Watching the We Are One Barack Obama Inaugural Celebration concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Sunday afternoon, I was curious as to how many of the hundreds of thousands of people on hand might have gotten the nearly surreal in-joke of seeing Kal Penn, aka Kumar from Harold And Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, serving as a between-song speaker at the star-studded event honoring the next President of the United States.
No, this wasn't your average pre-Inaugural concert, that's for sure. And let's just say that, had the 2008 Presidential election gone Republican instead of Democrat, the celebrity roll call probably wouldn't have included veterans of such films as Harold And Kumar (Penn), Snakes On A Plane (Samuel L. Jackson), Booty Call (Jamie Foxx), and Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny (Jack Black). Nor most of the kind of music heard on this historic day. And I am here to talk about the highlights of the concert--the first of which, of course, was the fact that neither Foxx nor Black were asked to sing. But the event certainly featured a fair number of other highlights, as well as a few low ones, too.
Bruce Springsteen, complete with new soulpatch facial hair, got the proceedings off to a suitably deferential start with a choir-aided version of "The Rising." He was followed by Mary J. Blige, who offered a somewhat tentative rendition of Bill Withers' "Lean On Me," which seemed weirdly apropos since she seemed a bit unsteady on her high heels coming down the Lincoln Memorial's stone steps. After that was a soaring rendition of Sam Cooke's civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come" via newly rediscovered 1960s R&B vocalist Bettye LaVette, who got extra points for elevating the game of duet partner John Bon Jovi.
Next up was James Taylor who, with his flap-eared winter hat, looked like he'd wandered in from an old episode of the Newhart show, but sounded perfectly urbane accompanied by John Legend and Jennifer Nettles in a gentle version of his "Shower The People." It proved a good contrast for the next act, John Mellencamp, who finally brought some rock into the mix with a rousing rendition of "Pink Houses"--and got his own bonus points for giving a front-and-center placement to his longtime lead guitarist Andy York.
At this point, things hit the wall a bit. Josh Groban and Heather Headley seemed overmatched by "America (My Country 'Tis Of Thee)," while keyboardist Herbie Hancock, Sheryl Crow, and will.i.am added up to less than the sum of their parts on Bob Marley's "One Love." Opera star Renee Fleming, backed by the Naval Academy Glee Club, brought things back up a bit with a stately version of "You'll Never Walk Alone" (though admittedly, it's hard to hear the song without thinking of Jerry Lewis crying at the end of his telethons). But then proceedings headed south again--and not just simply because of the appearance of Garth Brooks, the day's lone country star (as stated before, this was a musically left-leaning show).
While everyone before him had performed just one number, Brooks did a medley--and a bizarre one at that, singing snatches of Don McLean's "American Pie" (?) and the Isley Brothers' "Shout" (??) before ending with his own call-for-tolerance anthem "We Shall Be Free." By the time he got to it, though, he was, as they say, chewing up the scenery; you half-expected him to start flying over the crowd, like in his old arena shows. After Brooks came another strange combo: Usher, Shakira, and Stevie Wonder, doing Wonder's "Higher Ground." Wonder was his usual ebullient self, but Usher had problems hitting the high notes and Shakira, perhaps on orders from the Secret Service, kept her hips in check--and seemed lost without them.
U2 were next up, and Bono--looking these days oddly enough a lot like Robin Williams-- managed the difficult task of making Garth Brooks look humble. It would've been OK if he and his Irish mates had simply sung their great Martin Luther King tribute "Pride" (Monday, after all, is Dr. King's birthday and a national holiday) and exited on a very high note, but they didn't. They tacked on a second song, and midway through Bono went wandering around the Memorial steps and then actually sat down, to take in the moment, as it were. We've said it before, Bono: Best to try and remember that one of the seven deadly sins is vanity.
It's no secret that American pop culture spends most of its time operating under the edict that says "Youth Must Be Served.'' But before a refreshingly subdued Beyonce ended the concert with a respectful "America The Beautiful," darned if it wasn't the oldest performer on hand--89-year-old Pete Seeger--who pulled off the best move of the day. The irrespressible, onetime blacklisted folk icon and activist nimbly got several hundred thousand people to sing along to the "complete" version of Woody Guthrie's classic "This Land Is Your Land," which includes the following oft-ignored verses:
"There was a high wall that tried to stop me
A sign was painted, said: Private Property.
But on the back side it didn't say nothing —
That side was made for you and me.
"Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can make me turn back
This land was made for you and me."
Remember, fellow Americans: We are one.