Dispatch From D.C.: 'We Are One' Concert

By Marcus Gilmer in News on Jan 19, 2009 5:00PM

After our morning at the Capitol, we made our way over to the Lincoln Memorial for the "We Are One" Concert which was to feature a range of political, celebrity, and musical appearances before an expected crowd of up to 500,000. We were plenty early as we made our way through the masses and it gave us a chance to scan the hundreds of items available to buy from the countless vendors. Shirts, towels, buttons, flags, you name it, it probably has Obama's picture on it and you're going to pay a a lot of pennies for it. Once inside the grounds, we found the press section nestled below the right side of the stage with a nice view, though the set pieces and a jumbotron obscured our view of one of the two onstage podiums as well as the actual Lincoln Memorial, but, still, we weren't complaining. We dodged CNN's John Roberts as he filmed a report from our corral and set up position for the show.

The concert itself was pretty much what we expected. Subjected to a series of pre-show videos, some benign and some inane (like the Elmo video), we passed the time by taking in the scene and the thousands of people milling about the area. It turns out, unlike a lot of things with the federal government, this show started and finished right on time. The introduction of the families of the Vice President- and President-Elect followed the invocation by gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, in which Robinson asked for "the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah," soliciting a hearty chuckle from the press corral. As the Obamas took their seat, Maliah snapped pictures with a digital camera and Sasha settled in for a performance of her own as she alternated between enraptured and bored throughout the event.

Things got rolling quickly as Denzel Washington called Obama inspiring and Bruce Springsteen, backed by a gospel choir, stormed through a terrific acoustic version of "The Rising." Alternating between presentations and performances, the event moved at a fairly brisk clip. Mary J. Blige performed "Lean on Me" after an appearance by actress Laura Linney and Martin Luther King III. Jamie Foxx, appearing alongside Steve Carrell, slayed the crowd with a terrific impression of Obama while reading an excerpt from his Obamapalooza victory speech which was followed by a stirring rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Betty LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi. It was John Cougar Mellencamp, though, who brought down the house. Backed by a gospel choir, The Coug played "Pink Houses" as the crowd sang along, as full as energy as The Coug himself. Many of the multiple artist pairings weren't as awkward as they appeared on paper: will.i.am and Sheryl Crow's rendition of "One Love" with Herbie Hancock was solid as was Usher and Shakira joining Stevie Wonder for "Higher Ground." It seemed like Tiger Woods had a longer speech than Biden, and Garth Brooks got more face time than any of them.

U2 took the stage and thundered through "In The Name Of Love," a song that seems like it was meant for a moment like this, and Bono created the day's lone political stir with this shout: "Not just an American dream, but an Irish dream, a European dream, an Israeli dream, a Palestinian dream!" They followed with "City Of Blinding Lights" (what, no "Beautiful Day"?). Next was the man of the hour, the President-Elect, who delivered the kind of inspiring speech that we expected of him. Tempering expectations ("I won't pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy. It will take more than a month or a year, and it will likely take many.") Obama also offered cautious optimism, saying he was "as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure - that it will prevail, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time." Following Obama's speech, Bruce Springsteen returned to the stage, joined by folk hero Pete Seeger, Seeger's son, and a childrens choir signing "This Land is Your Land." And bringing it all back home was Beyonce, who sang "America The Beautiful" joined by the choir and the other guests on stage.

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AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

But what did it all mean? I'd be lying if there weren't times I didn't personally caught up in the event. Any performance of "The Rising" by Springsteen will get me going, ever since I saw him perform it at the first post-Katrina JazzFest. And many of the other singers gave stirring performances. But was it all style and no substance? It's easy to see how Obama's detractors could use this event to further claims of Obama as a celebrity president. But all it took was to turn around and see the crowd, stretching as far as you could see (and then even further) to understand the underlying significance of the moment for all the celebrity sheen. Never in my generation has any politician inspired so many people to this extent. And that's what we take away from yesterday's event: not the parade of stars and singers, but the throngs of people who jumped and shouted and sang along. Every time the jumbotrons showed the Obamas onscreen, the crowd roared its approval and Chicagoist writer Kevin Robinson described the way the crowd swayed and sang along to "This Land Is Your Land" as "the national kum ba yah moment."

If anything, all aspects of the show seemed to serve as a gentle reminder to the people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial (and stretching all the way back to the Washington Monument) that we the people are the catalyst for change. As both Robinson and Obama pointed out, no one man changes everything and nothing happens without our action. While while the day's theme of unity was underscored by the performances and the many references to Martin Luther King, it likely didn't do much to bring conservatives together with their celebratory liberal brethren, so there's still work to do. And yet, there is still reason for optimism. Earlier in the day, a video of FDR's famous, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" speech was shown. We wondered before the election who in the hell would want this job, to be President of a nation in dire straits. Now we know, and he's jumping in head first and we have to be willing to follow.