Madonna Introduces Pussy Riot at Amnesty Concert; Lauryn Hill, Yoko Ono, Flaming Lips Perform at Benefit in Brooklyn

Pussy Riot on stage during the Amnesty International Concert in Brooklyn, New York.

Monica Simoes

"The truth will always win. Even if it dies in battle." Two freed members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot brought International clout and an intense message of hope and struggle to Amnesty International's Bringing Human Rights Home concert Wednesday at Brooklyn's Barclays Center.

PHOTOS: Amnesty's Bringing Human Rights Home Concert

"Thank you to all of you who wrote us letters during those two years," Maria Alyokhina told supporters through an interpreter at the fundraising event after an introduction from Madonna. "Those letters helped us to stay alive." Nadezhda Tolokonnikova thanked "those who are bold enough and care enough to speak out against injustice and to speak the truth… We have to remember that freedom is not a given, it is something we have to fight for everyday."

The women were released in 2013 after serving two years in penal colonies after being convicted of hooliganism for staging a protest against longtime Russian leader Vladimir Putin inside a church. Tolokonnikova did most of the talking at Barclays during their appearance, and they made sure to name-check their adversary. "We demand a Russia that is free. A Russia without Putin," she said.

Clad in black and carrying a cane, Madonna delivered her lengthy speech without the help of a teleprompter but with an attempt at humor. 

"I like to thank Pussy Riot for making the word 'pussy' a sayable word in my household," she said with a grin. "It was once in the illegal word category for my two eight year olds, and now they go around saying pussy all the time. In reference to Pussy Riot of course. So, thanks for messing up my shit."

Her comments focused on how Pussy Riot's trial and incarceration affected her personally and the pop diva reitereated previous revelations that her outspoken support for the women led to threats and intimidation while in Russia:

It's no coincidence that I happened to be on tour and that I happened to be in Moscow the day Pussy Riot was put on trial for being arrested for hooliganism for singing less than two minutes of their song "Punk Prayer" in a church. This song criticized Vladimir Putin's regime and its blatant intolerance of gay rights, artistic freedom, freedom of speech and human rights in general. Boo, that is right. Boo. I was shocked and outraged when I heard about this and I spoke about it the next night on stage at my show. And suddenly my security guards tripled in number. From there we went to St. Petersburg where another atrocity was taking place. My show was being advertised and damned for being a 'gay show' and for promoting homosexuality. Which I have been known to do.

Anyway, all the people performing in the show including myself were threatened and told we'd be arrested if we were seen encouraging this gay behavior in my show. Needless to say I did not change a second of my show. And I was not arrested. Unfortunately I was sued for a million dollars and 87 members of my audience were arrested for openly displaying more gay behavior. Whatever that means. Boo.

Ok, so here we are two years later and Pussy Riot is out of jail. Thanks not only to Amnesty International's efforts but for millions of voices, actions and demonstrations from people who care about human rights.

That's why we're all hear, everybody. To celebrate human rights, correct?

The nearly five-hour concert was Amnesty's first since the "Human Rights Concerts," which were held between 1986 to 1998.

The rebooted event in Brooklyn featured brief (typically three songs) performances by established and younger acts including Cold War Kids and Colbie Caillat, who tried out her new single "Hold On." The Fray played "How To Save a Life" as well as their new alt-rock hit "Love Don't Die." Blondie's Deborah Harry bounced around the large stage during her band's run that ended with "Call Me." Cake breezed through (some would say phoned in) "Short Skirt Long Jacket" and Imagine Dragons gave a bombastic performance of "Radioactive."

The event -- which was littered with empty seats at the new arena and appeared disorganized at times -- was already feeling a tad bloated by the time Lauryn Hill hit the stage. The reclusive artist appeared in good spirits while kicking off with the 1996 Fugees classic "Ready or Not" and she was paired with a energetic band that kept things tight. Whether approved or not, Hill played longer than any other artist, picking up the tired audience with "Final Hour" and "Ex-Factor," both off "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," and closing with a scorching "Black Rage."

Bob Geldof reminded the young and tech-loving crowd that the struggle for human rights can't be waged from the sidelines. "Online is a sort of vacuum, it's a cyber-world, it's a virtual world, it's not real," he said. "But when you have your tongue cut out, and when you've walked about some of the people I've walked about; you've had your ears cut off so you can't hear. And your eyes blinded so you may not see. There is a group that can do all that for you. But they can't do it, unless we have you on our side."

Musically you had to tip your hat to Geldof, who knew he was representing the old guard of celebrity activists on the bill. When a polite number of concertgoers yipped after he announced three songs, Geldof condemned, "No no, shut up. You don't have a fucking clue what I do. You don't know any of them." His first song was a familiar one, however: "I Don't Like Mondays" -- a No. 1 on the UK charts in 1979.

Tegan & Sara arrived well past midnight and ripped through electro-dance rock favorites "Closer" and "Now I'm All Messed Up" in a mercifully rushed set. As they were synth-pop'ing up Barclays, the Flaming Lips were busily setting up on the other half of the revolving stage.

When revealed, frontman Wayne Coyne was perched atop a 12-foot high podium, wearing heavy lipstick and a coat of long silver strips. Flowing beneath and all around the nightmare set was a gush of illuminated entrail-like ropes that flickered and activated along with the music. A large silvery eye loomed above. To open the wild set, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon joined the psych-rock band for a screamy jam session, proclaiming "We're gonna make it! I know it!" A Beatles cover came next ("Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds") before the Oklahoma City band played "Do You Realize??" Coyne's voice was a barely-there whisp, and anyway, he left most of the singing to others in the group. His job was to stand there and be a spectacle.

A thrown-together "all-star" jam closed out the long night, with a smattering of artists -- including a seated Geldof and led by a falsetto-voiced Sean Lennon -- performing Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."

Tagged