An historic moment, told in secular songs that spoke of belief in mankind and perseverance and in stories of bold moves by strong leaders, served as Barack Obama’s first public celebration in Washington, D.C. Actors read monologues that emphasized moments in which the status quo was rejected and public service was encouraged, quoting Lincoln and FDR extensively. It was an effective marriage of song and speech, a two-hour refresher course about how the country’s leaders and the American people have confronted hard times and how artists have represented the American spirit through their music.
Appropriately, Bruce Springsteen went first after Denzel Washington said the day would “speak to the future of America,” and he turned to one of his strongest songs about renewal, “The Rising,” a tune that served as a post-9/11 balm when it was released in 2003.
With the Obama and Biden families to his right and a choir behind him, Springsteen’s tune took on a new air, its message of community and hope in line with a political administration rather than at odds with one. It was an opening salvo that took hold as the song asked people to join hands and realize that when they look into the sky there are a multitude of possibilities — “memory and shadow,” “longing and emptiness,” “fullness and blessed life.”
The afternoon’s penultimate moment again found Springsteen, joined this time by Pete Seeger and a different choir, singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a song once viewed as a leftist national anthem that the Boss rightfully referred to as “the greatest song written about our home.” The perf was a moment of community with no star turns, a song that worked off of a collective voice of the people onstage and the thousands gathered around the reflecting pool on the Mall. It was the song that did the best job of reinforcing and galvanizing the thoughts that had been expressed throughout the day and the Obama campaign.
It was a day of concise speeches delivered effectively by actors, the comedians in the group choosing to play it straight rather yuk it up. The musicians, except for Bono, did not speak and Will.i.am was the lone singer to venture into a lyrical rewrite, rapping about racism over Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Song choice, as viewers have learned over the years from “American Idol,” is critical. And if it means picking the obvious, the performer had better bring some magic to the rendition.
U2 went that route, performing their Martin Luther King Jr. tribute “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and then “City of Brilliant Lights,” a tune that became an anthem of the Obama campaign after his win in the Iowa caucuses. “Pride” came off as flat and routine; “City” was inspiring, a breath of fresh air from the band. Bono sang it with a broad smile, his face telegraphing humility and, no pun intended, pride.
Music, Washington said at the top of the program, is “the creative heartbeat of the American experience,” though Sunday’s concert was indeed a rare one serving to entertain and unite the American people.
The last time the U.S. turned toward musicians on this level was the concerts that followed the attacks of Sept. 11. That solemn affair gave us Neil Young’s version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Alicia Keys’ reading of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” while serving as a reminder that the stable of musical artists who reflect modern society in their music continues to diminish in size and effect.
That was on view again as the material for much of the day, whether it was performed by young R&B singers or 89-year-old Seeger, was familiar and often geared toward audience participation. Garth Brooks, joined by yet another choir, crisscrossed the stage performing segments of Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and his own ode to equality “We Shall Be Free.” Director Don Mischer made it appear to be the most viscerally engaging performance of the day.
Headliners were placed in two- and three-artist configurations, placed on a landing beneath the steps that lead to the statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln. A band, which included strings, horns and percussion played by military personnel and hired musicians, performed on a lower platform that only occasionally came into view. It was obvious there was not a lot of time for rehearsal, but a few of the pairings proved quite engaging.
Bettye Lavette, who took D.C. by storm last month at the Kennedy Center Honors, was partnered with Jon Bon Jovi on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” She invested it with anguish, he approached it from a perspective of reasoned logic, giving the perf considerable gravitas.
Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” the lone classical piece, paired eloquently with a reading by Tom Hanks. The radiant Renee Fleming, backed by the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club, delivered an affecting operatic take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
John Mellencamp, the most political of the assembled performers, wheeled out “Pink Houses” and its refrain of “ain’t that America” enthusiastically sung by a choir. It was accompanied by images of the America Mellencamp was singing about when he wrote the song 25 years ago. The photo collection was of people in their jobs — a waitress, an auto factory worker, farmers, a woman working a hot dog stand — suggesting that the people overlooked by the Reagan administration are still not being heard in D.C. today. But that was the beauty of the program: Some of the history lessons reached back to Washington and Jefferson; others are more immediate and still require solutions.