Central Park comeback concert is silenced by lightning
By Ben Sisario
It was supposed to be a glorious celebration of the reemergence of New York City after more than a year of pandemic hardship — a concert bringing thousands of vaccinated fans on Saturday evening to the Great Lawn of Central Park to hear an all-star lineup.
And for the first couple of hours it was, with messages of New York’s resilience sandwiched between performances by the New York Philharmonic, Jennifer Hudson, Carlos Santana, LL Cool J, and Earth, Wind & Fire, among others.
But shortly after 7:30 p.m., as Barry Manilow was performing “Can’t Smile Without You,” lightning brought the concert to a halt. “Please seek shelter for your safety,” an announcer intoned, stopping the music, as people began filing out of the park.
The crowds were sent home, and the concert was brought to an abrupt halt. Even with Hurricane Henri expected to make landfall in the region Sunday, officials held out the hope of resuming the performance if the weather allowed, and CNN, which had been broadcasting the concert, vamped for time. Many of the headliners, including Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Maluma, had yet to perform when it was cut short. But shortly before 10:30 p.m., the show was called off for good.
The concert had begun with a ray of sunshine, breaking through the clouds just before it got underway at 5 p.m. Gayle King, a co-host of “CBS This Morning,” began the evening by thanking the essential workers who had pulled the city through the darkest days of the pandemic
“We were once the epicenter of this virus, and now we’ve moved to being the epicenter of the recovery,” she said. “We gather for a common purpose: to say, ‘Welcome back, New York City!’”
She then introduced the New York Philharmonic, which kicked off the concert with the overture to Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” conducted by Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protege. The orchestra then played a medley of New York-themed music, including bits of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and “Theme from ‘New York, New York,’” the anthem made famous by Frank Sinatra, among others.
The concert, “We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert,” broadcast live on CNN, was part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to celebrate the city’s comeback after the pain and suffering of the pandemic. When the concert was announced by de Blasio in June, plunging coronavirus case numbers and rising vaccination figures had filled the city with hope.
But circumstances have shifted considerably over the past two months. The spread of the highly contagious delta variant has led some city businesses to postpone the return to their offices, prompted the city to institute vaccine mandates for indoor dining and entertainment, and threatened to destabilize the wider concert business.
On June 7, the day the concert was announced, the city was averaging 242 cases a day; the daily average is now more than 2,000 cases.
On Saturday, with the orchestra still onstage, the concert continued with star Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli singing “O Sole Mio,” and Hudson, star of the new Aretha Franklin biopic, “Respect,” singing Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” — a beloved aria that became associated with Franklin after she sang it at the Grammy Awards in 1998.
As the crowd streamed in, the idea of New York’s return — whether a two-fisted vanquishing of a viral enemy or a premature declaration of victory — seemed to be on everyone’s mind.
“This is our reopening — this is our invitation to get back to real life,” said Dean Dunagan, 52, of the Lower East Side, who had come to see Springsteen and had been waiting outside the park for 4 1/2 before the gates were opened.
“New York has been punched in the face every other decade, or whatever,” Dunagan said, “and we get right back up.”
Just a few feet from him was Alexandra Gudaitis, a 24-year-old from the Upper West Side and a fan of Simon’s. “I’m scared this is going to be a mass spreader event, with the delta,” she said.
Still, she was one of the first fans through the door and rushed to the very front of the general-admission section with a few friends. They wore masks, and Gudaitis said they had chosen their spot because it seemed to have better access to fresh air.
Some of the acts had only tenuous connections to New York. But rap pioneer LL Cool J led a New York-centric ode to old-school hip-hop with Busta Rhymes, A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, French Montana, Melle Mel and Rev. Run of Run-DMC.
The homecoming show required everyone ages 12 and older to show proof they had had at least one dose of a vaccine; children ages 11 and younger, who are still ineligible for the vaccines, were required to wear masks.
“When it comes to the concerts, they are outdoors — they are for vaccinated folks only,” de Blasio said Wednesday. “We are definitely encouraging mask use. But I really want to emphasize the whole key here is vaccination.”
The show came after the city had hosted a week of free hip-hop shows, with local heroes including Raekwon and Ghostface Killah in Staten Island, and KRS-One, Kool Moe Dee and Slick Rick in the Bronx. Tickets were required to attend Saturday’s concert — most were free, but VIP packages cost up to $5,000 — and in addition to CNN, the show was broadcast on satellite radio by SiriusXM.
The concert was programmed by Clive Davis, the 89-year-old music eminence, who, in an interview this past week, stressed the role that music could play in shaping society.
“It’s vital and important that New York be back,” he said.