Environmentalism is a pretty easy cause for pop musicians to support. After all, who really wants to make a stand against issues like clean air, clean water and better waste management?
So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the 25th anniversary of Earth Day has prompted not one but two large-scale concerts. On Friday, there will be a mostly alterna-rock benefit show at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, with Natalie Merchant in one of her first public performances since leaving 10,000 Maniacs. Also performing will be Toad the Wet Sprocket, Collective Soul and They Might Be Giants.
Then, on Earth Day itself -- Saturday -- a six-hour concert will be held on the Mall in Washington, featuring Boyz II Men, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Hornsby, the Mavericks, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Branford Marsalis, Shawn Colvin, Kenny Loggins, Kathy Mattea and Brownstone. In addition to the music, there will also be appearances by actors Julia Louise-Dreyfus, Jeff Goldblum and LeVar Burton.
Given the caliber of talent involved, it's clear that Earth Day is considered a major event in the pop music community. Why, though? Is it, as Toad the Wet Sprocket's Dean Dinning says, "the most obvious thing in the world, because everybody's affected by the environment"?
Or, as Branford Marsalis suggests, does the attraction have more to do with "the fact that there will be a whole lot of people at that Mall who get to hear your music?"
There's no such confusion about the cause. According to Michael Martin, whose Concerts for the Environment group has organized both the Merriweather and the National Mall shows, the main goal of this year's Earth Day celebration is to let average citizens know just what the Contract with America means in environmental terms.
"This is the thing: 83 percent of the public considers themselves environmentalists, but practically nobody -- maybe 5 or 10 percent of the public -- is aware that the Contract decimates the last 25 years of environmental legislation," he says. "The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Superfund Bill -- they'll all be taken away with the Contract."
That certainly explains why so many environmental groups will be working at these concerts. Cynics, however, might lean more to Marsalis' view and argue that the pop stars perform at these events mainly because they like the publicity.
"There's a level of skepticism, as far as I'm concerned, as to whether the groups playing at these kinds of show actually brings real awareness," Marsalis says. "It brings media awareness, but media awareness, as we all know, is very, very short. Even though the majority of the people that are there would say that [the publicity] has no bearing, I think they're lying."
But doesn't being environmentally conscious at least play a part in their decision? "If you're lucky, it's half and half," he says. "Sometimes it might be 80/20."
Why will he be there? "Because I believe in that kind of stuff.
"With me, I'd say it's 60/40 in favor of Earth Day," he says. "It wasn't my idea to call them and solicit my name, but even if there had been just a hundred people there, I would have been down to do it. Everything I do in my career, I do essentially because it's bringing me some sort of joy or fulfillment. When I don't feel any fulfillment, I avoid it."
Part of the fulfillment he feels comes from his son. "My son is really into it," he explains. "Everybody at school, they're talking about recycling and preserving the earth and all, and I do what I can to do that. I do all of the politically correct things now: recycle, compost, the whole thing. So one part of it is that you want to bring some sort of awareness to saving the earth."
Don't expect to hear Marsalis explain this from the stage, though. "Deeds over words, man," he says. "Too many times people get into this format and they start making speeches. We're going to go up there, say, 'Glad you could be here,' play a couple songs, and get out of the way for the next group."
Marsalis won't be the only pop musician at the Earth Day concert who shies away from making speeches or playing role model. "I don't like to get up on the soap box and say, 'Look at what we're doing,' " says Bruce Hornsby. "Because in the big picture, I don't think that what we're doing is all that special. OK?
"A couple years ago, much was made in the rock press about Tom Petty not using Styrofoam cups." He laughs. "I sort of thought, 'OK, that's great.' But it seemed like much ado about very little. So I feel a little silly about saying, 'Oh, yeah. We do that, too.' We do, but in the big picture, big deal."
Unlike Marsalis, who tends to prefer low-profile, direct charitable work, Hornsby does a fair number of benefit performances each year. "I don't consider myself to be Mr. Benefit," he says. "Nothing like Bonnie Raitt or Jackson Browne. Those two are the king and queen. I probably do 10 or 12 a year. I think of it as a moderate amount."
Even so, Hornsby finds himself "inundated" with benefit requests. "I just tend to pick the ones that I'm most passionate about." One of those is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, for whom Hornsby will be playing benefits in Norfolk and Richmond, Va., next month.
Still, Hornsby hesitates to paint himself or his band as hardcore environmentalists. "We do think about it, but I wouldn't say we're total fanatics," he says. In addition to trying to conserve and recycle when on the road, Hornsby says he has "a very limited rider," meaning that what the band requires in the way of backstage food and amenities is kept to the bare minimum.
"This isn't about environment, it's about conspicuous consumption," he says. "We try to keep things low-end, because we think there's a lot of waste on the road in general. The best thing we've gotten involved in is this thing about taking all the catering leftovers to the local homeless shelters."
Toad the Wet Sprocket, on the other hand, uses its riders to encourage recycling at its shows.
"In our dressing room, we always have three recycling bins or more," says Toad's bass player, Dean Dinning. "We always ask, in our contract, that people try to make sure that the items we've marked to be recycled in the recycling bin actually make it to the recycling center, and get recycled. We ask them to provide proof.
"Other than that, the only real things you can do are try to conserve on towels, cut down on water usage, things like that. Those are some of the things we do on a daily basis."
One of the reasons these musicians leap at the chance to play benefit shows is that it gives them a chance to raise people's consciousness.
"If people start thinking about it on a daily basis, if we can get beyond Earth Day and make every day Earth Day -- that's really the way it should be," says Dinning.
"You shouldn't have to take one day out of the year to recognize the environment," he explains. "You should be thinking about it just when you wake up and look out the window in the morning.
"I'm not sure we feel it's our duty to preach to the audience or change their minds or convince them of something," he adds. "But I think it's great for them to know the kinds of concerns that we have in our own lives."
That isn't just a rock-and-roll attitude, either. One of the things that Concerts for the Environment hopes to achieve through the Earth Day show is bringing together a wider range of pop fans by including country, jazz and R&B; acts in the line-up.
"When we talk to people [in the concert business], they're always saying, 'Why are you doing that? This doesn't fit the format,' " says CFE's Martin. "But from our standpoint, it's accomplishing exactly what we want it to accomplish. We really try to create a feeling of family and participation. It's our hope that at the event there's going to be a lot of interesting combinations of performers performing together. Because the environment impacts everybody, and everybody can have an impact based on the actions that they take."
Paul Deakin of the Mavericks agrees. "I don't like to segregate and say a country audience is any different than an urban audience," he says. Although he agrees that country music fans tend to be closer to the earth, in the literal sense, than urban music audiences, that doesn't mean they're necessarily more aware of environmental issues.
"It should be that everybody is aware. If, by having country artists involved -- or jazz artists or whatever -- the message reaches a segment of the population that wouldn't have otherwise been reached, then all the better.
"But I don't think there's anybody out there who's anti-environment."
Branford Marsalis says motivation is part PC, part PR.
When: Friday, 6 p.m.
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Who: Natalie Merchant, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Collective Soul and They Might Be Giants
Tickets: $25 for center-section seating, $19 for loge seating, $15 for lawn seating; available at Record & Tape Traders as well as by phone through PRO TIX
Call: (410) 581-0110 for tickets, (410) 730-2424 for information
When: Saturday, noon
Where: The Mall, Washington
Who: Boyz II Men, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Hornsby, the Mavericks, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Branford Marsalis, Shawn Colvin, Kenny Loggins, Kathy Mattea and Brownstone
Call: (202) 244-8333 for information, (202) 232-0001 to volunteer