CONCERT FOR VALOR: MUSICAL BLEND KEEPS MESSAGE OUT FRONT

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Throwing an eclectic and varied A-List mix of musicians into a huge emotionally charged live concert environment is always a risky endeavor. And you had that mix in spades for last night’s massive Concert For Valor on the Mall, as everything from pop to hip hop to rap to hard rock to metal to country to classic rock, to whatever the Black Keys classify as, was stunningly represented. But even with the very best intentions, that swirling cacophonous blend could have easily overshadowed the main message of the night: a big thank you to our veterans on their day. 

But thankfully, due to a combination of factors — like the well-produced emotionally charged video vignettes that aired on the big screens between acts that caused us in the audience to watch in tear-inducing silence, and a thoughtful (for the most part) song selection and sincere vibe from the performers and presenters — the three hour Concert For Valor, aired live worldwide for free on HBO, came off largely as it should have, as a love letter and sincere tribute to our veterans, who deserve all the love we can muster every day, especially with the recent V.A. nightmares that have grabbed front page news right here in DC. Standing amidst many veterans and their families as well as civilians who largely knew why they were there as well, you could feel from the beginning that this was going to be a powerful and memorable night befitting the magnitude of not only the level of performers, but actually what it’s like to serve your country. I think I saluted 4 or 5 times myself, and I’m not even current or former military. Hope that was OK.

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After a stunning “Star Spangled Banner” from Jennifer Hudson to kick things off, Ms. Hudson remained on stage to join pop sensation Jessie J for a rousing version of David Guetta and Sia’s 2011 hit duet “Titanium.” After Hudson departed, Jessie followed with “Bang Bang,” the recent summer hit she did with Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj. Jessie J’s biggest asset is killer pipes and they were in fine form on these two pop nuggets that had the younger girls in the audience giddy. No real vet’s day messages from Ms. J, but hey, the night was also about good music, and this was a well-delivered pop tart appetizer.

Next up (introduced by Meryl Streep, who has veterans throughout her family, who knew) was Dave Grohl, who seems to be everywhere these days, but somehow always seems to make his appearances and message relevant each time. Armed only with an acoustic guitar instead of his loud Foos, Grohl registered the first powerful and targeted moment of the night by playing a beautiful version of his song “Hero,” followed by another Foos tune “Everlong.” Grohl continues to show the world that he has become even more impactful and thoughtful since his Nirvana days than many thought he might after Kurt died.

One of the evening’s best moments came next from country’s rock solid Zac Brown Band, which clearly drove home the emotion behind the concert throughout their brief set. A country band that doesn’t really look like a country band, Brown’s sound skirts the edge of country rock, and tonight, he geared it towards the event with much success. Opening with a soaring fiddle prologue followed by a solid roll of the band’s 2008 tune “Free,” Brown then ramped up the event targeting by doing a moving and unexpected rendition of “America The Beautiful,” followed by “Chicken Fried,” his wildly popular fist pumper that was perhaps the most direct homage to veterans all night, with the lines, “Salute the ones who died, the ones that give their lives, so we don’t have to sacrifice, all the things we love…like our Chicken Fried…”

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That would have been Brown’s crowning moment of the show, well, until he brought out Grohl and Bruce Springsteen for arguably the concert’s most provocative and rousing performance, CCR’s “Fortunate Son.”  Grohl and Springsteen have covered this song before, Brown may have also at some point, and the three together provided a 1-2-3 punch that made this 60’s-era Vietnam protest song a perfect choice for this 2014 veteran’s day show. Why? It’s a song primarily about how privilege keeps some out of the agony of war, and for the ones who’d been there, this tip of the hat worked beautifully.

Despite a well-played performance, Ohio’s own The Black Keys didn’t really seem to fit all that well into the event’s DNA. Their three song set was competent and illustrated the prowess and power that has made them one of America’s top grossing live acts of late, but it didn’t seem to resonate entirely with the crowd, especially after Brown’s dead on set.

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Speaking of power, Metallica delivered without a doubt the loudest and most in-your-face performance of the evening, and it totally worked. Introduced fittingly by Jack Black, the heavy metal quartet took no prisoners in ripping through an adrenaline-inducing set including “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, “Master of Puppets” and ending with a truly delirious “Enter Sandman”: I mean, fists were pumping and singalongs were plentiful. The best part of their performance might have been a small bleacher full of military Metallicites set up behind the band, who conveyed the ecstatic power of the band perfectly, dancing and undulating to every note. I have a feeling you could hear this set at my home in Fairfax, miles away the Mall.

Country superstar Carrie Underwood provided her usual beautifully sung if not formulaic country superstar performance, clearly she was one of the most popular acts on the bill with fans, and she returned it with endearing waves and smiles. Underwood, clearly pregnant, has come a long way from her American Idol days and really knows how to cozy up to a huge crowd. Her set — including “See You Again” which did allude to the vibe at hand —  was standard and well-played, but largely unremarkable.

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Like Grohl, Bruce Springsteen took the stage next with only a guitar, and in this environment, he came off as he should have, as the event’s elder statesman, its sage, its conscience, or dare I say, its Dylan. Having been a vocal supporter of the military for many years, as well as an outspoken detractor of war, Springsteen’s stunning set of typical E Street Band-accompanied tunes turned on their ear was as expected the evening’s most poignant and resonating. Opening with 1978’s “Promised Land,” he took a song about a belief in better times to a new place, as a pleading ode. He then did a masterful and dark take on “Born In The USA,” replete with a screeching haunting slide treatment on guitar. One of Springsteen’s most misunderstood songs (thank you Mr. Reagan), the deep pain of loss during war was never more evident than during this stirring version. Springsteen concluded with a stunning “Dancing In The Dark,” leaving the Courteney Cox-dancing version way behind and evoking a deeper version of perhaps a military couple struggling to get the magic back after a long tour of duty. Springsteen shines in these moments, and despite calls for him to be more rousing and dynamic, he chose to send a message with quieter though deeper resonance.

The evening ended, appropriately enough in an urban-heavy market like DC, with whirlwind performances by R & B uberstar Rihanna and rap king Eminem. Opening with a lovely “Diamonds In The Sky,” the lovely Rihanna proved why she is where she is with superior yet smoky vocals and an aire about her that befits a pop music queen. She hit one of the evening’s most emotional high notes with “Stay” as heartstring-pulling pictures of military family reunions and departures played on video screens onstage. Eminem joined Rihanna to reprise their duet “The Monster” and even though there was little real chemistry between the two onstage, the powerful song about facing demons and the trappings of fame did not dissapoint, and seeing these two monsters of their genre dueling was a powerful sight.

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Rihanna then stepped aside, and the once ubiquitous but most recently reclusive Eminem took over, stalking the stage in a hooded coat and a black baseball hat, I mean, it was Slim Shady at his finest and although some people filed out to beat the crowd to the Metro, many stayed and pumped and gyrated to the Marshall Mather beat. Yes he dropped a few F bombs which has somehow offended people, but what would you expect from him and really, who cares? It wasn’t a kid’s event although there were kids in attendance, and part of his appeal is his daring and often profane delivery. The Detroit born superstar rolled three of his best known tunes that to many could resonate with this audience: “Guts Over Fear, “Not Afraid” and he finished with the haunting strains of the 8 Mile epic “Lose Yourself” with the message: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.” In fact, many lyrics throughout his riveting three song set could have spoken directly to many of the veterans in the house.

So amidst the last couple days of Monday morning quarterbacking about Eminem’s F Bombs (please, this is Eminem we’re talking about here, get over it), whether “Fortunate Son” was a good choice (yes, it was actually a perfect choice for this event), or whether Bruce was too mellow (um, NO, he’s often as impactful solo as he is with a band and was here as far as I’m concerned), the Concert For Valor exhibited its own sort of bravery Tuesday night, by taking on a hugely emotional experience such as Veteran’s Day and largely nailing that emotion through song, while helping the rest of the world realize how important veterans really are.  Here’s a civilian salute to the vets and the organizers for a mission accomplished.

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