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‘We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert’ Review: Short-Circuited Celebration


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The Central Park concert was supposed to mark New York’s grand reopening following Covid-19, but lightning from Hurricane Henri meant that performers like Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Patti Smith and the Killers never saw the stage.

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People attend the ‘We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert’ at Central Park on Saturday

Photo: eduardo munoz/Reuters

Saturday’s “We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert,” held on Central Park’s Great Lawn, was supposed to run until 10 p.m. but barely lasted until 7:30, shut down by a few flashes of lightning and an ensuing downpour courtesy of Hurricane Henri. The shortened evening meant no performances from headlining acts— Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Patti Smith and the Killers among them—which was disappointing. But from one angle, it makes sense that an event commemorating the symbolic reopening of the city after the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic would end unpredictably. Each new milestone brings a new or unexpected complication, from the surge of the Delta variant to vaccine hesitancy to tangled debates about mask mandates.

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Jennifer Hudson performs with New York Philharmonic

Photo: Getty Images for Live Nation

General admission tickets were free and the approximately 60,000 attendees had to provide proof of vaccination. Presumably, many were seeing their first in-person concert in 18 months or more, and they were ready to be entertained and easy to please. Even the between-act interludes by DJ Cassidy, which included revered classics like Prince’s “1999” and far less revered songs like Starship’s “We Built This City” brought loud cheers and gyrations. CNN carried the entire show live. 

The program, overseen by venerable 89-year-old record executive Clive Davis, was structured like a revue, with each act performing a song or two, as broadcast journalist Gayle King served as master of ceremonies. It offered a curious mix of stars from the distant past sprinkled with a few who are just now hitting their peak—with a couple of exceptions, the evening was light on successful midcareer artists. 

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Andrea Bocelli performs onstage with Marin Alsop and the New York Philharmonic

Photo: Getty Images for Live Nation

The New York Philharmonic opened the show with a medley of iconic hometown numbers—“New York State of Mind,” “New York, New York”—and remained onstage for tenor Andrea Bocelli and then singer Jennifer Hudson. Among the early highlights were Mr. Bocelli’s thundering runs on “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Ms. Hudson, whose starring turn in the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” is in theaters now, sang a stunning version of the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” in tribute to Franklin’s memorable performance of the piece at the 1998 Grammys. 

Mr. Davis then took the stage to introduce Carlos Santana. The guitar icon’s late-career resurgence with the 1999 album “Supernatural”—produced by Mr. Davis—is the ultimate example of the record man’s magic touch. Mr. Santana performed two hits from the album—Wyclef Jean joined for “Maria Maria” and Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas sang on a loud and lively version of the smash “Smooth.”

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Carlos Santana and Wyclef Jean performing

Photo: Getty Images for Live Nation

Next came country star Kane Brown, known for pushing boundaries in his genre—he’s multiracial and sings with a twang, and he also has an ear for hip-hop beats and guest spots by rappers. He hit solemn notes in honor of front-line heroes, but also knew how to get a party started. Later, magnetic singer and bandleader Jon Batiste, musical director of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, ” delivered a soulful rendition of his new single “Freedom.” 

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LL Cool J performing at the concert

Photo: Getty Images for Live Nation

The best set of the night was the fun and slightly chaotic tribute to hip-hop, which found New York artists from multiple generations—LL Cool J and Melle Mel from the form’s earliest days, Fat Joe and Busta Rhymes from its mid-period peak, and recent upstart A Boogie Wit da Hoodie—coming together for an energetic trip through the genre’s history. 

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Spliff Star, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, LL Cool J, French Montana and Remy Ma

Photo: Getty Images for Live Nation

Though Arnel Pineda has been the lead singer of Journey since 2007, it’s still weird seeing the band without Steve Perry. Both Mr. Pineda and the group hit every note of “Any Way You Want It” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” but it’s hard to get too excited by a jukebox-style oldies act. Earth, Wind & Fire, performing with singers Kenneth “ Babyface ” Edmonds and Lucky Daye, were better. Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, introduced the funk luminaries. Despite appealing to the audience’s sentimental side by mentioning that they’d chosen a song from EW&F for the first dance at their wedding, the outgoing mayor was loudly booed, another example of spirited New Yorkers finding common cause.

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Arnel Pineda and Neal Schon of Journey

Photo: Getty Images for Live Nation

Chicago-born rapper Polo G was out of place at the event—his songs are highly personal and downcast and he’s an unsteady live presence—and he looked lost as he rapped over the backing track of his 2021 hit “Rapstar.” This will likely be the only time in recorded history that he appears directly before glitzy entertainer Barry Manilow, who ran down his NYC bona fides and then launched into “Copacabana.” Midway through “Can’t Smile Without You,” an announcer instructed the crowd to seek shelter away from the grounds. 

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Barry Manilow at the concert

Photo: Getty Images for Live Nation

Call it an abridged test run, a brief glimpse at a future where thousands of people can pack together, cheer and sing along; where worries extend only to long bathroom lines and whether a band is going to play a favorite song. Concerts are coming back, yes, and New York is in a better position with Covid-19 than much of the country. But there are competing ideas about where we go from here and what happens next. Nationally, high-profile tours are being canceled— Garth Brooks, Nine Inch Nails—and there’s little consensus that they should happen at all. So for those at the Great Lawn, it was a tentative step forward, the kind you take to feel if the surface beneath your foot can hold your weight. That we took it matters more than the missed opportunity to hear Mr. Springsteen and Ms. Smith duet on “Because the Night.” 

After the evacuation, those watching at home got to enjoy the spectacle of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper filling time with impromptu interviews with bands and the on-site talent. This included cellphone video of the Killers doing an acoustic run through band’s hit “Mr. Brightside” somewhere backstage. 

At one point, Mr. Cooper spoke over the telephone with Ms. Smith who, jacked up on adrenaline, waxed poetic about the concert’s deeper meaning, even though she wouldn’t be able to perform. “What is there to celebrate?” she asked rhetorically before rattling off a long list of ills that have recently befallen the world. “The answer, of course, is that we, as individuals, have a life force. That we have heart. We have resilience. And that we have the ability to make change.” She was at that moment one New Yorker speaking for many.

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