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Musicians Band Together for Walden Woods

IMAGINE Henry David Thoreau wandering alone through Walden Woods in 1846, scribbling notes in his journal about the pine trees. Now picture 48,000 sweaty people crammed into a football stadium in Foxboro, Mass., dancing to six hours of live music. While the famed naturalist and these modern-day rock fans employed radically different methods, their intent was the same: to promote environmental awareness and preserve a pristine ecosystem for future generations.

Organized by musician Don Henley, Monday's concert featured Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, Sting, Aerosmith, and Jimmy Buffet, and raised an estimated $1.3 million for the Walden Woods Project, Henley's three-year-old nonprofit initiative. The revenue will help pay off $4.5 million in loans taken out to purchase 43.6 acres of forested land near Walden Pond.

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This wilderness area, known as Walden Woods, was the site of Thoreau's two-year study of philosophy and natural systems chronicled in his book ``Walden.'' Now protected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Walden Pond and much of its surrounding woodland draws 500,000 visitors a year from around the world. At a pre-concert press conference, Henley called it ``the birthplace of the American environmental movement.''

But 40 percent of Walden Woods is privately owned. In the mid-1980s, a Boston developer announced plans to build condominiums and an office park on two wooded parcels. In response, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Walden Woods on its list of ``America's 11 Most Endangered Historical Places.'' Since then, Henley, who first earned recognition in the 1970s as the drummer and vocalist for The Eagles, has led a legion of celebrities, politicians, and business leaders through four benefit concerts, two walk-a-thons, and a merchandising blitz that has netted over $5 million.

At the press conference, Henley said he was ``about halfway home'' in his Walden Woods fund-raising effort. He said he plans to turn his full attention to buying endangered land in other areas of the country once this initial preservation task is completed. ``It's the mother of all those other battles,'' he said.

BUT this Labor Day was devoted to music, and the artists - aided by blue skies and a rotating stage - provided an almost continuous supply. Leading off, Etheridge's show suffered from a lack of recognition as well as the distraction of inattentive fans still searching for their seats. But the singer and guitarist delivered her fiery brand of rock with soulful intensity. Her new album is due out in a couple of weeks.

By contrast, Elton John brought the crowd to its feet with ``Philadelphia Freedom'' and a bouncy version of ``I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That,'' but his performance lacked passion and spontaneity. John closed his set with a mechanical rendition of ``Pinball Wizard'' by The Who.

Sting showed all the signs of a weary performer coming off an exhausting European tour. He had trouble with high notes and his voice gave out completely at times. Still, he and his band played with the polish of a group that's been on the road for a while: Each song blended seamlessly into the next and favorites like ``Roxanne'' and ``Every Breath You Take'' from Sting's days as vocalist for The Police kept the crowd singing along. For an encore, Sting picked up a mandolin guitar and shed his shirt to play his haunting ballad ``Fragile.''

Throughout their short set, Aerosmith's splashy metal sound often came out garbled. And the frenzied antics of the group's lead man Steven Tyler seemed out of place. Yet the stadium went wild for the Boston natives, and ``Dude Looks Like a Lady'' prompted some of the concert's most energetic moments.

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By all accounts, however, Henley stole his own show. Opening with his two biggest solo hits ``Boys of Summer'' and ``The End of the Innocence,'' his music sounded fabulous and his lyrics spoke to the mood of the evening. Henley joked with the crowd between songs and offered a simple and eloquent message of thanks to the concert sponsors, volunteers, and spectators. In the middle of his set, he welcomed Jimmy Buffet to the stage and sang a verse of Buffet's classic song ``Volcano.'' Henley closed with a selection of Eagles tunes including ``Hotel California'' and his cowboy ballad ``Desperado.''

Aside from a video about the project shown on giant screens before Henley's set, the entertainers largely played down the concert's environmental aspects. There was even less mention of the famous author who first brought Walden to the world's attention.

On the way into the concert, some fans expressed doubt that Thoreau would have attended such a function, but Tom Abel of Marlboro, Mass., disagreed. ``If Thoreau was alive,'' he said, ``he'd think this was wicked cool.''

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