Three hours is a long time to sit staring at a stage on which the anti-war movement (or at least some semblance of it) has gathered and not wonder what, exactly, the hell is going on–not just with the war in Iraq, but with the entire discourse surrounding it. The occasion was a big "Bring 'Em Home Now" concert last night at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, where fiery protest mom Cindy Sheehan shared the spotlight with Michael Stipe, Bright Eyes, Rufus Wainwright, Moby, Peaches, Chuck D, Fischerspooner, Devendra Banhart, Margaret Cho, Susan Sarandon, and Steve Earle, among a few others. It was an ambitious event benefiting a "Bring 'Em Home Now" reading tour to pair Sheehan with authors in 15 cities in April, and the message was… Well, the message was that the war sucks and it would be a lot better if we weren't in it. It's unfair to expect a group of entertainers to articulate ideas more coherent than those proffered by legislators, but it was hard not to arch a skeptical brow over how, exactly, an immediate pull-out of troops would work to temper the chaos everyone was right to bemoan. It was especially hard early on, after an empathetic and class-conscious set by Earle gave way to the vamps of Fischerspooner and Peaches. I love pop music as much as anyone, the show and pomp and pageantry of it. These are values I hold dear and consider important to the world and the way it works. But Fischerspooner? Peaches? The former featured shiny costumes and deliberately awkward stage dancers; the latter sang about her pussy. Good acts, both–but really far from what should be considered ideal embodiments of a message with legs. They gained some retroactive muster, however, when Moby and Devendra Banhart turned back the dial to some notion of "protest music" cribbed from an age long-since gone. Moby did an acoustic cover of a Buffalo Springfield song (the one with "Stop, children, what's that sound? / Everybody look what's going down"), while Banhart wriggled and moaned to fuzz-tone guitars and "shoo bop shoo bop" refrains. Is there really such a dearth of topical music now that musty '60s signifiers are all we have? Yes and no. Chuck D made a rousing appearance without even performing; he gave a short speech notable for its claim that only 18 percent of Americans even have passports. "Be a citizen of the planet!" Rufus Wainwright was the first performer to sound truly engaged with the situation at hand. His voice was stunning live, and it went a long way toward suggesting the exhaustion and frustration seeded into the sentiment of the night. That might sound defeatist, but it wasn't–especially when he launched into a version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" that should've sounded mawkish but instead came off as improbably strong and defiant. The other big surprise of the night was Bright Eyes. I like their albums OK (though none as much as the now-old Fevers & Mirrors), but I've always found the live show underwhelming and amateurish in ways that betray what the songs are trying to do. Not sure if Conor Oberst recruited a new band (it was smaller than last time I saw them, certainly fewer keyboard players who don't, like, know how to play keyboard), but they stormed through a short set that ended with a rough, raw take on "When The President Talks To God." That song usually makes me wince, but seeing Oberst stomp his foot uncontrollably as he screamed it was bracing to say the least. It was the night's first real show of indignation, the first display of what musical energy allows for and breeds. Michael Stipe was disquieting afterward, playing a short set that was surprisingly somber, spectral, atmospheric. It was moody to stirring ends, making me think about the program's sequencing and squirm at how hard I'd been on the acts earlier in the night. I stand by my takes on them, but by the end, the night as a whole came to mean more than I might have guessed.

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