In the end, Friday's multi-network Hurricane Katrina fundraiser was all about the victims of the unprecedented disaster--not Kanye West.
Although the chart-topping rapper did perform on Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast, he did so, as producers promised, without making any overt political comments--unlike his unscripted rant at NBC's Sept. 2 A Concert for Hurricane Relief in which he proclaimed, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
Featuring a who's who of A-list actors and musicians--from Bruce Willis, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston to Mariah Carey, U2 and the Dixie Chicks--converging in Sony studios in New York and Los Angeles, Friday's special dominated TV screens Friday night with the goal of raisings millions of dollars for those in the devastated regions of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. (As of press time there was no official figure on how much was raised.)
The one-hour event, which aired on all six major networks and dozens of cable outlets, as well as on radio and the Internet, and was beamed to nearly 100 countries, was produced by Joel Gallen, who also shepherded the 9-11 telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes. That event wound up raising more than $150 million for relief efforts.Complete news coverage, ways you can help, message boards, more
Shelter followed a similar format: emotionally resonating performances interspersed with actors recounting touching stories of loss, survival and hope. Even more celebrities, including Jennifer Garner, Ben Affleck, Mandy Moore, Debra Messing, Jack Black and Benicio Del Toro, fielded calls. At one point, a beaming Jack Nicholson, spoke to a woman in Atlanta, serenading her with an impromptu song and calling her "honey."
Randy Newman opened the show with a rendition of his "Louisiana 1927," about a long-ago flood, with the poignant refrain "Louisiana, Louisiana/They're trying to wash us away," as images of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast filled the screen.
Ellen DeGeneres, who was born and raised in New Orleans, teared up as she asked for donations. "That town, my hometown, is gone," she said. "Sadly, those who escaped with only their lives are the lucky ones."
Morgan Freeman, meanwhile, struck a hopeful chord, citing William Faulkner: "[Man] is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."
But the music was the highlight. U2 played a majestic, yet understated version of "One" with Mary J. Blige sharing vocals with Bono. Paul Simon sang an acoustic "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" with a Dixieland combo jazzing up the coda. And there were two Creedence Clearwater Revival covers, with the Foo Fighters rocking on "Born on the Bayou" and Garth Brooks coming out of semi-retirement to sing a countrified "Who'll Stop the Rain," backed by fiancé Trisha Yearwood.
Several musicans were backed by gospel ensembles, including Carey, Alicia Keys, Rod Stewart and Neil Young, who performed a touching new song, "When God Made Me."
Before New Orleans native son Dr. John closed the show with a mournful "Walkin' to New Orleans," West took the stage and stuck to the script. Backed by a string section and gospel choir, he performed an acoustic version of "Jesus Walks." While the tune was marred by feedback and microphone problems as he began, the rapper finished strong, even switching up the lyrics at one point to reference the disaster: "If I had to lose my home/If I had to stay in the Superdome."
West was among a handful of celebs to pull double-duty and appear on the night's other Katrina fundraiser, BET's S.O.S. (Saving Ourselves).
Hosted by Steve Harvey and Queen Latifah, S.O.S. was a less polished, more rollicking affair stretching over three-plus hours. While Gallen insisted that his performers avoid politics, the BET producers encouraged their stars to speak up.
Indeed, while West was restrained during Shelter from the Storm, he readily discussed the controversy over his anti-media, anti-Bush rant.
The media "really tried to make the black people seem like animals," he said on BET. "I just felt the world needed to hear what was going on? I just let my heart speak for myself without thinking about what my image is or how it is going to hurt me financially or what is going to happen. I just do it and I say what I really feel."
To which Harvey said, "Sometimes out of hurt and frustration, we say a lot of things. We love you, brother, and do keep your head up, and we understand what you were trying to say.
"You have a lot of people's support in spite of all the ridicule that you are receiving, man."
Jay-Z , Wynton Marsalis and Erykah Badu also ripped the federal government's response.
Chris Rock, appearing on both telethons, took a more light-hearted approach. "George Bush hates midgets," he cracked during Shelter. On S.O.S. he added, "George Bush hates albinos."
Former President Bill Clinton, who called in to the BET event to express his support and encourage people to help, was asked by Harvey if he would have acted differently. "We always thought faster was better than slower," Clinton said.
Others appearing on S.O.S. included Keys, Blige, Patti LaBelle, Ludacris and Usher. R. Kelly dedicated a new song, "Shine the Light," and New Orleans native Aaron Neville battled back tears during a soaring "Amazing Grace."
Master P, another artist hailing from the Big Easy, told viewers how he had just learned on Friday the whereabouts of several family members, including brother C-Murder and his father and father-in-law.
Jay-Z and Diddy, who showed up late to the BET affair, presented a $1 million check to the Red Cross from the New York hip-hop community.
"There's been a lot of telethons," Diddy said of S.O.S., "but this is our telethon. These are our people."
Donations for both telethons are still being accepted through ABC.com, CBS.com, Fox.com, NBC.com, UPN.com, WB.com and BET.com.
MTV, VH1 and CMT are up next with their joint telethon, ReAct Now: Music & Relief, airing Saturday and featuring the likes of the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Coldplay and, yet again, West.