The Stars Align, With Egos in Check: The Inauguration Concert on the Mall
Monday, January 19, 2009
Some things we learned yesterday at the "We Are One" concert, the official welcoming celebration for Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial: Jamie Foxx does a pretty spot-on Obama impersonation; wiseacre Jack Black can look completely serious when he's paying homage to Theodore Roosevelt's conservation achievements; Garth Brooks can somehow pull off a medley of "American Pie," "Shout" and "We Shall Be Free"; and musical superstars seem okay with singing in trios -- at least in the case of Usher, Shakira and Stevie Wonder, who did a rousing version of "Higher Ground" that had the president-elect and his wife, Michelle, on their feet and dancing.
Some of the world's biggest artistic egos cooperated yesterday to honor both history and Obama, who sat onstage with his wife and daughters, frequently bobbing his head in time with the music and enjoying the almost inconceivable lineup that drew hundreds of thousands to the Mall. Where else could you see the biggest stars in pop music, as well as the likes of Tom Hanks, Queen Latifah, Denzel Washington and Tiger Woods on one stage -- a stage overlooked by the stoic stone gaze of Abraham Lincoln.
"Hello, America," Obama said. "I want to thank all the speakers and performers for reminding us, through song and through words, just what it is that we love about America." The free mega-concert signaled a departure from the Bush administration's frequent efforts to distance itself from Hollywood. Obama seemed to make clear with the event that he was returning to the celebrity-friendly days when Democrats last occupied the White House.
Producers had said beforehand they wanted to stage a thematically coherent as well as entertaining show, and they pulled it off with songs, readings and film clips. Although less than two hours long, it had the excitement and fullness of a LiveAid concert.
Most performers covered other people's hits with backing from the concert's official band. Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi teamed up on Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come"; Mary J. Blige covered "Lean on Me"; and, with Herbie Hancock on keyboards, Will.I.Am and Sheryl Crow performed Bob Marley's "One Love."
The Rev. Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop, delivered the invocation, calling for unity. Bruce Springsteen opened the show with his own "The Rising," a rousing rendition supported by a 125-voice female chorus in resplendent red gowns. John Mellencamp sang his own signature "Pink Houses," backed by a 60-member Baptist choir. The trio of James Taylor, John Legend and Jennifer Nettles joyously performed Taylor's "Shower the People."
U2 landed the honor of doing two of their own songs -- the anthemic "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "City of Blinding Lights," which Obama had used at campaign events. Lead singer Bono said Obama had specifically requested the latter. Interviewed afterward, Bono said the president-elect's theme of hope -- and Obama himself -- represented a "melody line that is now contagious. It's a pop song."
Even Bono felt awed to be there. "We don't do humble as much as we should, but we were truly humbled this afternoon," he said.
The afternoon had the feel of a movie matinee, a greatest hits review and a history lesson. Some 14 actors read from dramatic scripts invoking the words and accomplishments of presidents Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, with occasional detours into significant chapters of the civil rights movement. Queen Latifah, for example, introduced the story of contralto Marian Anderson, who was banned by the whites-only Daughters of the American Revolution from performing at DAR Constitution Hall but got to sing at the Lincoln Memorial with an assist from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Then Josh Groban joined Heather Headley, with backing from the Gay Mens Chorus of Washington, to cover "My Country 'Tis of Thee" -- the very song that Anderson used to open her performance in 1939.
Another historical highlight arrived with Springsteen joining 89-year-old folk singer Pete Seeger to lead the crowd -- the president-elect included -- in a singalong of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." Seeger made sure to include stanzas of the song not often sung at events of this official magnitude, including protest sentiments and references to Depression-era poverty.
Tiger Woods introduced the Naval Academy Glee Club, which performed with soprano Renee Fleming.
Perhaps the only off moment came with the introduction of two American eagles -- named Challenger and Mr. Lincoln -- before Obama spoke. The crowd seemed a bit perplexed watching the tethered birds flap their wings as their handler held them aloft while a military color guard looked on. The show's producers should have heeded the old showbiz adage: Never work with animal acts.
The enthusiastic crowd stretched from the stage to the Washington Monument. Carolyn Bacchus and her father Jim from Davidson, N.C., said they were waiting to clear security when a couple came up to them and handed them two coveted blue tickets, giving them access to the very front of the stage area.
"We don't know why they gave us tickets," Jim Bacchus said. And 18-year-old Carolyn marveled, "I got pictures with Bon Jovi. I gave him my Obama button. He was onstage wearing my Obama button."
At the edge of the crowd, DeAnna Tisdale, a 23-year-old from Jackson, Miss., said she found the experience transcendent. "When I look out here and see all the people supporting not just a man but a movement, it represents a shift in thought, a shift in action. Music always reflects how people feel."
There were many stirring, even tear-inducing moments. Some started crying when Obama spoke. Others welled up at U2's performance of "Pride," connecting to the significance of hearing it at the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech 46 years ago and on the day before King's birthday will be celebrated.
As Bono himself put it: "That was amazing. . . . This land isn't my land. But it never looked as beautiful as I looked out on that sea of people and possibility that this guy represents."
But perhaps not as amazing as watching the all-star lineup join in a chorus with Beyoncé as she sent off the crowd with a soulful, emotional version of "America the Beautiful."