We all want COVID and its grand crisis to be over. Even the most dedicated mask-wearer, hand-washer, and vaccine-taker longs for the day when the pandemic crisis can be talked of in the past tense, for that ‘G.I. kissing nurse in Times Square’ moment. We all want it so much so that we’ve been preparing & preparing for it, inching up to the end like Zeno – not to mention all of those who say it’s over, never really was that bad, and was all a hoax anyway. But you don’t have to be living in continual outbreak hotspot of denial to jump the gun a bit, or at least get yourself out there before everything is 100%.
And don’t forget that the world wasn’t hunky-dory before, and that there’s still a million regular ways things can go wrong.
When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the Big Apple was putting on a big celebratory concert in Central Park’s Great Lawn, it was naturally met with a lot of scoffs, like pretty much everything de Blasio has tried, from universal pre-K to running for President. But he could book an iconic space, and then recruited famed music producer Clive Davis (Whitney Houston, Pink Floyd, many more) and massive concert promotion juggernaut Live Nation to put it together. A wide range of wide-appeal acts were announced, from The Boss to The Killers. A date was announced, Saturday, August 21st, free tickets were released online (as well as VIP sold for $400 to $5,000…), and it looked like it was actually going to happen. Yes, the Delta variant is raging, but the event was set up with vaccine cards required (unless you had a signed medical exemption). And that’s all a Red State problem, DeSantis not de Blasio. New York City had been through COVID early, had gotten out, and had reason to celebrate.
And then it all ended up getting shut down mid-concert, mid-set, mid-song by the oldest reason in the world: rain.
At the start of the day, attendees heard about Hurricane Henri, but it seemed to be far to the east, more of a problem for Montauk than Manhattan. Anyone attending was comfortable with the idea of going to a big concert, COVID or cloudy skies – plus, you could watch it all live on CNN. It was hot and humid, but not blisteringly so (no Woodstock ’99), though when the sun came out just before the start, many mock-booed. Folks were mostly sitting on the lawn & their blankets in the run-up (if they weren’t in the long concession lines), but by forty-five minutes before the 5:00 PM start time, enough people were walking in front of them that most people got up and packed in.
[note: The reserved press area at the festival seemed to be reserved only for CNN, plus a few official Getty photographers. Your correspondent, like most of the rest of the press, was in the crowd, though at least in the closest GA section. He was able to make it to the front barrier, if off to one side, but even that wasn’t that close or unobstructed. And the heat, humidity, thirst, and needing to pee eventually drove him from his spot. The photos are what he could get]
Before the live music began, there were a few videos praising New York’s recovery, including one with Hank Azaria (The Simpsons, Brockmire) voicing The Great Lawn herself. DJ Cassidy worked hard to get the crowd going, not just before but between acts. One of the issues with a ‘star-studded line-up’ like The Homecoming is that there’s a lot of downtime between acts, especially in something so clearly made for TV as this event was. But the DJ certainly had enthusiasm, and the turnover times weren’t that bad (a rotating stage sped it up considerably), especially when factoring in that some of that was covered by spoken intros from notables.
The general host for the event was newscaster & celebrity Gayle King (CBS This Morning, Oprah), in a striking yellow dress that fit the ‘spring awakening’ theme. She thanked all the first responders – including specifically the NYPD, which felt a little weird and off-tonal considering how police-civilian relationships have been exposed/roiled during this same COVID period, but the boys in blue were there, providing security alongside the regular hired security folks (though it were the less well-paid, no-qualified immunity latter who had to do the tiring work of checking vaccine cards and telling people they had to keep the lane to the ADA section clear). King definitely did her best, from namechecking all the boroughs & more (and trying hard to keep the crowd from booing Staten Island), to later bringing on a hot dog cart worker Johnny G.
First up on the stage was The NY Philharmonic. Okay, probably no one in attendance was clamoring to hear a philharmonic, but the very skilled musicians know how to play crowd-pleasers, such as starter “New York, New York”, and set a classy-but-relaxed tone. And after a few songs they were joined by famed tenor Andrea Bocelli, then singer/actress Jennifer Hudson. The former even pulled out a flute at one point, while the latter, who stars as Aretha Franklin in the upcoming biopic Respect, sang aria “Nessun Dorma” (which the late Aretha sang at the 1998 Grammys).
Another issue with such a big list of heavy-hitters is that each artist only plays a few songs, even just one like Hudson. This hampered the flow and would disappoint anyone who came for one specific artist (particularly if that artist was low on the bill), but did mean that you were gonna hear the hits, and didn’t have to stand around a long time during someone you didn’t care about.
Clive Davis introduced Carlos Santana, who was himself joined by singers Wyclef Jean and then Rob Thomas. This was when the hits started to flow, Jean singing Santana’s NYC-set classic “Maria Maria”, and Thomas for both their new reunion single “Move” and, of course, 1999’s ubiquitous “Smooth”. They really are songs you can’t help but enjoy, and another different-singers-over-expert-musicians kept the event moving. Jean took the chance to ask the crowd to get so loud they could be heard in his home country going through a disaster Haiti, but also going through their own disaster Afghanistan.
When acts were announced, many remarked that de Blasio & Davis, neither spring chickens, had a line-up as old-skewing as CBS’, but they did bring some youth to the event. Maybe you didn’t know Julia Michaels & JP Saxe’s COVID hit “If the World Was Ending”, or Kane Brown’s “Homesick” (yes, there was some country music in New York City), but they performed well. Unfortunately, hyped Polo G once again just rapped over his backing track (like he did at Lollapalooza – QRO recap), but at least he provided the “[old legacy] act – and Polo G?!?” reaction for people looking at the line-up.
The hosts outside of King were a mixed bag. Of course, New York Senator Chuck Schumer was there, because as the old line goes, “The most dangerous place in the world is between Chuck Schumer and a camera” (something that Senator Mitch McConnell literally experienced recently), but he’s previously been seen at free concerts in Prospect Park Bandshell & the old Pool Parties, and he namechecked actual work that he’s done to help live music, the Save Our Stage Act, and its aid for the small venues in NYC, where artists get their start. De Blasio later came on with his wife Chirlane McCray to more boos than applause, but this was his event. There were randomly a lot of mentions of how many records acts had sold, seemingly trying to justify the older artists to younger folks.
And way too much mention of how great it was backstage, particularly by a relaxed Don Lemon of CNN. It just pointed out how much fun the super-elite were having while the 99% were toiling away. It made sense to not sell beer at the event, but it meant attendees weren’t even Bud Light, they were Bud Zero. New York City has always had a massive status divide, but it was jarring to see it kind of celebrated at an event that was ostensibly for everyone.
The best musicians were those like Santana & co. who knew they were there to do the hits, and still loved doing them. Journey rocked out their classics “Any Way You Want It” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” in truly fitting arena-rock fashion. The probable musical highlight of the event was LL Cool J doing a medley of rap hits from across the genre’s ages, with an amazing line-up of fellow rappers such as Rev. Run, Fat Joe, and A Boogie wit da Hoodie. Yes, that included “Mama Said Knock You Out”, but also the likes of “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” with Busta Rhymes, and they were done with energy.
A better announcer came in the form of Stephen Colbert, who emphasized how he was privileged to be part of all of this, privileged to host The Late Show, privileged in general (and not who he bumped into backstage). He introduced his Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste, who has long had euphoria to spare. Batiste brought it all on stage, but only did one song with his band Stay Human, “FREEDOM”. Thankfully, Earth, Wind & Fire performed with guest musicians, such as Babyface on “September”.
Just as nobody needs to see the heads of the accounting firm that counts the Oscar ballots at the Academy Awards, but fine, no one needed to hear Live Nation head honchos do an introduction, but fine. Except they said how the crowd doesn’t care about a little rain, which was really an unforced error.
They introduced the one-and-only Barry Manilow (noting that Dave Grohl calls Manilow a bad-ass, an even more extreme attempt to link the old performer on stage to the young fans – using the praise of a musician from the nineties…). Even if the last time you thought of Manilow was during Colbert’s mock-feud with him back on The Colbert Report (“Manilow!!!”), it was awesome to hear him do “Copacabana” – and noting it was about a place in New York (“The hottest spot north of Havana”).
But just as he was finishing up “Mandy” and about to go into, literally, “I Made It Through the Rain”, his microphone was overridden by the public announcer (it even seemed that Manilow didn’t notice at first, still singing, because he’s a professional). The rain from Hurricane Henri was forcing the event to shut down, and everyone had to leave.
The irony of it all has been remarked upon by seemingly everyone on social media, but instead of focusing on de Blasio, or COVID, or just “Rain”, think for a minute that the whole thing was stopped by the most common reason events get stopped: the weather. Rain has been shutting down outdoor gatherings since man started gathering outdoors, and will keep doing it as long as we want to gather outdoors. It affects everything from small rooftop shows such as We Are Scientists’ planned gig the Tuesday prior (QRO live review) to giant festivals such as this. If we want to get back to normal, rain cancelling your plans is normal.
Other artists that were to have performed included Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and The Killers. On the CNN broadcast, in-studio host Anderson Cooper made the best of it (very loose, New Year’s Eve Anderson Cooper), holding out hope that the event could come back on like the few fans who managed to get back into the soaked Great Lawn, as de Blasio and Davis kept saying they were gonna bring it back, likely without a crowd. Cooper did get some great call-ins, including Manilow singing for him (“Set a high bar”), Cassidy with Lemon in Patti Smith’s trailer, Costello noting that he’s been a curse for live telecasts ever since his infamous 1977 Saturday Night Live appearance.
Of course, once again we heard about how wild it was backstage for the select few, but Cooper did note that viewers might hate hearing about that all, a level of journalistic remove perhaps because he wasn’t there himself. Colbert was the funniest call in (if you don’t count Santana’s earlier in-studio interview – if someone’s going to do a spacey interview, it’s going to be Carlos Santana…), but King brought the video of The Killers doing their breakthrough “Mr. Brightside” acoustic back there.
So, WE LOVE NYC: The Homecoming was definitely not what was intended, and there will be tons of after-the-fact recriminations & sarcasm. One could feel bad for the big Boss fans who’d made their way up front early and stayed there, only to be denied (but your correspondent’s ‘I’m too old for this’ early exit doesn’t look so bad now, does it?…). Yet there was also some real fun beforehand.
And de Blasio did promise it would be something you’d never forget…