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Pop Music Review

'Dead Man' Has One Voice

Divided by musical styles but united by a cause, top performers join actor Tim Robbins in an L.A. benefit concert opposing death penalty.

March 31, 1998|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

What do Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Michelle Shocked, Eddie Vedder, Tom Waits and Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have in common?

In an age of fragmented radio formats and strict separation of albums by genre in record stores, it may seem like a trick question to suggest that there is a bond between artists whose individual styles have been described variously as country, rock, pop, folk, avant-garde, grunge and world music.

During a nearly four-hour benefit--titled "Not in Our Name: Dead Man Walking--The Concert"--on Sunday at the Shrine Auditorium, however, the link between these diverse artists was readily apparent. They each make purposeful and heartfelt music.

No one matched the energy and electricity of Waits, who made a rare concert appearance, but each of the 20- to 30-minute sets had a warm, personal stamp.

As is often said, the ultimate division in pop is between good music and bad music, and it's a tribute to actor-director Tim Robbins' taste that he recognized that in putting together this concert, which raised funds for the national organization Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and for Hope House of New Orleans.

Robbins, who also emceed the event, had already dealt with most of these artists three years ago when he invited them to submit songs to a soundtrack album to accompany "Dead Man Walking," his brilliant film about the moral issues surrounding the death penalty.

In both cases, Robbins delivered a winner.

The album--which also contained songs by Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and Patti Smith, among others--is one of the most moving collections of the '90s. The highlights of Sunday's event were similarly stirring and poignant.

The diversity of the artists' backgrounds was reflected in the nature of their presentations. Some (Earle, DiFranco and Shocked) brought a sense of activism to the stage, conveying their opposition to the death penalty both in song and in comments between numbers.

Others (Lovett, Waits and Vedder) expressed their feelings only in their music.

Backed by a four-piece group, Waits, who has been absent from the pop scene in recent years, was as eye-opening as a lightning bolt as he opened the second half of the concert.

The first thing that hits you about Waits is his physicality. He throws his body into the music with all sorts of odd, unlikely contortions that suggest some neo-Frankenstein's creature at work. His vocals are equally unconventional--a basic growl sometimes tempered by a tender falsetto, at other times distorted by a bullhorn.

Waits' songs, too, rip through the conventional boundaries of pop with equal imagination and assault. As he combines images so mystical and extreme that you are both seduced and puzzled by them, he strikes you as the American Van Morrison. Few artists ever in pop have created their own world as fully and as commandingly.

On Sunday, Waits focused on relatively recent works, including "The Fall of Troy" and "Walk Away," both from the "Dead Man" album, and "Goin' Out West" and "Jesus Gonna Be Here," both from his 1992 album, "Bone Machine."

Facing the daunting task of following Waits on stage, DiFranco, appearing without her band, was more low-key than usual, but the intimacy of her delivery worked well.

Along with Earle's "Ellis Unit One," which looks at capital punishment through the eyes of a death row guard whose conscience has been scarred by all the executions, DiFranco's "Crime for Crime" was one of the evening's most powerful numbers. It contains the chilling image of a woman on death row running her hands through her hair for the final time.

For the closing segment, Vedder--whose vocal collaboration with the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on "The Long Road" was one of the cornerstones of the "Dead Man Walking" album--came on stage alone with his guitar to deliver a tender, bluesy rendition of "Trouble," a Cat Stevens song from the '70s.

It was a surprise selection and an effective one. The song's weary tone touches on the anguish of everyone involved in the capital punishment struggle, from the inmate to the victims of the crime to the families involved.

The Pearl Jam singer was then joined on "The Long Road" by Nusrat's nephew, Rahat--who is carrying on in his uncle's musical tradition and who is a star in his own right. They were backed by Vedder's bandmate Jeff Ament on bass, David Robbins on guitar and John Densmore, from the Doors, and Dildar Hussain on percussion.

In keeping with the song's theme of death and loss, Vedder and Rahat sought in their vocals to capture the spiritual comfort offered by the album version, and they came close. Though Rahat didn't match the soaring, ethereal quality that his uncle brought to the number, the 10-minute performance served as a satisfying benediction for the evening.

Most of the cast then returned to the stage as Waits, appropriately, led everyone through a ragged, bittersweet version of his "Innocent When You Dream.'

The tune, which featured surprise guest Bonnie Raitt on bottleneck guitar, served as a final, cleansing moment in an evening of music that, unlike so many benefits, never lost sight of its subject matter.

Indeed, the performers kept the focus on the issues of humanity and redemption so fully that it didn't even seem like an interruption when the microphone was handed to Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun who wrote the book that inspired "Dead Man Walking."

Briefly tracing her involvement with the capital punishment struggle, she served as the ultimate link between this diverse group of musicians--defining in concrete and disturbing terms the reality rooted in their art.

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