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Live Review: Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday (The Clearwater Concert) in New York, NY

It wasn't just the near sold-out crowd of 18,000-plus who came to pay tribute to the music, environmental stewardship or the politics of a lanky, lucid banjo player by the name of Pete Seeger. Many of the dozens of performers who took the stage at Madison Square Garden Sunday (5/3) to honor Seeger on his 90th birthday also were moved in some way by this man who is regarded by many as something of an American treasure.

For John Mellencamp, "If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song)" was the first tune he ever learned to play on guitar. For Dave Matthews, it was the childhood memory of a Seeger performance--the first concert Matthews ever attended along with his mom when they lived in the suburbs of Westchester County, NY.

For Bruce Springsteen, it was the three-hour ride he shared with Seeger on the way to Barack Obama's inauguration, during which Seeger shared deep background about how "We Shall Overcome" morphed from a labor song to one of the preeminent and uniting civil-rights anthems.

For British folkie Billy Bragg, it was Seeger's plying him to script a new verse to the popular labor ballad "The Internationale," which Bragg said now appears alongside the original lyrics in the Industrial Workers of the World's Little Red Songbook.

And for Sesame Street's Oscar the Grouch, it was a chance to emerge from his trash can long enough to help Tom Chapin drive home the point of Bill Steele's song "Garbage"--with an emphasis on Seeger's final verse, which resonated with extreme contemporary relevance:

"There stocks and their bonds--all garbage!
Garbage! Garbage! Garbage! Garbage!
What will they do when their system goes to smash
There's no value to their cash
There's no money to be made
But there's a world to be repaid ..."

Secondary to the celebration was the real reason why Seeger, who prefers small gatherings, weathered the four-and-a-half-hour love-fest of songs and stories with appropriate candor: proceeds from the show all went to sustain the work of his Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a nonprofit activist and educational organization that he co-founded in 1966, and its namesake single-masted vessel, which helps police protect the once terribly polluted Hudson River.

While the list of guest performers was formidable, leaving one to wonder how all these folks could possibly enjoy a moment in the spotlight, the clever use of clusters of musicians left precious little time for any of them to take the stage alone.

In fact, only Mellencamp and Matthews, along with Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Seeger's sister Peggy and the guest of honor himself enjoyed a few brief moments alone on stage. It was Peggy Seeger who called for a round of applause for the backstage crew, who appeared to work magically, shuttling the many clusters of performers on and off the stage while leaving no more than a minute or two in between.

And it was among those clusters that most of the night's magic happened.

Slide-guitar wizard Warren Haynes and banjo prodigy Tony Trischka were on stage often, lending their instrumental talents. Early in the first set, Trischka also joined Bela Fleck for a banjo medley of Seeger ditties, and later lent some gumbo flavored authenticity to "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, US Rep. John Hall (of No Nukes and Orleans fame), Arlo Guthrie and Del McCoury.

Meanwhile, Haynes pitched in vocals on "Maggies Farm," along with Havens, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal, Keller Williams and Rambling Jack Elliott.

Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello also was a conspicuous supporting player on a half-dozen numbers, most notably accompanying Springsteen on "The Ghost of Tom Joad," and Taj Mahal on the seminal anti-war ballad, "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy," which Seeger has credited with helping end the war in Viet Nam.

Other high points of the show included Tommy Sands and His Irish Band performing the full version of "Little Boxes," which many fans of the cable series "Weeds" became familiar with after it was adopted as the opening theme.

Kristofferson and Ani DiFranco looked like they were having a blast taking the tune "Hole In The Bucket" full circle; Band of Horses lent Ben Bridwell and Tyler Ramsey to back Roger McQuinn on "Turn, Turn, Turn," which featured the only apparent technical gaffe of the night when McGuinn's electric 12-string guitar remained turned off during the song's trademark solo; and the red-vested New York City Labor Chorus was never far from the stage, lending their collective voices to many of the performances.

Non-musicians including actor Tim Robbins and Ruby Dee took appropriate turns paying tribute at the microphone, while Norman Lear opened the second set reading from a congratulatory letter to Seeger from President Obama.

But the most affecting moments of the evening happened when Seeger took to the stage.

From the haunting opening notes he played on recorder while the Native American Cultural Alliance backed him on indigenous instruments, to his inspiring conducting of the entire audience singing "Amazing Grace," to the full cast of players surrounding him to sing "This Land Is Your Land" and an impromptu "Happy Birthday," it was clear to all that, like the single mast supporting the sails of a mighty schooner, one man has made a difference, and will continue to do so long into the foreseeable future.

To learn more about Pete Seeger's favorite cause, go to clearwater.org.

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