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Earth Day Climate Rally features music, speeches and an assist from Mother Nature

By Chris Richards
Monday, April 26, 2010; C01

Sting, Mavis Staples, the Roots -- some big stars came to Washington to perform at Sunday's Earth Day Climate Rally on the National Mall. But there was one unexpected surprise guest. Ladies and gentlemen, the sun!

It punched holes through the overcast sky early in the day -- a welcome change for an annual concert that's been particularly soggy in recent years. Last year's event was gray and drippy, and 2008's concert was thunderstormed out before the Roots, who were headlining, could even walk onstage.

Mother Nature must have gotten the memo that this year's awareness-raising, free-admission concert, organized by the Earth Day Network, marked the 40th anniversary of the environmentalist event. Tens of thousands gathered on the grounds between the Capitol and the Washington Monument to hear activists, celebrities and Congress-folk speak about the importance of renewable energy, green jobs and shrinking carbon footprints. (An Earth Day Network offered an estimate of 150,000 attendees.)

Oh, and there was some music, too. The Roots, the great hip-hop group that recently, finally earned household-name status as the house band on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," made a triumphant return to the Mall, backing performances from Sting, John Legend and a slew of others.

They took the stage late in the afternoon, propelled by Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's firecracker drumming and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter's dexterous rhymes. But their set ended rather unceremoniously when the sound system blew out.

Once organizers resuscitated the P.A., the Roots returned with Staples, the great soul-gospel singer, in tow. After that came Fall Out Boy singer Patrick Stump, who crooned Bobby Womack's "If You Think You're Lonely Now." As surprising as this transformation from emo-dude to blue-eyed soulman: Stump has slimmed down into quite the trim Fall Out Man.

Up next, micro-performances from the inimitable Booker T, the intolerable Joss Stone, steel guitarist Robert Randolph and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead -- the Roots playing it cool throughout.

John Legend took the stage to screams, and premiered politically minded material from his forthcoming album. Sting followed with the day's most nuanced performance. He followed his lilting ballad "Fragile" with a zinger: "It's nice to be at a tea party," he said. "A green tea party!" Oh, Sting.

As he played the old Police hit "Message in a Bottle," fans threw their hands skyward. Clouds gathered overhead, but mercifully kept their raindrops to themselves.

The only moisture launched from on high came from the rally's most fiery speakers. More than a few barbs were chucked at Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who on Saturday withdrew his support for a comprehensive climate and energy bill.

As frustrations curdled, issues blurred. "It is time to say no," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) declared from the stage. "No to those that deny the science, no to the flat-Earthers, no to the birthers!"

Backstage, Earth Day Network President Kathleen Rogers was more lucid but equally frustrated. "We have a stunning amount of scientific information that points to tragedy," Rogers said. "We're losing ground every single day in this country and I think the American public deserves to know that we're taking a back seat in the global economy by reducing efforts to go green."

Also backstage, a calm James Cameron was swarmed by reverent photographers as if the director's work on the blockbuster film "Avatar" had transformed him into some kind of eco-deity. His voice barely carried over the hyperventilating camera shutters: SnapSnapSnap "Hopefully, this is a consciousness-raising event . . . " SnapSnapSnapSnap.

Out on the grounds of the Mall, N'avi everywhere. A gaggle of attendees roamed the grass-and-gravel in blueface, having just had visages painted like "Avatar" characters in a tent promoting Cameron's Avatar Home Tree Initiative, an organization committed to planting new trees.

"Welcome to Pandora," said one worker as she handed out seed packets to passersby who seemed interested in saving a metaphorical planet -- or maybe even their own.

Cameron spoke from the stage before Legend's set, encouraging the younger members of the audience to bone up on climate change and get active in their communities. " 'Avatar' is cool, it touches the heart," he said. "But it doesn't tell you what to do."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson came earlier, leading a call-and-response: "Go green! Let me hear you scream!" They were just two of the 60-plus speakers to grab the mike over the course of the eight-hour event.

To make room for all of the soap-boxing, many of the musical performances were cut woefully short -- most artists were allotted one to five songs apiece -- but many sets remained remarkably sweet.

Boston indie-rock troupe Passion Pit slapped the crowd awake after a spate of speeches, with young fans dancing wildly to the group's fat synthesizer riffs and singer Michael Angelakos's thin falsetto.

Earlier, Honor Society offered some similar soul-inflected emo-rock (R&B-mo?) and salsa icon Willie Colón performed with his nine-piece band, horns blazing.

Reggae great Jimmy Cliff, hot off his recent induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was joined by Legend for an impassioned rendition of "Many Rivers to Cross." Almost on cue, the smell of marijuana began to waft on the breeze.

It was actually a bit of a surprise. Yes, the concert drew the requisite shirtless bros kicking a hackey-sack, but this year, young indie rockers made their presence felt. Ray-Ban sunglasses outnumbered tie-dyed T-shirts by a considerable margin. Are hipsters the new hippies?

No matter. Dusk approaching, with the Roots keeping the beat for Sting, we were all one planet under a groove.

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