While all benefit concerts — regardless of size — should be taken with a grain of salt, yesterday evening's (September 17) star-studded Bell Centre event proved to be an evening ripe with an emphatic sense of hope and a commendable, progressive feminist agenda. With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Bill Gates acting as the evening's special guests, the Concert to End AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria invited headliners Usher (with the Roots), Half Moon Run, Grimes, Metric, Charlotte Cardin, and last minute additions Sam Roberts and Bobby Bazini to spread the word.
Stepping out first were Quebecois TV personalities Maripier Morin and Patrick Langlois, who launched into a bilingual introduction of who they claimed were the Canadian equivalent of Beyoncé and Jay-Z: Justin and Sophie Trudeau. Taking to the stage clad in a Global Citizen t-shirt amidst random, black and white images of Montreal landmarks blown up on various screens with a giant red "O" overlaid on each, the Prime Minister declared that "poverty is sexist," with Sophie adding that "injustice against one woman is injustice against all women," to roaring applause.
Announcing that Canada had pledged over 800 million dollars to the global fund over the next three years — effectively upping our current donation quota by 20 percent — the Trudeaus left the stage to local electro-jazz darling Charlotte Cardin and her backing band. Launching into four tracks off her EP Big Boy, Cardin silenced the crowd with her effortless, milk and honey vocals, feeding the Bell Centre audience a poised and well-executed performance.
While the evening was undeniable a "concert" by definition, much of the four hours were spent encouraging the fight to end disease and discrimination — the evening's Anglophone host, George Stroumboulopoulos, introduced a variety of international speakers and CEOs, including Elton John and David Furnish, who popped on the screen from London to encourage the crowd to "be a part of the fight." Introducing Metric's Emily Haines and James Shaw were the CEO of the Global Partnership for Education Alice Albright, and actress Diane Kruger, who spoke in French with a thick Parisian accent.
Opening their set with "Help, I'm Alive" followed by "Dreams So Real," it was clear that they had curated their short set to coincide with the night's message. Performing their acoustic set on guitar and grand piano, they took a break from their performance to speak about the eradication of poverty, disease, and everything in between. Diane Kruger and Sophie Trudeau emerged again alongside a female activist from Zimbabwe who had overcome HIV and tuberculosis — and who subsequently garnered more cheers than any other speaker. Continuing their set with "Breathing Underwater," Metric inspired a sing-along with iPhone flashlights-a-waving, chanting "Is this my life? / Am I breathing underwater?"
After a speech by Canadian polio survivor Ramesh Ferris and a slightly awkward follow-up by Quebecois TV host Eric Salvail, billionaire Bill Gates took to the stage to a standing ovation. Wearing a red t-shirt with the words "Hug Me I Save Lives" written across the front, Gates spent his time on the stage discussing his foundation and the amount of money raised. After a series of brilliantly shot short videos illustrating the global impact of the foundation on mostly small, African villages, Montreal mayor Denis Corderre came on stage to introduce Grimes, throwing praise at the former Montrealer from the teleprompter. What ensued was one of the boldest performances any charity event has ever scene.
Launching into "Realiti" clad in the evening's colour code of black, red and white, Grimes threw herself about the stage with her dancers in tow, pounding her way through Art Angels with vigour and sending waves of confusion through the suit-wearing benefactors sitting in the crowd, some with fingers to their ears. Shortly after "Kill V. Maim," Claire Boucher tried her hand at stage banter, the words coming out too fast to quite understand. Finishing her set with "Flesh Without Blood" and "Scream," which she rapped in Russian as opposed to Mandarin, Grimes convulsed and rolled around the stage, making it clear that even though Grimes was the show's wildcard, she still managed to up the adrenaline after the first two, synth-centric performances.
Maripier Morin introduced Montreal staples Half Moon Run to the stage amid girlish screams. Opening with songs off their latest album Sun Leads Me On, the men of Half Moon Run delivered a predictably good performance, their kinetic energy helping keep the crowd's adrenaline high. And while the group didn't exactly provide anything new or special to the event, they were a solid and ultimately reliable choice for a benefit concert — their set harkening back to the days when benefit concerts were dominated by rock acts in outdoor arenas. Ending with crowd-pleasers "Call Me in the Afternoon" and "Full Circle," Half Moon Run left a lasting impression on the hometown crowd.
As the night slowly came to a close, Kwele Mandela (co-founder of the African Rising Foundation) introduced the Sam Roberts band — but not before Roberts disrupted the script by skipping over Mandela's final signoff in lieu of the opening bars to "The Hard Road." All in all, this was the night's only mishap, which is saying a lot. Going from "The Hard Road" to "We're All in this Together," Roberts left the stage to Justin and Sophie Trudeau, who thanked and welcomed the volunteers and participants to the stage. They then announced the final, highly anticipated act of the night: the Roots.
Questlove and co. took the stage to "I Know You Got Soul," moving through the song with ease, their choreographed dance moves sending the stadium to their feet. When headliner Usher finally joined about ten minutes in, the band launched into a jazzed-up version of "Caught Up," Usher spinning about the stage with this trademark, Michael Jackson-esque moves. They followed with Usher's "Nice and Slow" and the Roots' "You Got Me," Usher singing the lines in place of Ms. Erykah Badu. The Usher / Roots collaboration was a little disjointed, but it was a fun end to a long evening.