New York City’s Welcome Back Concert Downpour Drowns Mayor de Blasio’s Dream
Norman Rockwell famously painted the four freedoms. Those freedoms: of speech, worship, from want and from fear were articulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his speech on January 6th, 1941. There is a fifth freedom, which I enjoy liberally, and that is the freedom of time. This fifth freedom comes from the untethering which technology allows, combined with the lessening of responsibility once your children are grown.
I use this fifth freedom liberally to do ridiculous things like fly across the country to attend New York City’s Welcome Back Concert in Central Park. Like all things well intentioned, nothing went exactly as planned. Minutes before I was to board my Delta flight from San Diego to JFK, the gate agent announced a mechanical issue which would most likely hold the flight from just after noon until 6:30 pm when they could bring in another aircraft. But, there were five seats on a flight to Atlanta, then Newark if anyone was traveling light enough to move immediately. I took the sure thing, including the 30 minute five terminal dash through Atlanta to arrive in New Jersey 90 minutes later than my original plans. No matter the challenge to get there, driving into Manhattan is one of life’s great pleasures.
Almost everything indoors in Manhattan now requires proof of vaccination. If you want to enter a restaurant, you must show your vaccination card and your identification. It’s a lovely ritual, complicated by the fact that counterfeit vaccination cards are easily obtained. Mine is real, but I take no comfort in the thought that anyone with $50 can avoid making a common sense decision while maintaining their allegiance to tribalism over science.
I had also been watching the weather forecasts, as the NYC welcome back concert was set for Saturday evening, August 21st. Unlike most shows, this was to be running on a television schedule from 5 pm to 10 pm broadcasting live across CNN. Early predictions had been up to 250,000 people in attendance, with free tickets given out for the general admission area in the back half of Central Park’s Great Lawn, and four separate levels of VIP tickets in the front. The basic VIP tickets were $450 all in, rising to as much as $10,000 for the few rows of seats directly in front of the stage. Other than the emails from Ticketmaster, the marketing for this event seemed lackluster, as if no one in charge thought the public needed to know more than the event was going to take place that day. As a result, there seemed to be very little excitement in the city about this upcoming concert.
On Saturday, show day, entering Central Park for the concert was a bit of a challenge. The VIP line ran nearly four blocks along Central Park West before one could enter the park and “prove” vaccination. 60 year old couples were cutting the line to “catch up with their kids” who I imagine must have been nearly 40 themselves. The general admission line at one point ran nearly 1.5 miles. There seemed to have been a miscommunication about how much extra staffing it would take to have each and every person show a vaccination card and matching ID.
I made it past the Covid vaccine check station test and moved to the entry gate. Because this was one of those concerts which required printing out your tickets on paper, instead of using your smart phone to display the bar code, I had to stop on my way at a UPS store to print the tickets. I’ve never understood the logic of printed tickets. It doesn’t slow the resale market. They can print tickets as pdfs, then email to the ultimate user who can print them on paper. It just seems archaic for no purpose. My daughter and I printed our pair of tickets front and back on one page of paper, because UPS charges by the page. Hey, $2 is $2. At the gate, the ticket was folded in half. I told the guy with the scanner we had two tickets on the single print out. He scanned in the bar code on the top which flashed green and the bar code on the bottom which flashed red. He never scanned the bar code on the reverse side of the page. But, no matter, I’m honest. That second ticket’s bar code remained unscanned.
Meanwhile, the circus was in force alongside the lines, with anti-vax protesters and the tone deaf sporting Nazi era yellow tags pinned to their shirts with “not vaxed” written upon them. The guy who had the aisle seat on my flight from Atlanta to Newark wore the same. Adapting a marker from Nazi era Germany identifying Jews as an enemy of the state and using it to protest what the best efforts of science has to contain a global pandemic is either unfathomably ignorant of history or racist. Where is woke culture on this one? The Greatest Generation volunteered their lives and marched off to free the world from the spread of this poison. I’m beginning to think part of this country is now availing themselves of a sixth freedom: freedom from civility.
The concert itself was messy fun. None of it made sense. One minute before the show went live, the sun broke through the overcast, and the crowd cheered. Gail King came out as host of the event and introduced the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which played a medley of songs with a New York theme.
From a production standpoint, it made sense to have the orchestra go first. That’s a lot of people to put in chairs many with large instruments and music stands. Still, that’s not really the blast off you might expect for a global broadcast of a rocking party. They played about 15 minutes, then, out came Andrea Bocelli who sang two songs. He was charming and wonderful.
What followed was a surprise. Jennifer Hudson came out in full gown and sang Nessun Dorma. She has a spectacular voice. I know that Hudson is starring as Aretha Franklin in the movie Respect, and that Aretha famously stood in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti to sing Nessun Dorma at the 1998 Grammy Awards. However, unlike Jennifer Hudson, Aretha Franklin was not following Andrea Bocelli. I speak in public, and occasionally manage to say something funny. I am never going to follow Dave Chappelle on stage. The contrast is simply too jarring. Plus, Dave apparently enjoys the 7th freedom: language without self-censorship. He has been granted a bigger vocabulary.
The rest of the show unfolded as you might expect given the artists on the bill and the subtle bias of having Clive Davis round up the talent. The tilt was to older artists, with a smattering of young talent like Polo G and Julia Michael. Santana played with Wyclef Jean and Rob Thomas, then Earth Wind and Fire, Journey and Kane Brown. The most unexpected fun for me was the 50 years of Hip-Hop segment capped by LL Cool J bringing down the house. That alone was worth the trip.
Meanwhile, the grey clouds continued to build, and the sunny afternoon slowly faded into an ominous evening. Mayor de Blasio should have known this wasn’t his night when he came out to speak and received thunderous “boos.”
At about 7:15pm EST, the rain began to fall in earnest on the GA section of the crowd. Curiously, the VIP section remained fairly dry. Barry Manilow came out and began to perform his repertoire by playing short portions of his many songs. There were a couple flashes of lightening, at which point Manilow kept singing, although his microphone was cut to the crowd. Instead what we heard was “Due to approaching severe weather, all persons should move quickly and calmly to the nearest exit and proceed to your vehicles and protected areas outside the festival site. Please seek shelter for your safety.” Because the universe has a sense of humor, the song which Manilow was to sing next before they cut short his set was I Made It Through The Rain.
After a few minutes of confusion, the crowds began to disburse through the variety of exits out of the great lawn and in all directions out of Central Park. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Mayor de Blasio announced over the PA system that the concert was not canceled. He told the crowd “we need everyone for a brief period of time to move to some place safe because of thunder and lightning, and then we will bring the concert back.” This announcement was not well received by the police and security teams moving people out of the park. In typical New York fashion, and without any doubts, they said the show was canceled and would not resume. Almost immediately, the PA system began broadcasting the concert was cancelled. Lightening is an untenable risk, particularly with a giant metal stage sitting in the middle of the park.
As we exited the park, about 10 minutes behind the rest of the crowd, the rain was still relatively light. We walked the half mile or so to 86th street and Central Park West. It was there, with the subway entrance just across the street, when the rain truly began to fall. We entered the subway with no real impact from the storm. Exiting, however would be another story altogether.
It turns out the next two hours brought the most amount of rain ever recorded in Central Park. 4.45 inches fell over the next few hours, including 1.94 inches in the hour between 10 and 11 pm. We were drenched after exiting the subway and walking five minutes, even with rain gear on.
My trip to New York had been mostly driven by the chance to see Paul Simon play once more. As he is mostly retired now, he only plays special events on behalf of charities he supports. I saw him headline Outside Lands in 2019, donating his fee to the San Francisco Parks Alliance and Friends of the Urban Forest. Although I didn’t get to see him, or Bruce Springsteen duetting with Patti Smith, or The Killers, it had still been quite the adventure.
It’s been nearly two years since I completed my eleven festival tour of 2019, spending 30 days in fields listening to music. That last event had been in December when the Foo Fighters came to Las Vegas to play Amazon’s
The world is odd in many ways, and here is what amuses me about the NYC homecoming concert: it was a dry run for the future of mass live events which was washed out. When you think about it, it confirms the universe is governed by a great power, and that power may be a comedian at heart. Those of us in the world of live entertainment are trying to adapt to the new rules of Covid, and the countervailing forces are saying we’re all wet. My friend Dave Wakeman says that at each turn when Covid has had the opportunity to get better or worse, it has turned for the worst. That record holds. But, as love triumphs over hate, I believe that the three “ences” will prevail over Covid: patience, competence and science. I’m still buying tickets. The music will play on.