Live: The Black Eyed Peas Grandstand, Survive The Rain In Central Park

rsz_william.jpg

The Black Eyed Peas
The Great Lawn, Central Park
Friday, September 30

Better than: Being kettled.

Before Friday's Central Park show, the latest Black Eyed Peas news involved the group's announcement that they would be joining Christina Aguilera, Smokey Robinson, and Cee Lo Green on stage at a Michael Jackson tribute concert next month. It's a natural fit, because when it comes globe-spanning, black-or-white mega-pop, the Peas seem to be constantly reaching for (and in the case of 2009's The E.N.D., almost achieving) the monocultural dominance that once put Thriller in some 110 million households. will.i.am still hasn't written his "Billie Jean," but his presence at the head of this concert—half world's-biggest-charity-gala, half IRL telethon—showed that when it comes to toothless neoliberal humanitarian grandstanding, the rapper/producer might even have MJ beat.

As protestors occupied Wall Street 20 miutes away, I arrived at the park's great lawn while speakers the size of skyscrapers blasted John Lennon's "Imagine" and a message decidedly different than that emerging from the megaphones downtown. After the night's emcee urged the 60,000 people in attendance to "go buy some Calvin Klein" because the designer had donated to the Robin Hood Foundation, the banker-run non-profit organizing the event, he smoothly segued into another corporate endorsement: "Someone else who we love is Chase Bank." And after playing a brief Chase commercial concluded, "They're so rich. That's why we love them." (Yes, thank god for the rich, because if not for them, who would donate to the poor?)

This display, followed by the ensuing parade of millionaires—all of whom were somehow able to convince themselves that they were in fact part of the solution—was almost enough to convince me to ditch the show and cab it down to the protests. Fortunately I stayed, and the Black Eyed Peas put on one of the best large-scale shows I've seen in recent memory

The group's set began with The E.N.D.'s "Rock That Body," will.i.am leading his bandmates through the song's buzzing synths and the stage's Speed Racer graphics before allowing Fergie to take centerstage on "Meet Me Halfway" and "Just Can't Get Enough." Belting out these spacey hooks, then having a go at the more reserved "Glamorous" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" later in the evening, Fergie took a giant leap towards restoring the reputation that was so damaged by the group's disastrous Super Bowl performance. Yes, she must continuously struggle to rein in her voice, and yes, sometimes she loses the battle, but on most of her grimace-inducing slip-ups (and on Friday there were only one or two), the problem is caused by the arena-sized speakers putting most of their muscle into the bass and leaving her vocals hanging in the upper registers.

Meanwhile, the mock freestyle that followed "Just Can't Get Enough" provided will.i.am with his most impressive vocal performance, and although he capably handled the challenge presented by the beat's triple-time conclusion, the show's most pleasurable moments came when he dropped the mic altogether and began spinning records in a hydraulic DJ booth. The set, beginning with Usher's "OMG" and moving through, roughly, Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams," Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Otherdide," Kings of Leon's "Woo Hoo," "Don't Stop Believing," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and "Sweet Child o' Mine," was... well, a bit obvious, with will.i.am digging in the crates not for funky obscurities but for the traces of that crumbling monoculture mentioned above. By the end, with the raindrops starting to fall, the entire crowd was eating of the palm of his metallic robot hands, and when he left the stage to "Party Rock Anthem" and 60,000 people throwing their green glow sticks in the air, it was almost sublime.

From here, the set mostly fizzled out. The encore—"Boom Boom Pow," "The Time (Dirty Bit)," and "I Gotta Feeling"—brought some energy back into the by this point soaked crowd, but late rain and a pair of pseudo-inspirational duds ("Where Is the Love" and apl.de.ap's "We Can Be Anything") had deflated the mood, even if the latter provided the Peas' backing band with their biggest workout of the night. "The rain stopped us last time," will.i.am at one point shouted, referring to the first attempt to throw this show in June, "but it won't stop us again." And he was right, it certainly didn't.

Critical bias: So ready for the critical reevaluation of The Dutchess.

Random notebook dump: During "Big Girls Don't Cry," Fergie pulled her guitarist, then her bassist down to the ground by the hair of their goatees. This was the strangest thing I saw all September.

Set list:

"Rock That Body"
"Meet Me Halfway"
"Just Can't Get Enough"
will.i.am. Google+ "freestyle"
"Imma Bee"
"Don't Stop the Party"
"Don't Phunk with My Heart"
"My Humps"
"Shut Up"
"Joints & Jam"
"Glamorous"
"Big Girls Don't Cry"
will.i.am DJ Set
"Pump It"
"Where is the Love"
"We Can Be Anything"
---
"Boom Boom Pow"
"The Time (Dirty Bit)"
"I Gotta Feeling"

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