Inauguration Concert Veers from the Sublime to the Ridiculous

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Artists and performers joined together for an inauguration concert today at the Lincoln Memorial, and despite the nearly unlimited potential for bombast at an event called “We Are One,” it managed to be both restrained, mostly, and watchable, more or less. The concert opened with a rousing, moving rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” with Bruce backed by a soaring gospel choir. It’s a great song, but I must admit that for some reason I only started to get choked up later, weirdly, during John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” which I never really liked but seemed to take on greater significance today. The footage of Marian Anderson singing on the same spot back in 1939 was also profoundly moving, but then, returning to the present, who pops up on stage as a contemporary? Ladies and gentlemen, Josh Groban. Ugh. But the camera cuts to Malia Obama, adorably taking a snapshot of Groban, Sasha demanding to see it.

While Springsteen and Mellencamp used their backup choirs to great effect, I have to say the tableaux of “aging white dude with guitar backed by chorus of blacks” started to get a little bit old right about the time Garth Brooks took the stage, doing a sloppy rendition of “American Pie.” Later, thankfully, Stevie Wonder (joined by Shakira and Usher) brought even the honored guests to their feet, although I have to say I think his descending incantation of the President-elect’s name (which he did at the convention too) is kind of strange. Then it’s time for the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Irish (but honorary American) combo U2. While most performers managed to contain themselves, despite the emotion of the moment, apparently Bono was a bit confused, deciding that he was being inaugurated. He-of-the-elaborate-shades spent half his time onstage speechifying embarrassingly, flubbing the year of MLK’s speech, and waiting just a smidge too long between offering a tribute to “an Israeli dream… (dramatic pause)… and also… a Palestinian dream!” His gloating thank-you to the President-elect for using “City of Blinding Lights” during his campaign was also cringe-worthy—didn’t anybody tell Bono they used a lot of different songs?

So, we’ve seen a nearly unprecedented line-up of celebrities and performers here to celebrate Barack Obama’s election. What should we do for a finale? Howabout “Stupid Pet Tricks”? That’s right, it’s time for “Challenger” and “Mr. Lincoln,” the actual names of a couple of trained bald eagles, who, we’re told, are “friends.” They flap around. Is this supposed to be funny? Maybe it was designed on purpose, to bring us down a bit before Obama’s speech, another one on the “things are really bad so everybody please chill” theme. Can’t we be giddy for just a day or two?

Watch the concert again tonight at 7 ET/PT on HBO, which has become free for the day on your TVs, or over at HBO.com.

Photo courtesy HBO.

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