NEW YORK – It seemed like an amazing omen when, exactly one minute before the start of “We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert,” the sun blared through what had been a thoroughly overcast day.
But the bright metaphor for what this five-hour extravaganza was designed to celebrate – New York City’s emergence from some of the earliest and deadliest COVID waves – ended the way of so many things in 2021: with a giant sigh.
About halfway through the Saturday night gathering at the Great Lawn in Central Park – just as Barry Manilow was segueing from “Mandy” into one of his other countless hits – rain, lightning and an evacuate-the-premises order from the city quashed the merriment.
The 60,000 fans on site (vaccinations were mandatory to attend the free show) as well as those watching CNN’s live broadcast, were denied performances by some of the marquee names tapped for the event: Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, The Killers and Patti Smith among them.
For almost three hours after fans fled the concert site in the downpour, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper gamely kept TV viewers engaged with amusing stories, his trademark giggle and phone calls with Costello, Smith and Manilow, who intentionally added some irony with a few snippets of “I Made It Through the Rain.”
But while concert curator and music titan Clive Davis, as well as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio – both of whom made appearances on stage earlier in the concert – hoped to restart the music even sans audience, the unrelenting rain led to an official cancellation just before 10:30 p.m. Organizers had no information in the hours afterward about a possible make-up date.
While the ballyhooed event ended abruptly, the prior 2 ½ hours of performances were stuffed with notable moments that at least reminded of a feeling of normalcy.
Whether it was the fan high-kicking her own Rockettes routine as the New York Philharmonic played “(Theme From) New York, New York” or the full audience shouting along with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Manilow’s timeless “Copacabana,” attendees relished the energy emanating from the stage emblazoned with the letters N.Y.C.
A rotating platform of band setups allowed for seamless transitions between acts, which included Kane Brown, Santana with Wyclef Jean and Rob Thomas, Julia Michaels and JP Saxe, Polo G and a shimmery-shirted Jon Batiste, who electrified the stage with “Freedom.”
• The New York Philharmonic dazzled both with its own musical prowess and the captivating presence of conductor Marin Alsop, who flashed pure joy as she led the orchestra through a New York-inspired medley that included Christopher Cross’ “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.”
The Philharmonic remained on stage to back a typically potent and gracious Andrea Bocelli, who said he wanted to sing “O Sole Mio” because it “is a song that says after the storm is a golden sky."
Jennifer Hudson also shared the stage with the orchestra, arriving in a gown with her hair swept upward, as she belted a stunning rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” The song might have been a roundabout tribute to Aretha Franklin, whom Hudson is currently portraying onscreen in "Respect," as the Queen of Soul made music TV history in 1998 when she performed the aria last-minute on the Grammy Awards. Hudson ended her performance with a slight smile and head nod that seemed to say, “Yep, that went well.”
• While LL Cool J was the announced name, the number of surprise guests who joined him amounted to a parade of New York hip-hop royalty. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s Melle Mel and Scorpio offered “The Message”; Busta Rhymes battled through “Freak Show”; Fat Joe energized the crowd with “All The Way Up” and, with Remy Ma, “Lean Back”; while A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie stalked the stage during “Look Back At It.” But when LL Cool J, his fingers covered in jewels, burst through a group of choir members to proclaim, “Don’t call it a comeback,” and rolled through the rest of “Mama Said Knock You Out” with a fiery delivery, there was no doubt who ruled the stage. The arrival of Rev Run of Run-DMC to split rhymes with LL on “It’s Tricky” and “Rock the Bells” elevated the moment to a classic.
• Earth, Wind & Fire’s reputation as one of the most consistently magnetic live acts remained intact with a two-song set. The band debuted its remake of 1975’s “Can’t Hide Love," newly renamed “You Want My Love," and shared the spotlight with the song’s producer, Babyface, and guest vocalist Lucky Daye. The silky slow jam packed with ascending harmonies was paired with the precision soul and snappy brass that powers “September,” another crowd singalong that, for a few minutes, chased all the clouds away.