More than 25 artists – from boys (of the Backstreet, ‘NSYNC and O-Town variety) to men (elder statesmen such as Aerosmith, James Brown and Rod Stewart), from vocal queens (Destiny’s Child, Mariah Carey, Carole King) to the King of Pop – took the stage Sunday at RFK Stadium for the all-day United We Stand – What More Can I Give benefit concert for victims of September’s terrorist attacks.
Themes of unity and perseverance permeated every performance, with artists often thanking the sold-out crowd for the message they were sending to the rest of the country – that no matter the obstacles thrown before us or the challenges that await, we shall overcome.
No set screamed that lesson louder than P. Diddy’s six-song maelstrom. The rapper and his posse ambushed the stage, outfitted in army fatigues and combat boots. “We ain’t goin’ nowhere/ We can’t be stopped now,” went the chorus of the opening song, “Bad Boy for Life.” Diddy, displaying his supremacy with service medals adorning his camouflage jacket and silver stars pinned to his crooked cap, riled the crowd to get on its feet and make some noise.
“This is dedicated to being an American, each and every one of you, and everyone we lost September 11,” he said at the song’s end, before launching into “It’s All About the Benjamins.”
While moments of silence are customary in the wake of any tragedy, and ‘NSYNC would later orchestrate one during their set, P. Diddy wanted just the opposite. He conducted the crowd through a stadium wave that circled RFK three times while he asked for 30 seconds of pure noise. “I want the world to hear you,” he shouted above the roar.
P. Diddy was as animated as anyone onstage that night, dancing and marching from one end to the other while goading the audience to grow ever louder. “Check this out, terrorists!” he hollered during an explosive version of “Come With Me” – the track he recorded with former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page for the “Godzilla” soundtrack – right before the threatening verse that begins with “I want to fight you” and ends with “I’m gonna take you with me.”
With a huge gospel choir that spanned the length of the stage, his finale of “I’ll Be Missing You” featured Faith Evans on backing vocals.
Like Diddy’s “Bad Boy for Life” and “I’ll Be Missing You,” several songs performed by other artists took on a deeper meaning after September 11. Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge,” with the line “There’s something wrong with the world today,” was eerily prophetic, while James Brown’s “Living in America,” Huey Lewis & the News’ “The Power of Love” and Al Green’s classic “Let’s Stay Together” were reassuring.
Backstreet Boys opened the show with the national anthem, and pounced on a five-song set that included their hits “I Want It That Way” and “Shape of My Heart,” as well as the new song “Drowning” from their upcoming greatest hits collection, The Hits: Chapter One.
“I’ve never been more proud to be an American,” Brian Littrell said at the close of the set. “Remember [our] troops in your prayers and thoughts.”
Red, white and blue seemed to be the required colors of the day, as the crowd was speckled with the colors and nearly all the artists incorporated the scheme into some part of their stage attire. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler had portions of the American flag sewn into his torn and faded denim trench coat, while guitarist Joe Perry, clad in leather pants and a chest-baring black shirt covered by a D.C.’s Metro Police Department jacket, played a stars-and-stripes-laden guitar for “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and the band’s signature tune “Walk This Way.”
“We thought the world was coming to an end,” Tyler said at the onset of Aerosmith’s high-energy performance, “but we got something you can’t kill: love, liberty and the pursuit of rock and roll!”
Though P. Diddy took some time to get the crowd going, the frenzied response to ‘NSYNC was immediate when the first notes of “Pop” swept through the stadium. The group’s choreography was expectedly flawless as they cavorted through “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and set-closer “Bye Bye Bye,” which followed a bit of teasing from the guys about forgetting to “say bye” after finishing the ballad “This I Promise You.”
“It’s really good to see Rod Stewart fans standing next to ‘NSYNC fans standing next to P. Diddy fans,” Justin Timberlake said of the common love of music that united the crowd in the huge venue. “It’s good for the country that everybody’s ready to rebuild.”
By the time ‘NSYNC left the stage, the show, expected to last eight hours, was 90 minutes behind schedule, and the remaining performances were pruned so as not to lapse further behind. As such, sets by Destiny’s Child, Goo Goo Dolls, Train, Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson seemed rushed compared to the casual flow of the first half of the evening.
Mariah Carey’s black open-back dress with a plunging neckline brought to mind images of Jennifer Lopez’s infamous Grammy outfit as she emerged to dedicate “Hero” to “everybody in America.” After the moving ballad, she raised the onstage energy with “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” with the help of Vegas-styled showgirls waving giant white feathers. But even DJ Clue, who manned the turntables for the song, couldn’t resuscitate the mostly lifeless crowd after more than 11 hours of concert.
Minutes after Carey left the stage, those who remained in the audience (many cleared out after ‘NSYNC) began chants of “Michael, Michael.” Following an introduction by comedian Chris Tucker, a delicate piano instrumental of “We Are the World” wafted through the stadium while images of children from foreign countries, many shown posed with Jackson, were projected on the video screen. In an open, white long-sleeved shirt atop a matching V-neck T and black pants, Jackson lip-synced “Man in the Mirror” while prancing around the stage, often posing above an air vent to optimize the windblown effect created by his long hair and loose, flowing shirt.
To cap off the display, he boarded a cherry picker that carried him above the first few rows while he danced on the small platform and hung from its railings. After jumping down from the machine, he informed the crowd no less than seven times that he loved them, then spun in circles in a dance that ended with him on the floor.
Jackson left the stage right after, much to the shock of fans who had waited 11-and-a-half hours for what seemed to be only one song. The silence grew to modest cheers after an announcement was made to stay tuned for the finale, the first live performance of “What More Can I Give,” the concert’s namesake number, which has been recorded as a benefit single.
Finales of this type are usually marked by an all-star gathering of the artists who performed earlier; however, in light of the late hour, many of them had already left the building. So those who took the stage for the evening’s last dance were a picked-over crop of the talent that hit the stage throughout the last several hours.
Jackson, now in a glittery silver bolo jacket with an American eagle emblazoned on his chest and left shoulder, was joined by JC Chasez and Chris Kirkpatrick of ‘NSYNC; Mariah Carey; Usher, who earlier performed his hit single “U Remind Me”; teen country singer Billy Gilman, who had impressively sung the second half of “One Voice” a cappella after experiencing problems with his backing audio track; Angie Stone, whose set was cut entirely due to time constraints; Chris Tucker; Mya; Fabolous and former child actor Macaulay Culkin. Their collective rendition of the song was choppy and disparate, held together solely by Jackson, who, along with Gilman, seemed to be the only ones who knew the words.
Other performance highlights included O-Town (who sang “All or Nothing”), Carole King (“So Far Away”), Pink (Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”), Bette Midler (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “The Rose”), Ce Ce Peniston (“Finally”), America (“Sister Golden Hair”), Goo Goo Dolls (“Slide,” “Iris,” Tom Petty’s “American Girl”), Train (“Drops of Jupiter”) and Rod Stewart (“Hot Legs,” “Forever Young”).
Proceeds from the concert will benefit the American Red Cross Liberty Relief Fund, the Salvation Army Relief Fund, the Pentagon Relief Fund and the Rewards for Justice Fund, which supplies rewards to those who help identify and apprehend individuals who are planning, or have committed, terrorist attacks.