USA Today...

Wyclef Gives Jokes A Pause For The Cause

By Elysa Gardner and Steve Jones, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Imagine that your crazy, obnoxious uncle — the one who slaps you on the back after downing a few beers, then starts divulging details about your aunt that you would really rather not know — landed a gig as master of ceremonies at a star-studded charity event.

That was the impression given by hip-hop musician, producer, philanthropist and wannabe comedian Wyclef Jean on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, at a concert benefiting the Wyclef Jean Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at providing children around the world with musical instruments, education and therapy.

The three-hour show, attended by such celebrities as Carly Simon and Naomi Campbell, featured performances by Eric Clapton,
Whitney Houston, Macy Gray, Destiny's Child, Mary J. Blige, Charlotte Church, Third World and surprise guest Stevie Wonder. There were also winning appearances by "Clef's Kids," prodigiously gifted local music students.

Jean was clearly moved by the assortment of established and fledgling talent that surrounded him. Introducing the students, who played standards representing and often blending classical music, jazz, rock, hip-hop, reggae and salsa, Jean seemed downright giddy. Leading a funky rendition of Take the A Train, he crowed loudly: "Check out this piano player — he's only 14! Check out this bass player — only 16!"

But Uncle Jean's showmanship wasn't always endearing. His lame, repetitive wisecracks about race, class and union restraints on stage time could seem like cheap shots — especially when he used them in an effort to keep audience members appeased during apparent technical glitches and other presumably unforeseen pauses. "I don't know the next time they'll let a black man in here," Jean joked during one lull, as if a white man would have had an easier time wowing the multiracial crowd with such insipid patter.

Fortunately, Jean's guests and co-stars exhibited more grace, and more charisma.
Houston gave the most spirited, accomplished performance, segueing from a rousing version of the gospel song I Go to the Rock — in which she was backed by her protégées, the promising girl group Sunday — to the ebullient My Love Is Your Love.

In a classic showbiz moment, Houston greeted audience member Clive Davis, the deposed founder of her record company, and plugged his new label, J Records. "I miss you!" the diva cooed.

Pubescent soprano Charlotte Church delivered Ave Maria and the Gershwin classic
Summertime clad in a pair of decidedly grown-up outfits, including a slinky sequined number with painted-on slacks. Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari wore funkier garb for an instrumental hip-hop medley, and Clapton played the sedate, dapper Englishman while performing Wonderful Tonight and dueting on Jean's new My Song.

A few luminaries seemed strangely underused. Blige was in glorious voice but disappeared after singing one duet, 911, with Jean. Wonder essentially made a couple of cameos, most memorably scatting and playing harmonica during reggae band Third World's vibrant Now That We Found Love.

Omnipresent girl group Destiny's Child stuck around longer, offering spunky, elaborately choreographed versions of their hits Say My Name and Independent Women Part I -- not to mention the right combination of glittery garb and bare skin needed to reinvigorate the audience.

Jean, who himself sported an array of Giorgio Armani costumes that would have made Diana Ross jealous, seized on the crowd's renewed energy in the Latin-flavored finale. As Marc Anthony and an army of drummers and dancers joined the other performers, Jean frantically tried to whip the crowd into a frenzy, clearly intent that his party be remembered as a smashing success.

Given the worthiness of his cause, and the richness of talent represented by his guests, I would say he pulled it off. But I'm glad he won't be joining my family for Thanksgiving dinner any time soon.



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