You just had to be there. Saturday’s rally for the West Memphis Three was a success on every level. The sold out crowd brought a lot of energy (and iPhones) and the performances were spot on. The night began with remarks from Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Rev. Thompson Murray and Capi Peck, a founding member of the group Arkansas Take Action. The crowd also heard from Damien Echols' wife, Lorri Davis, and saw a video message from long-time WM3 supporter Henry Rollins.
After the initial remarks, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder took the stage and played "Rise Up," one of his tracks off the "Into the Wild" soundtrack, followed by a cover of Tom Waits' "Rains on Me." Vedder was the de facto master of ceremonies, providing back-up vocals or guitar for many of the night’s performances. After a song from Austin, Texas, songwriter Bill Carter, Vedder came back out to play a soulful rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Times, They are a Changin'," followed by a raucous version of Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night."
Then Johnny Depp took the stage to read a page from Damien Echols' journal. For a moment, it appeared that organizers' early fears that Depp's celebrity might overshadow the event had some merit. Depp, trying to read through a passage from Echols' journal about being shackled and not able to walk freely, was interrupted by shouts of "We love you, Johnny!" Depp, to his credit, stopped for a moment and asked the crowd, "We all know why we're here, right?"
One of the highlights of the night was a three-song set by Fistful of Mercy, made up of Ben Harper, Dhani Harrison and Joseph Arthur. Harper's lyrics soared over intricate guitar work by the entire band and the three-part harmonies were nothing short of sublime.
Natalie Maines then took the stage for a four-song set of new material and covers. Before she started, Maines told the crowd, "This song's for, well ... I don't want to get myself in trouble again, so this goes out to whom it may concern." Her beautiful take on Dan Wilson’s “Free Life” was particularly strong. Afterwards, Vedder and Maines sang a couple of songs, including a cover track from WM3 supporter John Doe called "The Golden State." Maines and Vedder's voices melded together perfectly, and the crowd sat in absolute silence for their rendition of James Taylor's "Close Your Eyes."
Later, Depp came back out on stage to join Vedder on another of his solo tunes, "Society," and played an impressive lead solo. Depp swaggered around the stage like an experienced rock star but almost appeared to be a caricature of himself, rocking back and forth with his guitar strapped low and taking cigarette breaks during performances.
Patti Smith, the final act of the night, was a force to be reckoned with. Talk about stage presence. Smith started by screwing up the guitar chords to “My Blakean Year,” saying "fuck it" and playing the rest of the tune a cappella.
"Well, I fucked it up, but I haven't fucked up as bad as the judicial system," she told the audience and then spat on the stage.
Smith stayed on for the rest of the set, leading up to an incredible finale where every musician came back out onstage for a rousing almost church-like rendition of her song "People Have the Power."
Organizers of the event said they considered it a huge success. And even though the stage was filled with big names, no one could forget what the night was really about: freeing three wrongly convicted young men from prison. It was an experience I won't soon forget and something we’re not likely to see around Little Rock for some time. For more information or to find out how you can help, visit Arkansas Take Action’s website at www.freewestmemphis3.org.