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A Rousing Start for ‘Human Rights’ Tour

Times Pop Music Critic

Tolling for the searching ones on their speechless searching trail

For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale

An’ for each unharmful gentle soul misplaced inside a jail

An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

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--Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom”

Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” was a bigger hit in the ‘60s, but his “Chimes of Freedom” stands as an even more impassioned, underdog outcry of social idealism.

Dylan’s original version conveyed the frustration and hope of a generation virtually at war with the existing order. Yet it’s doubtful the song ever sounded more inspiring or urgent than when Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour sang it during the closing moments of the opening show in Amnesty International’s “Human Rights Now!” world tour.

Following Dylan’s song Friday at Wembley Stadium with another classic song of social activism, Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” the tour principals summarized the aspirations and spirit of this unprecedented six-week, 35,000-mile undertaking.

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More than a million people will see the tour live, including an estimated 65,000 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 21. Another billion people will be able to tune in a TV concert/documentary that will be broadcast Dec. 10 by HBO in the United States and syndicated that day throughout the world.

Springsteen, who closed the six-hour concert with a high-energy, 60-minute set, was clearly the crowd’s favorite at Wembley, the site in 1985 of the British half of Live Aid. There were chants of “We want Bruce” before he took the stage just past 10 p.m., and the sellout crowd of 72,000 gave such anthems as “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Thunder Road” the evening’s most energetic responses.

Still, the hourlong performances by Sting and especially Gabriel equally defined the passion and purpose of the tour, which is designed to mark the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a statement of social and political freedom adopted by the United Nations.

Because there was no live telecast, the concert didn’t offer the drama or sense of occasion throughout London that Live Aid established three years ago.

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This, however, was a superior concert, focusing on five outstanding artists rather than serving up a parade of singers and bands of varying quality in quick sets.

The eloquence and substance of Friday’s show left little doubt that this five-continent tour isn’t just the most ambitious rock tour ever staged logistically. It’s also the most distinguished multi-act concert ever put on the road.

The music on the cold, windy afternoon and evening also served as a bold proclamation of an idea that still will strike some as naive, but which seemed almost impossibly so earlier in the ‘80s: the idea that rock ‘n’ roll could once again be the vehicle for social change.

The consensus in the socially active wing of rock isn’t as broad or radical today as it was in the ‘60s, but there is a heartbeat of idealism that can again be measured. This tour is the most dramatic evidence of that heartbeat.

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Nici Sabin was 18 in 1985 when she attended Live Aid, and she recalled in an interview Friday at Wembley her own cynicism that day.

Sabin said she felt the show of concern over hunger in Ethiopia was just a passing phase, something merely fashionable for the artists and the fans.

But the Coventry resident said the parade of benefits since then--including a tribute to Nelson Mandela this summer at Wembley--and the socially conscious themes of numerous rock songs have changed her mind.

“I’m not saying everybody here today is going to devote themselves to Amnesty work, but I see this young crowd as part of a new generation that wants to do something about the problems of the world,” she said.

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Harvey Goldsmith, England’s most important concert promoter and one of the catalysts behind Live Aid, agreed about rock’s current social involvement. “Live Aid has changed the face of causes and music,” he said, standing backstage early in the concert. “Organizations call us every day for help because they know rock is an effective way to reach young people . . . that there is a receptiveness.”

Goldsmith pointed to the success of the 1986 “Conspiracy of Hope” tour in the United States, which generated 100,000 new members for Amnesty and dramatically raised the profile of the organization in the country.

It was the success of that tour that led Jack Healey, executive director of Amnesty in the United States, to organize the “Human Rights Now!” tour.

A key element of the tour, which moved to Paris for indoor shows Sunday and tonight, is that its nearly two dozen stops will take the Amnesty message to some cities where major Western rock stars are rarely, if ever, seen. These cities include New Delhi, Harare in Zimbabwe, and possibly Moscow.

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The $20-million project is being underwritten by Reebok, a sponsorship involvement that initially made some Amnesty International directors around the world uncomfortable, said Franca Sciuto, chairperson of Amnesty’s international executive committee.

The agreement was accepted, she said here Friday, only after the athletic footwear company agreed to strict guidelines and after a lengthy examination of its business practices.

Said Sciuto: “We didn’t want to go into a country and have someone get up and say, ‘Did you know that company does so and so?’ That kind of incident could really damage us as an organization.”

The decision to open and close the concert with an a cappella version of Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” appeared to be a last-minute one because most of the five principal singers and Sting’s backup vocalist Dolette McDonald held sheets of paper with the lyrics as they sang.

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It was a ragged beginning, but somewhat overcome after Senegalese singer N’Dour and his band delivered a 30-minute, percussion-heavy set that had to rely on vigor to convey its celebration of life because the vocals were not in English.

Gabriel, who followed, provided the day’s most gripping performances because his songs--except for the wry “Sledgehammer"--so well fit the themes of freedom and opportunity espoused by Amnesty International.

Through such songs as “Games Without Frontiers” (deploring racism and nationalism) and “Don’t Give Up” (detailing the despair of prolonged unemployment) Gabriel demonstrated how music with a message can be artfully mixed with commercial sensibilities.

Chapman, the Boston-based singer-songwriter whose debut album was No. 1 in both here and in the United States, followed with a 30-minute solo set. Backed by her own guitar, the small-framed woman sang “Fast Car” and other songs from the album with an authority yet intimacy that accented the message of Amnesty, which proclaims the power of the individual to affect change.

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Much of Sting’s music, like Gabriel’s, is a sophisticated blend of pop instincts and social observation. Along with Gabriel’s “Biko” and the “Chimes of Freedom” encore, his “They Dance Alone” provided the evening’s most emotional moments. It’s a lovely yet heartbreaking tale of women in Chile who dance with photographs of their jailed loved ones pinned to their clothes.

The reviews of the concert in Saturday’s papers here were generally glowing. “The Rights Stuff,” quipped the Daily Telegraph, which labeled the show “a triumph.” The London Times spoke about the “trailblazing” nature of the tour, and singled out Springsteen’s closing set for special praise.

That set was a dynamic performance that was a throwback to his hard-rocking “Born in the U.S.A.” days rather than a continuation of the more subdued, melancholy mood of his recent “Tunnel of Love” album and tour. Accordingly, he traded in the suit jacket and slacks of that tour for his old leather jacket and jeans.

While the set included tales of personal struggle (“Promised Land”) and social anger (“War”), it seemed more like a sample of a regular Springsteen show than an example of his established ability to rise to the occasion with an inspired, tailored set of songs.

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As he’s prone to do, however, Springsteen found a way in his remarks between songs to personalize the evening and the tour.

Recalling how he felt as a teen-ager buying rock singles, he said the music always represented to him, “A sense of fun, a sense of sex, a sense of good times, a sense of your own possibilities. . . . But most of all, a sense of freedom. . . .

“What if you could take these little three minutes of freedom and stretch them into hours and days. . . . Or what if you could spread them . . . to the people who need them most? What Amnesty International and tonight are about is making the world a little less oppressive, a little less brutal, but most of all more free.”


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