On Tuesday night in Washington, musicians from across the pop spectrum gathered on the National Mall to celebrate Veterans Day, and the men and women who have given their lives for the country.
The three-hour benefit concert, interspersed with moving stories of individual veterans and the sacrifices they’ve made, was broadcast live on HBO, and featured performances by artists including Jennifer Hudson, Rihanna, Metallica, the Black Keys, Carrie Underwood, the Zac Brown Band, Bruce Springsteen and others.
An event that largely focused on guitar rock with a touch of country, hip hop and R&B tossed in for good measure, the production was mostly flawless. Artists obviously understood the import. Seldom, after all, do they get to perform on the National Mall, and the sets confirmed it. At its best, artists examined the range of ideas about what patriotism and empowerment -- and tossed in some love songs for good measure. Below are five highlights.
The Zac Brown Band featuring Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl, “Fortunate Son.” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s invective against class privilege was the most polarizing, and among the best, performances of the night. Filled with the kind of righteous, boot-strapped indignation that fuels both the union and the tea party contingencies -- “It ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son,” sang Grohl with red-faced fury -- the song selection generated big debate on Twitter, and big energy onstage.
Eminem and Rihanna, “The Monster.” After an assured, magnetic set of performances including a memorably minimal take on “Diamonds,” pop singer Rihanna moved into the melody for “The Monster,” an Eminem track on which she sings the hook. As she did so, Eminem sauntered out, his black hoodie pulled over his head. She stood and sparkled in a floor-length gown, and the rapper was crouched, rapping about fame and demons: “Maybe I need a straitjacket, face facts/ I am nuts for real, but I’m okay with that.” Em’s versions of “Lose Yourself” and “Not Afraid” were just as hard.
Jennifer Hudson and Jessie J, “Titanium." There are few better ways one could start a Veterans Day celebration than with Jennifer Hudson singing the national anthem. With a voice that seems to get better as she ages, Hudson offered an undeniably solid take on the song -- and quite the curtain raiser.
She did it one better after British R&B vocalist Jessie J invited her out for a dueling-diva version of “Titanium,” the empowerment hit by David Guetta featuring Sia. Both Hudson and Jessie J can belt, but as a team they nearly melted the microphones. “Shove me down, but I won’t fall -- I am titanium,” they sang in unison, each working to one-up the other.
Metallica, “Master of Puppets.” There was a moment during the opening chords of Metallica’s monster anthem that defined how great a performance this was. With troops in the background rocking and barely recovering from the band’s opening take on “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Metallica moved quickly into “Master of Puppets,” its wicked speed metal anthem. As they did so, a servicewoman near drummer Lars Uhlrich pumped her fist hard and screamed, so obviously thrilled with the “Master” choice that she can’t contain herself.
She was right: it roared -- “Master of puppets I’m pulling the string/ Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams/ Blinded by me you can’t see a thing/ Just call my name and I’ll hear you scream.” It was a wild performance of the song, one that in the context seemed just as much a protest as “Fortunate Son."
Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.” The Boss turned his anthem into blues on the Mall, working with a single guitar the entire range of power within. Springsteen had just turned in a solo version of “Promised Land” that felt filled with hope; with “Born,” the blues came, and a song about the confusion of the veteran’s life came into full focus. A master of drama, Springsteen phrased his lines for maximum impact.
He sang of promises not delivered, of the struggles of Vietnam veterans returning from the war. When he offered the lines about coming home, the idea resonated among the troops: “Come back home to the refinery/ Hiring man said, ‘Son if it was up to me'/ Went down to see my V.A. man/ He said ‘Son, don’t you understand now?’"
Unfortunately, Springsteen could have written the song yesterday, which is one more reason that The Concert for Valor felt necessary.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit