11/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Burns, Baby, Burns

The "Feel Free" Central Park concert Wednesday night was a blend of music, speakers, and clips from Ken Burns' film, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, which begins airing this Sunday on PBS and runs until sometime before Christmas. They really went all out -- huge stage with high-tech sound and lighting, cameras on cranes, a large screen with crystal-clear projection and a bunch of other expensive looking equipment. One of their sponsors was Montana (yes, the state), so I wouldn't expect less.

The Counting Crows were excellent and had the longest set, which included favorites like Van Morrison's "Caravan" and the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends." But Carole King got the standing ovation. She played the piano while singing, "You've Got a Friend," her voice strong but not quite hitting the high notes of yesteryear. It was still a delight to see her.

When Alison Krauss sang, the audience grew so quiet you could hear the sound of her glossy lips moving. And later a handsome young man in a black newsboy cap, Gavin DeGraw, sang, "Chariot." I'd never heard of him, but I think he's probably famous, and anyway, we're getting married. And we heard from Eric Benet, joined in duet by a blond woman who was never announced and who was not recognizable to anyone sitting anywhere near me. One of my companions suggested Paris Hilton, because, you know, she's blond, too, but I'm almost certain it was not she. Jose Feliciano played his guitar and sang a specially written arrangement of "America the Beautiful," which included some lyrics in Spanish (big sigh of relief when no one yelled, "You lie!").

"This Land is Your Land" was the finale, and it was quite the bang-up finish. Just when we started thinking the party was over, out came Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey. Pardon? Those of us in the audience under 55 had an "aha" moment when the two men said they were there celebrating the memory of Mary Travers, who passed away last week. Peter and Paul got us on our feet, singing and clapping and emphasizing the part in the song, "to the New York islands" (because, you know, we were in New York).

Speakers varied in their impressiveness. Ken Burns was inspiring -- and used words like "apotheosis" and "inexorable," just to see if we were paying attention -- and was his usual energetic, charming self. He even referenced It's A Wonderful Life. He said we should think of national parks as George Bailey and imagine what our world would be without them. He asked (I'm pretty sure rhetorically, but I found that out a couple minutes too late): Would you rather live in Pottersville or Bedford Falls? "Bedford Falls!" I and another woman in the crowd of a thousand or so shouted. Without national parks, Burns said, much of our untouched land would be tract housing and gated communities, and Yellowstone would be an amusement park called Geyser World.

Michael "Mike" Bloomberg graced us with his presence. He did fine. But the train wreck of the night was PBS COO Michael Jones, who may qualify for some sort of worst speaker in the world award. He began by calling Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tom Strickland, "Secretary of State Strickland." Wrong department, wrong rank, wrong sex, but it's the thought that counts. It was really strange that he also put, the, emphasis, on, each, separate, word, and, talked, like, this. People started clapping randomly just when he got something right. It was not good.

Actor Adam Arkin was there, introduced as "a lover of national parks," to which Arkin responded, "I think what goes on between a man and a national park is his own business." It was funny. Anyway, Arkin is getting a special shout-out in this blog because you may remember him as the psychiatrist who treats Josh Lyman and President Bartlett on The West Wing.

And finally, ladies and gentlemen, what we were all there for: short clips of Burns' new film that ran every 20 minutes or so as interludes. I hope you can find a big-screen television this Sunday. The footage of our national parks is breathtaking. Snow-capped mountains, burbling lava, waterfalls. Of course, landscape can't sustain 12 hours of film (obvi), so Burns and his writer, Dayton Duncan, have chosen characters -- living and dead -- to tell the story of America's best idea.

The segments we viewed that night centered around Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, and George Masa. Roosevelt you know. Muir you've probably heard of, especially if you're from Northern California and have visited Muir Woods. Turns out Muir was kind of a nut, but we should all be grateful. Masa's story was fascinating -- a Japanese immigrant in the late 1800s who, along with Horace Kephart, re-branded the Smoky Mountains as the "Great Smoky Mountains" and rallied the states of Tennessee and North Carolina to raise enough money to turn it into a national park. (You see, the evil federal government wouldn't fund it.)

We also watched a Franklin Roosevelt-centered segment, most memorable for having Tom Hanks (that voice! so dreamy!) speaking the lines of some important parks person who lived at the time of Franklin Roosevelt and who had something to do with establishing national parks.

So make Tom Hanks proud: Go visit a national park. Apparently, there are 391, a number bandied about all evening until we found at the end, no, there are actually just 391 "special places" that fall under the purview of the National Parks service. For example, Ellis Island is a "special place," as is the Statue of Liberty. I don't recommend visiting either of those to get in touch with nature, but start watching this Sunday night and you can take your pick of parks.