Bruce Springsteen gave the crowd at Sting and Trudie Styler’s biannual Rainforest Fund concert at Carnegie Hall quite an early Christmas present Wednesday night (Dec. 13), as he emerged from the back of the hall to kick-start his set.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! This is your Jersey Santa Claus,” he proclaimed. “I just got in! I didn’t think I was going to make it, the North wind is coming down and the temperature is dropping, and all I want for Christmas is… one of those.”
That would be co-host Sting, who Bruce proceeded to hug. He then strapped on a guitar, and launched into a rocking version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” leading the venue in a sing along that capped off a stellar night of music.
Not content to stay center-stage, Springsteen — first dressed in a jacket with a red scarf that he summarily ditched after the first number — leapt back into the aisle for “Merry Christmas Baby,” and was promptly greeted by an excited fan who snapped a selfie of herself with the singer as he performed.
This opened the floodgates to an on-the-floor party, as women lined up for a dance, men shook The Boss’ hand, and just before things got seriously out of control, the singer jokingly called out for “Security” and was whisked back to the stage. Right after, Springsteen called for backup singer Lisa Fisher to step up front for a rousing version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”
This year’s concert, themed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside (But Getting Warmer),” featured holiday selections and performances by James Taylor, Idina Menzel, Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, surprise guest Jennifer Nettles, opera singer Vittorio Grigolo and the Manhattan Girls Chorus. The orchestra, led by musical director Narada Michael Walden and conductor Gil Goldstein, featured famed David Letterman bassist Will Lee and guitarist Felicia Collins, who shredded on guitar for the dramatic opening number of The Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas in Sarajevo” (otherwise known as “Carol of The Bells.”)
Styler, looking quite stylish in a shimmery silver dress, noted that this year was the first time the event happened so late in the year. She thanked the crowd for supporting the foundation, now in its 27th year. To date, the non-profit has raised $45 million for indigenous peoples of all countries, and Styler proudly spoke of its recent foray to North Dakota, supporting the Lakota Indians and Native American people in the Pipeline Protests at Standing Rock. Although Styler never mentioned President-Elect Donald Trump by name, she did manage to get one jab in:
“Tonight is not the place to comment on the incoming administration,” she told the audience. “Bob De Niro did that for us already.”
Musically, the event was a smorgasbord of holiday delights, modern favorites and old English folk songs provided by Sting, who made his first onstage appearance in a black kilt. The rock legend — accompanied by actress Gina Gershon on the Jew’s harp — sat at a stool with an acoustic guitar for the folk song, “Soul Cake.” Backed by several musicians and accompanied by a choir, Sting delivered the song in a subdued manner, creating an intimate vibe in the storied hall.
Speaking to Billboard, Gershon — who revealed she had been playing the instrument since she was seven years old — says she was honored when Sting asked her to participate in the event. The two both played on five-time Grammy award winning jazz bassist Christian McBride’s 2011 album, Conversations with Christian McBride. Sting was impressed with her playing on the album, and asked her to join him for the benefit.
“When he asked me to do this it was a no-brainer. It’s a great cause, and to make my Jew’s harp debut at Carnegie Hall was pretty awesome,” says Gershon, who currently stars in the Amazon.com series Red Oaks and will appear on the new Judd Apatow show, Crashing. “We kept trying to figure out if there has even been other Jew’s harp players there, so I felt a lot of pressure to represent. It might have been a historic moment this evening — a Jew’s harp at Carnegie Hall. This is my first time on the Carnegie Hall stage, and I’ve had two days to practice, practice, practice.”
Idina Menzel — who recently introduced Andra Day at Billboard’s Women in Music ceremonies — had a moment to inspire the younger generation, sharing the stage with the Manhattan Girls Chorus for a soaring version of “Frozen,” stepping back and letting the girls take the chorus of the song.
“I love singing “Let it Go,” and when I can have young kids sing it with me, it just makes it more special,” Menzel tells Billboard.
Grigolo had a humorous moment early in the show, emerging from the back dressed in a Santa Claus suit. Many in the crowd — hopeful it was Springsteen underneath –began yelling “Brooooooooce” in unison. Then Grigolo removed the beard and hat, and proceeded to fill the hall with his powerful voice — without the use of a microphone — as he delivered “Il Pagliacci” and “Nessum Dorma.” The audience responded with a standing ovation, and Grigolo responded by dropping to one knee in thanks.
“I would never imagine such a response from the public. A real standing ovation that comes not very often, and at Carnegie Hall with one song, it was like a KO.”
Sting returned for two more numbers throughout the show.: He once again sat center stage to perform his song, “Empty Chair” from the documentary Jim: The James Foley Story, a poignant moment in the evening that commemorated the late photojournalist.
It wasn’t all seriousness, however. Sting had two goofy moments, first performing the Wham! new-wave holiday classic “Last Christmas” with the female backup singers. Sting clearly enjoyed himself, hamming it up as the song progressed.
“I never sung it before,” Sting tells Billboard. “It’s actually a very good song, and George (Michael) is a good friend of mine.”
Later on, he sang “the stupidest song you’ll hear tonight”: “I Wish it Would Be Christmas Every Day,” a ’70s U.K. smash for the glam-rock band Wizzard. “Sounds like f**ing torture to me,” he quipped on the stage.
James Taylor — who provided a nice moment covering the seasonal standard “River,” by Joni Mitchell — joked that he didn’t own a tuxedo when he first played for the benefit in 1992. “They bought me one, and that came in handy,” he said.
Taylor had two nice duets for the program — first with trumpeter Chris Botti for “Winter Wonderland,” and later with Menzel for a cute rendition of the show’s theme, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Legendary ’60s pop singers Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love celebrated the season with their own famous holiday perennials. Spector took the stage festively attired in a Santa coat to sing her timeless versions of “Frosty the Snowman” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” the latter of which she re-started when she realized she forgot to give a pre-song setup about her childhood, and wondering how Santa would bring presents since her family didn’t have a chimney. The answer: In New York City, Santa comes in from the fire escape.
Love — decked in a white jacket and pants with a sparkly red top — brought down the house with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home,” a signature song that has special meaning to her.
“I have done this song for 29 years on the David Letterman show, and being able to do this song for people like this is a dream come true,” says Love, who is set to appear on The View this Dec. 16, for more holiday cheer. “I still got a lot to go… this is my time, and I am thankful that I can still do it.”
Nettles, a surprise addition, had the unenviable task of following Springsteen. But the country star was up to the challenge, taking the hall to church as she sang to the heavens on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Nettles then led the company in an uplifting version of “Joy to the World,” ending the show on a high note.