The Washington Post: The Stars Align, With Egos In Check; Celebrity-Studded Concert Offers Heady Mix Of History & Hollywood
01.20.2009 - BYLINE: Richard Leiby and DeNeen L. Brown; Washington Post Staff Writers
The Stars Align, With Egos In Check; Celebrity-Studded Concert Offers Heady
Mix Of History & Hollywood
19Jan09 - Some things we learned yesterday at the "We Are One" concert, the
official welcoming celebration for Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial: Jamie
Foxx does a pretty spot-on Obama impersonation; wise-acre Jack Black can look
completely serious when he's paying homage to Theodore Roosevelt's conservation
achievements; Garth Brooks can somehow pull off a medley of "American Pie,"
"Shout" and "We Shall Be Free"; and musical superstars seem okay with singing in
trios -- at least in the case of Usher, Shakira and Stevie Wonder, who did a
rousing version of "Higher Ground" that had the president-elect and his wife,
Michelle, on their feet and dancing.
Some of the world's biggest artistic egos cooperated yesterday to honor both
history and Obama, who sat onstage with his wife and daughters, frequently
bobbing his head in time with the music and enjoying the almost inconceivable
lineup that drew hundreds of thousands to the Mall. Where else could you see the
biggest stars in pop music, as well as the likes of Tom Hanks, Queen Latifah,
Denzel Washington and Tiger Woods on one stage -- a stage overlooked by the
stoic stone gaze of Abraham Lincoln.
"Hello, America," Obama said. "I want to thank all the speakers and performers
for reminding us, through song and through words, just what it is that we love
about America." The free mega-concert signaled a de-parture from the Bush
administration's frequent efforts to distance itself from Hollywood. Obama
seemed to make clear with the event that he was returning to the
celebrity-friendly days when Democrats last occupied the White House.
Producers had said beforehand they wanted to stage a thematically coherent as
well as entertaining show, and they pulled it off with songs, readings and film
clips. Although less than two hours long, it had the excitement and fullness of
a LiveAid concert.
Most performers covered other people's hits with backing from the concert's
official band. Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi teamed up on Sam Cooke's "A
Change Is Gonna Come"; Mary J. Blige covered "Lean on Me"; and, with Herbie
Hancock on keyboards, Will.I.Am and Sheryl Crow performed Bob Marley's "One
The Rev. Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop, delivered the
invocation, calling for unity. Bruce Springsteen opened the show with his own
"The Rising," a rousing rendition supported by a 125-voice fe-male chorus in
resplendent red gowns. John Mellencamp sang his own signature "Pink Houses,"
backed by a 60-member Baptist choir. The trio of James Taylor, John Legend and
Jennifer Nettles joyously performed Taylor's "Shower the People."
U2 landed the honor of doing two of their own songs -- the anthemic "Pride (In
the Name of Love)" and "City of Blinding Lights," which Obama had used at
campaign events. Lead singer Bono said Obama had specifi-cally requested the
latter. Interviewed afterward, Bono said the president-elect's theme of hope --
and Obama himself -- represented a "melody line that is now contagious. It's a
Even Bono felt awed to be there. "We don't do humble as much as we should, but
we were truly humbled this afternoon," he said.
The afternoon had the feel of a movie matinee, a greatest hits review and a
history lesson. Some 14 actors read from dramatic scripts invoking the words and
accomplishments of presidents Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, with occasional
detours into significant chapters of the civil rights movement. Queen Latifah,
for example, intro-duced the story of contralto Marian Anderson, who was banned
by the whites-only Daughters of the American Revolution from performing at DAR
Constitution Hall but got to sing at the Lincoln Memorial with an assist from
first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Then Josh Groban joined Heather Headley, with
backing from the Gay Mens Chorus of Washington, to cover "My Country 'Tis of
Thee" -- the very song that Anderson used to open her performance in 1939.
Another historical highlight arrived with Springsteen joining 89-year-old folk
singer Pete Seeger to lead the crowd -- the president-elect included -- in a
singalong of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." Seeger made sure to
include stanzas of the song not often sung at events of this official magnitude,
including protest sentiments and references to Depression-era poverty.
Tiger Woods introduced the Naval Academy Glee Club, which performed with soprano
Perhaps the only off moment came with the introduction of two American eagles --
named Challenger and Mr. Lincoln -- before Obama spoke. The crowd seemed a bit
perplexed watching the tethered birds flap their wings as their handler held
them aloft while a military color guard looked on. The show's producers should
have heeded the old showbiz adage: Never work with animal acts.
The enthusiastic crowd stretched from the stage to the Washington Monument.
Carolyn Bacchus and her father Jim from Davidson, N.C., said they were waiting
to clear security when a couple came up to them and handed them two coveted blue
tickets, giving them access to the very front of the stage area.
"We don't know why they gave us tickets," Jim Bacchus said. And 18-year-old
Carolyn marveled, "I got pictures with Bon Jovi. I gave him my Obama button. He
was onstage wearing my Obama button."
At the edge of the crowd, DeAnna Tisdale, a 23-year-old from Jackson, Miss.,
said she found the experience transcendent. "When I look out here and see all
the people supporting not just a man but a movement, it represents a shift in
thought, a shift in action. Music always reflects how people feel."
There were many stirring, even tear-inducing moments. Some started crying when
Obama spoke. Others welled up at U2's performance of "Pride," connecting to the
significance of hearing it at the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a
Dream" speech 46 years ago and on the day before King's birthday will be
As Bono himself put it: "That was amazing. . . . This land isn't my land. But it
never looked as beautiful as I looked out on that sea of people and possibility
that this guy represents."
But perhaps not as amazing as watching the all-star lineup join in a chorus with
Beyonce as she sent off the crowd with a soulful, emotional version of "America
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