Madonna, Imagine Dragons Pay Tribute To Pussy Riot At Amnesty International Concert

Ms. Lauryn Hill, the Flaming Lips and more also take the stage at Brooklyn's Barclays Center.

Madonna dressed like a pimp and swore like a sailor when she introduced freed political protestors Pussy Riot during Wednesday night’s Amnesty International concert in Brooklyn, but her message was clear: Vladimir Putin’s got to go.

Yes, the Russian president was a prime target at the show — and, it would seem, justifiably so. After all, he was the target of Pussy Riot’s February 2012 “punk prayer,” which earned two of the members lengthy prison sentences , his re-election to a third term in office was met with widespread criticisms (and protests), and in the last year, under his watch, Russia has cracked down on LGBT rights.

Madonna made mention of all those things during her time on stage. “My show [in the Russian city of St. Petersburg] was being damned by Putin’s regime for ‘promoting homosexuality,’” she told the Barclays Center crowd, before adding with a wink, “which I have been known to do.”

When they took the stage, the two members of Pussy Riot present, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, read letters from those jailed for protesting Putin’s re-election aloud.

But they didn’t stop there, demanding “freedom for all political prisoners,” which only went to the larger point of the entire evening: that there is no shortage of oppression happening around the world, even here in the United States (the concert was billed as “Bringing Human Rights Home,”) and there are plenty of bad people who will stop at nothing to preserve power or profit.

For more than 50 years, Amnesty International has been on a mission to end their reign, defending the rights of the downtrodden, shining a light into dark corners to detail human rights violations, and working to free “prisoners of conscience.” Throughout the 1980s, they found allies in big-name artists like U2, Bruce Springsteen and Sting … and, with Pussy Riot — and breakout stars Imagine Dragons — they may very well have found the next generation of artists ready to join their fight.

The Dragons took the stage following Pussy Riot, nearly three hours into what would end up being a four-plus hour show (the likes of Cold War Kids, Colbie Callait and the Fray performed before them), though their boundless energy lifted slightly flagging spirits of the Brooklyn crowd.

From the widescreen, Morricone-inspired atmospherics of “Tiptoe,” through the swoony “Amsterdam” and, of course, their massive hit “Radioactive,” all womping drums and warped electronic burbles, they bounded across the stage, with frontman Dan Reynolds pounding the percussion and guitarist Wayne Sermon pulling winding solos from his guitar. Aside from Madonna, Imagine Dragons drew the largest response of the night — there were definitely fans in homemade T-shirts in attendance — a fact they found both thrilling and humbling, both of which Reynolds pointed out in between his praising of Pussy Riot, whom he called “true heroes.”

Of course, following Imagine Dragons (and a video tribute to the late Nelson Mandela) was the iconic Ms. Lauryn Hill, who delighted the folks in Brooklyn by opening with the Fugees’ “Ready or Not,” and worked her way into a rattling version of the Miseducation track “Final Hour,” which saw her spit rapid-fire vocals, direct her cracking live band with a few finger points, and bring the song back to life with a “workin’ hard” refrain.

She then switched to “Black Rage,” all skittering backbeats and psychotropic turntable wails, then closed her all-too-brief set with a cover of Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe” before heading backstage.

As Wednesday night turned into Thursday morning, some began to leave (hey, they had work in the morning,) though that didn’t stop Sir Bob Geldof from being as cantankerous as ever during his set, or Tegan and Sara from getting folks on their feet with their sleeper hit “Closer.” The Flaming Lips teamed with Yoko Ono to bring the few remaining Fearless Freaks some release, and then, of course, there was the night-capping superjam on a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”

It was a marathon show to be sure, and that was fitting. Because as the host of musicians, celebs and activists mentioned throughout the night, the race to freedom and equality certain isn’t a sprint. But on nights like this, it’s nice to know we’re taking a step in the right direction.