Various Released! The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998

Various Released! The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998
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Remember when torture was unimaginable, not a cheap plot device on TV thrillers and an accepted part of American foreign policy? Remember when soft pressure on oppressive regimes seemed viable? Remember when volumes of actual mail might make a difference, as opposed to email spam? Remember when many of the biggest names in music actually believed in making the world a better place? Human rights: how quaint.

With the death of Nelson Mandela, anyone who was a music fan during the '80s will remember that it was musicians who kept him in the public eye during his imprisonment. It was a time when there was still residual optimism and activism left over from the '60s; a time when it wasn't just niche artists who thought they had a responsibility to respond to the world around them.

Mandela was an Amnesty icon, a non-violent activist protesting grave injustice and imprisoned for his beliefs. The South African cause led to earnest yet inspirational tracks like the Special A.K.A.'s "Free Nelson Mandela," Peter Gabriel's "Biko" and Little Steven's all-star "Sun City." But if Mandela was the poster child, Amnesty International itself was a harder sell: how do you engage youth and music fans in stories of obscure activists in countries where human rights isn't just a clear-cut case of black and white?

It started in Britain with the Secret Policeman's Other Ball, featuring much of Monty Python, Rowan Atkinson, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Sting. The director of Amnesty International USA, Jack Healey, wanted to do something similar in the US; with U2 eager to sign on, just as they were in their Americana phase with The Unforgettable Fire, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Lou Reed and Bryan Adams were quick to jump on board as well. That tour culminated with a marathon show at Giants Stadium in New Jersey in front of 80,000 people, broadcast live on MTV. Healey's plan worked: Amnesty International USA membership tripled in the subsequent months.

But that wasn't enough: Healey wanted to take the idea around the world. So in 1988, Gabriel, Sting and Bruce Springsteen headlined a tour with Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour that travelled to every continent, including shows behind the Iron Curtain, in Zimbabwe, and Argentina — just over the border from a Chile that was still run by the murderous Pinochet. It was an odd line-up: Chapman, with her solo acoustic guitar performance, embodying the power of one small individual; N'Dour, representing the cultural exchange between Africa and the West; Gabriel and Sting, the bridge-builders and outspoken activists; Springsteen, the new convert to the cause. Collaboration between the artists and their band members was common, and not just when they'd close every concert with covers of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. A highlight is seeing Springsteen and Sting duet on "The River," with Gabriel's Indian violin whiz, L. Shankar, soloing in harmony with Springsteen's harmonica.

This 6-DVD collection includes footage from that tour and the complete Giants Stadium show, as well as a Paris concert in 1998 featuring Radiohead, Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, Asian Dub Foundation and Alanis Morissette. A 1990 concert in Chile — held at the same stadium where Pinochet's armies shot citizens — with many of the same artists featured Sting performing "They Dance Alone" on stage with actual Chilean Mothers of the Disappeared, an experience that still moves him to tears on camera more than 20 years later.

For all the seriousness, there is also plenty of fun and games and camaraderie found on the backstage material — especially when a completely wasted Bono and Larry Mullen Jr. jam with Peter Gabriel's rhythm section and Lou Reed's guitarist in an Atlanta hotel lounge, presaging Bono's lounge lizard makeover circa Achtung Baby.

Plenty of solid documentaries and new interviews quickly dissuade any cynicism about the hoopla: for every bizarro addition to the bills (Shania Twain? New Kids on the Block?), there are plenty of inspired collaborations ("Mon amigo, El Stingo!") and genuinely informed takes on the issues. Yes, Sting is often insufferable (and horribly, horribly dressed), but there's no denying his conviction; he, along with Pete Townshend, was one of the first musicians to champion Amnesty. (Springsteen jokes that he'd never done so much research on anything in his life before heading out on the 1988 world tour, to make sure he knew his stuff: "If I'd known I'd have to do the press conferences, I might not have done the tour," he says.)

Springsteen is the most fascinating performer here. He was still riding high from Born in the U.S.A. — the title track of which opens his set every night of the 1988 tour. It's both stirring and strange to see tens of thousands of Argentinians and Chileans, people whose dictatorships were supported by then-president Ronald Reagan, enthusiastically chanting "Born in the U.S.A." Of course, stadium anthemics aside, the lyrics are actually a scathing portrayal of life in Reagan's America — but seeing how so few Americans understood that, did these Spanish South Americans get it? Or, to them, was the US, despite its foreign policy, still a paragon of freedom and liberty? Springsteen, and others on the tour, say the tour was never about Western artists coming to lecture locals about human rights; it was about coming clean about your own country's sins as well. (When Springsteen played his first-ever show to an all-black audience in the Ivory Coast, Clarence Clemons turned to him and said: "Now you know how I feel every night.")

There are plenty of WTF moments as well, mostly at the Giants Stadium show. Fela Kuti suddenly appears on stage with both Rubén Blades and the Neville Brothers — having just been released from a Nigerian prison — but never takes the mic and is barely identified. Also: Who knew the Hooters were that popular? Was Little Steven's Disciples of Soul a summation of everything that was horrible about both fashion and music in the '80s? Who scheduled a solo Joni Mitchell between Bryan Adams and U2? Hearing Joan Baez cover "Shout" by Tears for Fears, with the Nevilles backing her up, is even more bizarre than anything Yoko Ono or Miles Davis did that day.

As both a musical and sociological time capsule, Released! is fascinating and essential. It was, and is, easy as both a musician and a fan to sit back and do nothing, and we already live in an entertainment-distraction complex. Music can and does mean more than just a good time, and it could be argued that these concerts did a lot more consciousness raising and overall good in the long run than Woodstock or even Live Aid. If life in 2013 feels hopeless and defeatist at the best of times, one could look at this set and ask, "Is a dream alive if it don't come true / or is it something worse?" But if you think the notion of rock'n'roll redemption is corny, there are 17 hours and six DVDs of counter-evidence right here. (Shout! Factory)