Music

Pussy Riot Stole the Show From Madonna, The Fray and Blondie Last Night at Barclay’s

Pussy Riot hit Brooklyn for Amnesty International's "Bringing Human Rights Home" concert

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There were plenty of big acts — Imagine Dragons, the Flaming Lips, The Fray and Blondie — performing at the Amnesty International concert on Wednesday night at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. And yet, the main draw was a group who didn’t even sing: Pussy Riot.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, two members of the punk feminist group who were jailed in Russia for 21 months after performing an anti-Putin protest in a cathedral, made their first concert appearance in America — a stop on their international tour to draw attention to the political problems in Russia. They’ve already done press with the Colbert Report and the New York Times in an effort to garner attention for a new human rights organization they aim to create, Zone of Law, which they will use to help those wrongfully imprisoned as they were.

Madonna introduced the group, telling the crowd that she received death threats for supporting Pussy Riot while on her own international tour; the Russian government also threatened to jail her in St. Petersburg for “promoting gay behavior” during her show. She was ultimately sued for $1 million for breaking Russian rules. (87 of her fans, she noted, were arrested for “gay behavior, whatever that is” at her concert in St. Petersburg.)

Though the audience swayed during the Fray, yelled during Blondie and “booed” Russia dutifully when Madonna told them to do so, they were really waiting for the only musical group that had truly suffered for their spot on stage.

Pussy Riot spent their short time in front of the microphone reading the statements made yesterday in court by people on trial in Russia for protesting Putin’s election. (The protestors in Russia who Pussy Riot endorsed are expected to be sentenced to six years in prison.) Their somber tone broke with the lightheartedness of the rest of the evening — Madonna had thanked Pussy Riot earlier “for making pussy a ‘sayable’ word in my household.” At the end Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina encouraged the crowd to yell, “Russia will be free!” with them.

The appearance of Pussy Riot certainly brought out big names and big bucks for Amnesty International, highlighting the organization’s renewed relationship with music and celebrity. (Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz were sitting just a few feet from me during the concert. They left after Pussy Riot departed, even though Imagine Dragons was preparing to take the stage next.) Amnesty International’s last “Human Rights” concerts were held between 1986 and 1988 and included the likes of Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Sting; other performers at this new iteration of the concert included Cake, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Bob Geldof, Tegan and Sara, Colbie Caillat and Cold War Kids.

Some tried to give their music a new meaning — Blondie said, “One Way, Or Another” felt especially appropriate for the event, and the Fray nodded towards the purpose of Amnesty International in ending their set with “How to Save a Life.” Others simply sang their hits, like Imagine Dragons, whose performance of “Radioactive” made me miss their collaboration with Kendrick Lamar during the Grammys.

But the crowd petered out after Pussy Riot’s appearance. Perhaps they would have stayed had Pussy Riot been allotted more time to just sit down and tell stories of their experiences on trial and in prison in Russia. They left the stage too quickly, and after all, fearless 20-something mothers battling Putin’s oppressive regime are a tough act to follow.

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