their homes and lost all their physical possessions to derive emotional support and get some level of healing going quicker than they could if their beloved animals had been left behind to die. The reported total of donations received from this program was $14 million — though some of those were mega-donations from large corporations (Apple gave $1 million, and I suspect they also donated the computer equipment used to run the call centers, since they certainly looked like Macs), often framed as matching funds to encourage people to contribute. All in all, Hand in Hand was a good show for a good cause but hardly the show it could have been, or as earlier celebrities-coming-together-to-do-good shows have been (despite Bridget Jones’s Diary author Helen Fielding’s slashing attack on them as big-time ego-fests in her first book, Cause Celeb), but it produced some good music and promoted donations to a good cause.