Brooklyn's Pussy Riot Tribute Show Was an Earnest But Tepid Mess

  • Photo by: David Andrako

Amnesty International welcomed Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, the two formerly jailed members of Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot, to the United States last night at Brooklyn’s expansive Barclays Center. The one-night event was like a mini re-up of the human-rights organization’s 1986 benefit tour, Conspiracy of Hope. Political artists like Yoko Ono and Lauryn Hill, as well as head-scratchers like Colbie Caillat and the Fray, turned up to recognize Pussy Riot’s 2012 protests, namely that one “fun song in a church” that got them locked up for hooliganism. But despite certain brief moments of onstage empowerment, the five-hour show was mostly just very quaint.

Evening openers Cold War Kids, Caillat, and the Fray performed their hits while AI members and activist-minded celebrities like Susan Sarandon spoke between sets about the importance of letter-writing and petition-signing. Then came Blondie, who were the first act to ignite the crowd: Debbie Harry’s palpable feminine power was a far more apt tribute than anyone else paid throughout the night.

That includes Madonna, who was enlisted to introduce Pussy Riot and took the stage after a coolly received set by Sacramento alt-rock vets Cake. Madonna reprised her Grammys cane, but made it look way less cribbed from Colonel Sanders' closet by dressing in all black, including a Commes Des Fuckdown beanie. Despite being a vocal supporter of the group — she refused to change her the production of her concert when she was told by the Russian government that she and her tourmates would be arrested for “promoting homosexuality” — the Material Girl felt like an odd choice to be shilling rhetoric about equality and sensitivity toward all humans, especially in the wake of her racial-epithet Instagram controversy. For example, her introduction was more about herself than a primer to Pussy Riot, which it seemed that the majority of the crowd really could have used.

In any case, Nadya and Masha took the stage with their translator to speak about the need for freedom from Putin and to read the closing statements written by a grip of Russians currently on trial for protesting for citizen rights. This was presumably the point of the night, but before they could even get off the stage, their message and call for crowd participation was immediately eclipsed by... Imagine Dragons. (No, Kendrick Lamar did not show up.)

Lauryn Hill played an extended, jam session-like set, including a hyperactive version of “The Final Hour” and the Fugees’ “Ready or Not,” in which she rapped not only her verse, but Wyclef’s and Pras’ lines too. Unfortunately, her microphone made her hard to hear, dulling the effect of the night’s most political musical performance.

After appearances from Bob Geldof and Tegan and Sara, Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon helped the Flaming Lips kick off their closing set. Wayne Coyne looked like a frat-house Christmas display, singing amid a spaghetti-monster installation of Christmas-tree lights and wearing a tinsel cape. The psych-pop weirdos trudged through an excessively lackadaisical cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” a rendition so tepid, it couldn’t even be enlivened by the glitter cannon that went off at every hook.

After closing their set with “Do You Realize?,” the Lips led a sparse group finale of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Geldof, Lennon, members of Cake, and Amnesty International joined them onstage, but according to Coyne, nearly everyone else backstage was too drunk to participate by then. Or perhaps they, too, were disappointed by the lack of genuine spirit a celebration of two extraordinarily brave women demands. CLAIRE LOBENFELD

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