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It’s fitting that We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert turned into a prolonged and losing battle with the elements. Halfway through the would-be five-hour musical event, as Barry Manilow sang “I Can’t Smile Without You,” a disembodied voice urged the thousands of people gathered on Central Park’s Great Lawn to leave. A severe thunderstorm — brought on by Hurricane Henri — was approaching, and everyone needed to seek shelter elsewhere. For now, the show would not go on.
I guess that is to be expected for a concert born of a fantasy about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and burdened by an assumed relevance for New Yorkers, not to mention the event’s real meaning for its architects and corporate sponsors. Before the crowds — unmasked, partially vaccinated — rolled into Central Park, before Gayle King, the evening’s host, took the stage, and before the musicians performed their largely energetic acts, the flashy event felt otherworldly, unreal and off-key.
The concert closed out “Homecoming Week,” an eight-day series whose intention was to laud New York’s resilience through events across the five boroughs. A July press release from the Office of the Mayor teemed with hyperbole, describing the occasion as a “celebration of New York City’s comeback” that would “promote health, safety and equity.” Mayor Bill de Blasio called it “an historic, monumental moment,” and Clive Davis, renowned music executive and the show’s producer, knew it would be “unforgettable.” A stacked lineup of legendary talents, from LL Cool J and Earth, Wind & Fire to Carlos Santana and Bruce Springsteen, only reinforced the evening’s would-be brilliance.
Yet, as we inched closer to the day of the event, the concert’s relevance became murkier. It’s timing felt off. The delta variant made its way through the city, the daily number of cases and hospitalizations ticking higher; new information about its transmission forced government officials to reverse premature rollbacks on indoor masking; a housing crisis loomed for hundreds of thousands New Yorkers in need of rental relief; and a hurricane was making its way toward the city. What exactly the event tried to celebrate is still unclear to me.
The show started with a heavy dose of optimism. King, in a bright yellow summer dress, sauntered onstage, beaming. She began by thanking the essential works — the doctors, nurses, bus drivers, cashiers — who carry the city on their back, taking care of neighbors and strangers alike. Next came an emphatic shoutout to the NYPD. King made a point of expressing her gratitude for their service. It felt like a puzzling choice, particularly because it ignored recent history: that members of the very working class the event aims to celebrate marched through the streets last summer, protesting police brutality and demanding that city officials reallocate funds from the bloated police force to social services.
No time to dwell, however, because, as King pointed out, the sun came out just before she walked onto the stage. She took that as a sign of this event’s purpose and promptly introduced the New York Philharmonic. The ensemble opened their beautifully passionate set with “Candide,” followed by “Rhapsody in Blue” and then a moving “New York, New York.” As dark gray, brooding clouds gathered in the distance, the Philharmonic was joined by the Italian opera tenor Andrea Bocelli, followed by American songstress Jennifer Hudson. These early performances possessed an honest sobriety — melancholic but not cynical. A reflection of the city’s real mood these days.
The evening’s musical performances varied in type and quality. If nothing else, Davis and his team curated an eclectic lineup of many undeniably talented artists. While the energy of the crowd did not always match the animated spirit of Santana’s guitar solos or Wyclef Jean’s vocals, I can’t say the performers did not give it their best effort. It’s a shame, then, that some of the more anticipated musicians, like Springsteen, never made it to the stage.
The parts of the program that proved most difficult to sit through, however, were the interludes — the introductions delivered by the likes of Don Lemon, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Mayor de Blasio and first lady Chirlane McCray. Their collective commitment to an unrecognizable narrative of New York — one in which a virus isn’t raging through the city and entire livelihoods do not hang in the balance — felt particularly exhausting. Their repeated use of an undefined “we” confused me. And the absence of any acknowledgment of the number of people who have died during the pandemic was utterly baffling. The entire enterprise seemed like a way to bolster collective amnesia about the past 16 months, to move quickly past the traumatic events, to declare unearned triumph and to sidestep the responsibilities we still have to each other.
With the inclement weather came a temporary suspension of the program — and relief. Finally, the pretenses could be dropped and the absurdity of holding a city-sponsored concert in the middle of another wave of the pandemic on the evening of a hurricane would be revealed. But the evening managed to grow more ludicrous, with Anderson Cooper trying to pick up where King left off by maintaining the thin thread of optimism. He sufficiently maneuvered conversations with a couple of his CNN colleagues, co-host Chloe Melas and on-the-ground correspondent Erica Hill, and with some of the night’s musicians, including Manilow and Patti Smith. Still, it was hard to appreciate Cooper making the best out of a situation that probably shouldn’t have happened at all.
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