Paul Simon Surprise Caps Off Inspiring New York Edition of Global Citizen Festival

Coldplay, Billie Eilish, Lizzo and Jennifer Lopez were among the highlights of the Central Park show, as was a tender moment between Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes.

Paul Simon performs at Global Citizen Live in Central Park on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

After skipping a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Global Citizen Live Festival made its return bigger than ever, staging events in eight cities, from New York to Los Angeles to Mumbai, on Sept. 25.

The organization’s flagship concert in New York City — where GCF has taken place since its inception in 2012 — drew a crowd of more than 60,000 fans to Central Park’s Great Lawn. Less than two days earlier, the park was soaked with two inches of rain, but by showtime most of the muddy spots had been covered with sand.

Those who stayed past the concert’s 10 p.m. scheduled closing time received a special treat when Paul Simon was introduced by Chris Martin of Coldplay, the festival’s headliner. “We’re going to bring up one of the greatest of the greats, Paul Simon,” Martin announced. After a few minutes, the 79-year-old singer, known for his work in Simon & Garfunkel as well as his stellar solo career, stepped to the microphone and warbled a version of “The Boxer.” Nice guitar interplay ended the 1969 song from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album.

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Chris Martin of Coldplay (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Global Citizen) Getty Images for Global Citizen

After bringing to the stage 92-year-old biologist E.L. Wilson, the six-and-a-half hour show ended with Simon belting out his most famous tune, “The Sound of Silence.” It was nearly 40 years to the day that Simon & Garfunkel performed for as many as 500,000 people in the same location in the park.

Simon’s surprise appearance capped off a day of music and messages, for which Global Citizen is known. With the pandemic still raging, global warming causing havoc across the world and 2020’s summer of anti-racism protests still resonating, commentaries from the stage were particularly pointed and not just focused on Global Citizen’s general aim of ending world poverty by 2030. The organization later announced more than 60 million COVID-19 vaccines, 157 million trees, and $1.1 billion USD committed to climate, famine and COVID-19 response efforts.

Senators Chuck Schumer and Chris Coons sounded the alarm over climate change and the need for Congressional legislation. New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio spoke briefly over a cascade of boos — a repeat of his appearance in the same spot during August’s “We Love NYC Homecoming Concert,” which was rained out and cut short.

The artists had their say as well. “Thank you for being here and giving a fuck about the world,” Billie Eilish blasted. “Let’s just try helping the world and do what we can. I’m talking out of my ass because I don’t know what to do. We need to try harder.”

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Billie Eilish (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah) AP

The 19-year-old pop sensation danced around the large stage like a dervish during her seven-song set, accompanied by a band that includes brother Finneas. Among the highlights: “Bad Guy,” “My Future” and “Happier Than Ever,” which seems to reflect her current mood. Billie and Finneas later joined Coldplay on “Fix You,” with Billie again pogoing on the stage.

Lizzo dug even deeper, reminding the crowd that the park was once known as Seneca Village, where, she explained, “an affluent African-American community was evicted here.” Clearly, Lizzo did her homework. Seneca Village was founded in 1825 by freed Blacks and was closed in 1857 to allow for the building of the park.

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Lizzo (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah) AP

Lizzo didn’t disappoint with her form-fitting hot pink dress and witty banter during a swift set that included such hits as “Good as Hell” and “Juice.”

The boyfriend-girlfriend duo of Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello received a lot of stage time, both together and separately. Cabello dazzled in an early set that featured “Havana” and “Senorita,” with Mendes, whose bland set paled in comparison, joining in for a duet of the latter. The two were among the most-talked-about acts on the bill, judging from social media, which was abuzz over the couple kissing onstage.

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Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP) Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

There was nothing bland about Jennifer Lopez, who displayed her New York-bred moves on hits like Bronx anthem “Jenny on the Block” and “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.” Lopez was joined onstage by LL Cool J and then Ja Rule for duets on “All I Have,” “Ain’t It Funny” and “I’m Real,” respectively.

Shorter sets were provided by rapper Meek Mill, R&B singer Jon Batiste and Nigerian star Burna Boy. and ’80s icon Cyndi Lauper. The show opened with a round-the-world medley of Bob Marley’s “One Love” and Marley and Peter Tosh’s “Get Up, Stand Up” that included Marley’s grandson, Skip, as well as Nile Rodgers, Angelique Kidjou, Baptiste, Martin and more.

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Jennifer Lopez (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for Global Citizen) Getty Images for Global Citizen

Longtime Global Citizen supporter Martin and his band Coldplay were supposed to close out the New York edition of Global Citizen, which was broadcast on network television and online. Performing “Yellow,” “Clocks” and “Viva La Vida” — any of which would have made a fitting finale — they also brought to the stage Zambian singer Esther Chungu for her hit song, “Jehovah.”

As Martin made the announcement that Simon would be the final performer of the night, the crowd had already started making its way to the exits, chanting the last refrain from “Viva La Vida” — it made for a spirited, spontaneous reaction to an inspirational day of music and action.