Kevin Bacon on Mounting CBS Concert Special Amid Pandemic: "It Was a House of Cards"

Kevin Bacon - Getty - H 2020
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Good things take time.

That’s how Kevin Bacon describes the process of putting together the concert special Play On: Celebrating the Power of Music to Make Change, airing Dec. 15 on CBS and CBS All Access. Together with a team of producers, they’ve spent the bulk of the pandemic planning and coordinating the logistics of a complicated, multi-city special set inside iconic venues in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville.

The roster, toplined by co-hosts Bacon and Eve, includes guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen, John Legend, and Ringo Starr with performances by LL Cool J featuring DJ Z-Trip, Gary Clark Jr., Ziggy Marley with Andra Day at L.A.’s Troubadour; Sara Bareilles, Emily King, Pedrito Martinez, Steve Jordan, Jon Batiste, Machine Gun Kelly and Bon Jovi from NYC’s Apollo Theater; while Nashville’s Bluebird Café will play host to Sheryl Crow, Maren Morris and Yola featuring The Highwomen. Grammy winner Steve Jordan is serving as the music director.

Good also explains the source of their efforts. Play On is a benefit for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and WhyHunger as viewers will be able to donate by texting “PLAYON” to 44-321 during the special. Bacon said the causes are crucial in 2020 and the decision to focus on these particular nonprofits came after witnessing calls for racial and social justice over the summer and increased need to balance food inequities in the wake of a devastating pandemic that has left millions unemployed. Aiding in the philanthropic push is Bacon’s and its executive director Stacy Huston.

Bacon credits the team of producers — fashion designer John Varvatos, Rock the Bells founder and CEO LL Cool J, CBS This Morning anchor Anthony Mason, producers Greg Williamson and Nicole Rechter, and the team from Done+Dusted — for hatching the idea for a feel-good music showcase in the vein of their previous collaboration Love Rocks.

"People were staying home, artists were not able to play, venues were empty," Bacon explains. "A lot of people were out of work and they thought it would be a good time to try to figure out a way to get people to be able to play again and to listen to music."

After being approached to join the push, Bacon agreed and his SixDegrees team joined the effort. That led to months of planning as they sorted out COVID-19 protocols, musician lineups, travel and venue participation. The one thing they didn’t obsess about what music selections. "We didn’t tell artists what to do," he said. "We really gave them free rein. We did try to get as much of a blend [of musical styles] as possible and I think it's successful in that way."

Expect to hear original songs, covers and unexpected musical moments. Bacon teased a Bon Jovi track called "American Reckoning," Morris with a song titled "Better Than We Found It," Crow with a rendition of the George Harrison track "Beware of Darkness," and a group collab on the classic anthem hit "People Get Ready."

The diverse roster of musical offerings is a source of pride.  "Whatever kind of music you like, we've got a little something for you," Bacon explained. "We've got reggae, we've got country, we've got hip hop, we've got rock, we've got soul music."

More than just checking off boxes, though, Bacon said the producers wanted to ensure the quality of the viewing experience matched with the setting and the way it sounded at home.

"We all felt that we really wanted to raise the sonic level and the excitement level of it above, 'I'm just in my living room with an acoustic guitar and I'm going to sing my song.' There was something nice and charming about that when we first went into lockdown and I think that all of us felt that we wanted something that had a little bit more pizzazz," he explained. "We really hit that sweet spot because it's not like we're pretending there's a big crowd in the audience, but because we're in these venues it is sonically and incredibly well recorded and well mixed."

On the eve of the show’s airing, Bacon is relieved and immensely proud of the Play On team. "I have to give them a tremendously big shout out. Everybody really worked really hard, and that includes the producers, our board and our production company, Done and Dusted. The whole thing, it was a real house of cards. Even if the show was terrible, I would feel proud that it got on the air because there were so many challenges. But the show is really great. People will be moved by it, people will be grooved by it and those are the two things we wanted."