Getting a jump on the Jingle Balls and all the other radio-sponsored concerts to come in about six weeks, CBS Radio gathered its own multiplicity of megastars at the Hollywood Bowl Saturday night for an even better cause than seasonal cheer and self-promotion. The breast cancer awareness-benefitting We Can Survive show boasted a 10-act lineup that managed to include almost about every pop star who’s released an outstanding or interesting album in 2017, among them: Pink, Sam Smith, Harry Styles, Khalid and Lorde.
Pink might have been slotted as headliner if only by virtue of the fact that she’s the only performer whose name matches the color of all the ribbons on display, or the default color projected onto the Bowl’s semicircular proscenium between acts. Sometimes, naming really is destiny. But she more than earned it with the only five-song set of the night that felt more like a frustrating teaser than a half-full course, between her stage prowess and untapped catalog.
The funked-out, wah-wah arrangement of “Get the Party Started” kicked off her set, and quickly managed to outdo the classic studio version. But it was Pink’s recent single “What About Us” that was the evening’s most moving. Is its desperate, yearning quality about a search for hope in troubled Trumpian times? Could you stretch it to be about finding meaning amid other deadly diseases, like the one being spotlighted? It actually had that much elastic power as an uncertain anthem Saturday, even if it requires a round of “Raise That Glass” as a more jubilant digestif afterward.
The happy non-accident of the night, for One Direction fans, was the presence of both Styles and Niall Horan on the bill, the latter an unannounced surprise in addition to the nine advertised artists. Horan did not come out to join Styles on his rocked-out version of 1D’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” which the well-coiffed singer dedicated to his mother, Anne, on the occasion of her 50th birthday. Neither mentioned the other, in fact, though we are to take it that there is only good blood, at least based on Horan later tweeting that it was “beautiful to watch my brother Harold in action.”
Who would have guessed that both these guys would be releasing solo albums in 2017 better than anything One Direction did as a group? Styles’ was the more exuberant of the two sets, by far, as the red-suited clotheshorse went from the rock balladry of “Sign of the Times” and “Two Ghosts” into full-on Jagger/swagger mode with “Only Angel” and “Kiwi.” If Styles has his take-me-seriously moments, Horan spent much more of his mini-set in that style, seeming to use his acoustic guitar and staidness almost as a defensive shield against his former image. He’s not bad at playing it cool, but you might have breathed a slight sigh of relief when he finally put the guitar and shyness aside and began prowling the stage when it came time for his climactic hit, “Slow Hands.”
Alessia Cara was so underdressed for the occasion, or for any occasion other than high school — in T-shirt, hoodie, ripped jeans, sneakers, and possibly zero time spent in hair and makeup — that she was the one performer on the bill you could image security laughing away if she’d gotten trapped outside without her backstage pass. But, of course, it’s precisely that likable, unassuming, everyday-kid quality that’s helped make her a star, in combination with a voice for the modern ages. “Scars to Your Beautiful” spoke directly to the underlying point of the event, if not in word, then in background imagery of follicularly challenged radiation treatment patients. “Here,” though, remains the keeper in her one-album catalog — an anthem for kitchen-dwelling partygoers everywhere who happen to be hiding spectacular voices.
Lorde, like Cara, also has introvert/extrovert tendencies, and even more lyrics about those competing impulses to go with them. She sang a song poking fun at performers who ask their fans to wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care, but Lorde did also, during “Royals,” put up a video of a hand clutching a lighter, a silent suggestion to attendees to turn on the flashlight mode on their smartphones, the modern-day Bic equivalent.
The conflicting desires to be a party animal and a proud shut-in are part of what make her second album, “Melodrama,” one of 2017’s finest. It’s not clear that she’s yet figured out how to turn her essential inwardness into something flamboyantly outgoing on stage yet, though she certainly seems inclined to try, even bringing some dancers in tow for occasional bouts of choreography. Disappointingly, the three black-clad musicians in the shadowy rear seemed to be there mainly to turn the canned album tracks (and lush backing vocals) on and off, but this may have been a one-off approach for the Bowl, since her international tour isn’t actually underway yet.
The most winning number of Lorde’s set was “Liability,” where she was accompanied, as on the record, by a solo piano, as she spontaneously sat down and crossed her legs to make the song look as intimate as it sounded. After that, it didn’t matter if “Green Light” replicated the recorded version in everything but lead vocal — she’d won the house over with raw authenticity and could now pass go to the disco.
The We Can Survive concert was also a tale of two Sams, Smith and Hunt. If anyone doubted how thoroughly country star Hunt’s massive “Body Like a Back Road” crossed over to pop, that question was quickly solved with the sing-along factor among this sold-out show’s predominantly female audience. It’s ironic, but maybe informative, that this extremely country-sounding single was a bigger hit at pop and AC radio than the songs of his that sound more tailored for those formats. Hunt also performed “Take Your Time” and “Break Up in a Small Town,” which, while hardly being traditional fare, represent the best mixtures of sung and spoken-word content in country since the heyday of Conway Twitty.
Smith was slightly hobbled by the fact that his superior sophomore album isn’t out yet, and while he was eager to premiere a lot of that material at a recent Troubadour showcase, he was more reluctant to try it out in an environment where everyone’s phones couldn’t be confiscated at the door. So Bowl patrons only got the two already released tracks, “Too Good at Goodbyes” and “Pray,” along with prior hits. (He resisted any temptation to dedicate “Stay With Me” to the late Tom Petty.) His pleated slacks competed with Styles’ red suit to make him the most dapper man of the evening. When it came to immaculate soul phrasing, though, he didn’t have much competition for the rest of the night.
Performers rounding out the bill included Macklemore and Kesha, who teamed up for their recorded duet “Good Old Days” on top of their individual sets, and rising star Khalid, of “Young, Dumb and Broke” fame, a welcome presence on a bill otherwise light on people of color in lead roles. All 10 acts managed to cycle through the Bowl stage and send fans out to the buses by 10:30, some kind of record for efficiency in a show this effective at presenting a completist contemporary pop primer.