NEW YORK — At Friday night’s benefit concert for his Wyclef Jean Foundation, the organization’s founder proved his worth as an MC in the true Master of Ceremonies sense.
Armed with good-natured crowd banter, jokes about union rules and no fewer than five wardrobe changes, Wyclef strolled down the aisle of Carnegie Hall in a white leather tuxedo and matching fedora to introduce the evening’s festivities, which featured performances by Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston, Destiny’s Child, Macy Gray, Charlotte Church, Mary J. Blige, Stephen Marley, Miri Ben-Ari and Third World, as well as surprise guests Stevie Wonder and Marc Anthony.
After making his grandiose entrance, Wyclef performed a curt medley of hits from Harlem’s heyday, including Cab Calloway’s “Minnie The Moocher” and Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” suiting the evening’s theme: a revue of musical style from the 1930s to the present.
Stevie Wonder brought the crowd to its feet with a blistering harmonica solo during Third World’s performance of “Now That We’ve Found Love” and later joined Wyclef during his performance of “Gone Till November.” The duo traded verses until Wyclef veered into a guitar solo that left Stevie frantically scatting over the song’s chorus.
The audience’s excitement peaked at the arrival of notorious no-shower Whitney Houston, who ignited the crowd with the inspirational “I Go to the Rock” from the soundtrack to “The Preacher’s Wife.” Clad in a black two-piece suit and backed by the vocal group Sunday, Houston sang her hit “My Love Is Your Love” — co-penned by Wyclef — before exiting to a standing ovation.
Destiny’s Child, the final group to perform at the event, spurred a massive sing-along with their Grammy nominated-hit “Say My Name.” After a shout-out to all the “independent ladies in the house,” the trio, flanked by a quartet of backup dancers, broke into “Independent Women Part 1.”
Looking demure in a conservative gray suit, Eric Clapton played a bouncy, reggae-tinged version of “Wonderful Tonight” that prompted the Haitian-born Wyclef to launch into Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” upon Clapton’s leaving the stage. Marley’s son Stephen emerged soon after to bring the reggae standard home.
Clapton returned an hour later for “My Song,” a duet Wyclef wrote especially for the guitarist. Mellow and with a tropical feel, the first public performance of the song did little to flex Slowhand’s chops until the (still effortless-looking) guitar solo.
After a rousing performance of a gospel tune she used to sing in her father’s church choir, Melky Jean, Wyclef’s younger sister, remained onstage for the Bee Gees-sampled “We Trying To Stay Alive,” from Wyclef’s 1997 album, Carnival. The Product G&B supplied additional vocals, while Bronx break-dancers the Rock Steady Crew busted moves on Carnegie’s Hall’s legendary hardwood. Wyclef might have busted more than that after a back flip backfired, causing him to publicly call attention to a finger injury.
Jammed joint or not, it didn’t stop him from playing guitar and singing with soul diva Mary J. Blige, who hit the stage clad in a pink sequined trench coat and shades. The pair performed the lovesick “911,” which appears on ’Clef’s latest album, last year’s The Ecleftic.
Sporting a bulbous bleached-blond afro, Macy Gray, accompanied by Wyclef on guitar, brought a new feel to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” — which was covered by Wyclef on The Ecleftic — by supplanting the original’s eerie sparseness with her warm, smooth tones.
The Product G&B contributed a performance of “Maria, Maria,” their vocal contribution to Santana’s Supernatural, with Wyclef filling in on guitar, which segued into the three-hour-plus event’s finale, an entire-cast rendition of “Guantanamera,” highlighted by the second surprise guest, Marc Anthony. While two dozen performers chanted about the stage, two troupes of percussionists — one Brazilian, the other from Africa and Haiti — pranced down the aisles and got the audience as involved in the celebration as the crowd onstage.
The concert raised funds for the MC’s Wyclef Jean Foundation, which helps to provide music education and expanded opportunities for young people, and its year-old Clef’s Kids program, which provides musically gifted New York-area high-school students with new instruments, private lessons and academic aid. Of the 15 students currently enrolled in the program, six performed at Friday’s event.
Suiting the event’s youthful focus was 15-year-old opera singer Charlotte Church, who performed an impromptu duet with Clef onstage at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards. Church appeared early in the show, singing a straightforward “Ave Maria” and later joining ringmaster Wyclef for a funky version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
Cultures clashed when young Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari’s “Hip Hop Violin” combined classical string virtuosity with a scratch DJ and rap samples, most notably Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours.”
Clef’s Kid Vanessa Charles opened the concert with a Beethoven piano solo befitting the event’s classical confines. Later in the show, 14-year-old Clef’s Kid Erin Rivers joined Ben-Ari onstage for Wyclef’s multi-culti arrangement of the Bach composition “Duet for Violins,” which positioned a pounding kick drum and rumbling bass rhythms at the forefront.