Those singers set a serious tone Wednesday night, wearing mostly black and gray onstage as they encouraged people to call and donate money to those affected by the devastating storm that took place in late October, killing about 140 people and damaging millions of homes and properties in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and other areas.
Alicia Keys, who grew up in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, closed the night with her New York anthem "Empire State of Mind," as doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers and others joined the piano-playing singer onstage. They ended the night chanting "U.S.A."
Keys was one of two women who performed at "The Concert for Sandy Relief." Diana Krall backed McCartney, who sang his solo songs, Beatles songs and played the role of Kurt Cobain with Nirvana members Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear during the nearly six-hour show.
Springsteen and the E Street Band kicked off the night, performing songs like "My City of Ruins," ''Born to Run" with Bon Jovi and some of Tom Waits' "Jersey Girl."
"I pray that that characteristic remains along the Jersey shore because that's what makes it special," the New Jersey-born rocker said.
E Street band guitarist Steven Van Zandt said backstage that musicians and entertainers always show up when tragedy hits.
"It's more personal because literally the Jersey Shore is where we grew up ... but we'd be here anyway," he said. "You don't see oil companies here, you don't see insurance companies here, the Wall Street guys, with all due respect, they're not waiting in line to help anybody, so we're here."
The sold-out show was televised live, streamed online, played on the radio and shown in theaters all over the world. Producers said up to 2 billion people were able to experience it live.
But the night wasn't all serious: Comedy helped break up the weightiness of Sandy's devastation, including jokes from Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert and Adam Sandler, who performed a hilarious parody of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Even Coldplay's Chris Martin brought on the jokes.
"I know you really wanted One Direction," Martin said of the popular British boy band. "But it's way past their bedtime."
Martin was joined onstage by Michael Stipe, as they sang R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." And there was another collaboration with Roger Waters and Eddie Vedder on "Comfortably Numb."
The participants, many natives of the area and others who know it well, struck a defiant tone in asking for help to rebuild sections of the New York metropolitan area devastated by the storm. About half of the performers were British.
"This has got to be the largest collection of old English musicians ever assembled in Madison Square Garden," said Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, who performed two songs. "If it rains in London, you've got to come and help us."
Waters, who has lived in New York for 11 years, said "there's a great feeling of camaraderie" backstage and that he's excited he could help those who are suffering.
Richie Sambora said he "had to hold back tears" when he visited New Jersey and saw the devastation. "My mom's house (in Point Pleasant, N.J.) got trashed. They had to evacuate her. She's living with me until we fix it up."
Most of the acts performed about four tunes. McCartney performed for 40 minutes and The Who were onstage for 30. They weaved Sandy into their set, showing pictures of storm devastation on video screens during "Pinball Wizard." Pete Townshend made a quick revision to the lyrics of "Baba O'Riley," changing "teenage wasteland" to "Sandy wasteland."
Joel performed one of the last century's favorites, "New York State of Mind." Joel's "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" sounded prescient, with new Sandy-fueled lyrics smoothly fitting in. He was also the only artist to mark the season, working in a little of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
Kanye West's performance gave the crowd a different sound, as the music lineup was heavily weighted toward classic rock, which has the type of fans able to afford a show for which ticket prices ranged from $150 to $2,500. Even with those prices, people with tickets have been offering them for more on broker sites such as StubHub, an attempt at profiteering that producers fumed was "despicable."
Proceeds will go to the Robin Hood Foundation, which said it raised $30 million from ticket sales and sponsors ahead of the concert. The organization also stressed that the earnings will get to those who need assistance.
"We will make sure that that money goes out right away to the most affected (places) in New York City, New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut," David Saltzman, the organization's executive director, said backstage. "The money that we raised from this concert will be distributed in the days, weeks and months, not years."
Robin Hood is working through existing organizations that "know what to do and know their communities," he said. Saltzman added that Fuse TV, which is owned by Madison Square Garden, was giving its YouTube revenues earned from airing the concert to the victims, and that StubHub has donated $860,000 from fees from those selling tickets.
The sold-out "12-12-12" concert was being shown on 37 television stations in the United States and more than 200 others worldwide. It was to be streamed on 30 websites, including YouTube and Yahoo. The theaters showing it included 27 in the New York region.
AP Writer John Carucci contributed to this report.