When the world gets scary and an unforeseen crisis fills us with fear, the music world instinctively returns to the five-word mantra that defines it: Let’s put on a show!
With a global pandemic in which survival is dependent on social distancing, however, the noble concept of presenting a mega-concert to lift the spirits gets a bit tricky.
Not only is gathering a mass audience to capture communal catharsis out of the question, it’s not even advisable for bands who aren’t self-quarantining together to be in the same room.
Which brings us to “One World: Together At Home,” Saturday night’s all-star concert and celebration of front-line workers fighting the coronavirus that functioned as a sort of social-distanced Live Aid.
It featured highlight performances from Taylor Swift, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Keith Urban, Paul McCartney, the Roots, Eddie Vedder, and Nigerian singer-songwriter Burna Boy.
Put together by Lady Gaga with the World Health Organization and anti-poverty group Global Citizen, the two-hour special was emceed by late-night TV hosts Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, broadcast on CBS, ABC and NBC, and also streamed on social media.
Since the concert business was brought to a sudden halt in March, musicians have nimbly responded, reaching fans with online performances from the safety of their quarantines.
“One World” was the wall-to-wall big-name version of that technology-aided trick, bringing viewers into the homes of favorite artists. Some were professionally shot, but others had a warts-and-all intimacy. Stars, they’re just like us! They’re not so sure how their iPhones work, either.
More than $127 million has been raised from donors, but the show wisely chose to not go the traditional telethon route and ask for money from an audience tense with economic as well as life-and-death anxiety.
Some stars didn’t sing: Beyoncé and Alicia Keys spoke on the disproportionate toll the virus is taking on communities of color, and Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin gave hand-washing tips in English and Spanish.
Most performers got one song only, with a few exceptions, such as Wonder, who started off with a “Lean On Me” tribute to the late Bill Withers, followed by his own ideally suited “Love’s in Need of Love Today.”
Gaga opened the show with Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” then returned for a bombastic finale, teaming with Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, John Legend, and pianist Lang Lang on Bocelli and Dion’s 1999 hit “The Prayer.”
That big finish was one of a handful of pieces on which performers linked up by Zoom to create virtual ensembles. Legend, at the piano in front of his Grammy-cluttered trophy shelf, sang a duet with Sam Smith on Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”
The Rolling Stones were standouts, with a “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards playing acoustic guitars, Ronnie Wood plugged in, and Charlie Watts enjoying himself playing air drums. Even at an extreme social distance, they sounded like a real live band.
Most performers either chose a song of their own that resonates in a time of crisis, or opted for a cover with a message of endurance and togetherness.
Elton John sang “I’m Still Standing” in his back yard, sitting at a grand piano in front of a basketball hoop with two balls on the ground.
Australian country singer Urban’s performance was the most visually novel. Singing Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” he first appeared solo, then was joined by two other musicians who also turned out to be him.
Lizzo sang a heartfelt “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow” was sweetly uplifting. Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello duetted on “What A Wonderful World.” Jennifer Lopez offered Barbra Streisand’s cloying “People."
McCartney and Vedder each accompanied themselves on organ, with the former Beatle singing a slowed “Lady Madonna” and Vedder turning in a tender “River Cross." Billie Eilish and brother Finneas sat around the living room keyboard as she sang Bobby Hebb’s 1966 hit “Sunny.”
Swift was also alone at keyboard, singing the expertly crafted “Soon You’ll Be Better” from her 2019 album Lover, about her mother’s battle with cancer. And Burna Boy, the rapper born Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, introducing his richly inviting Afropop to American ears.
The broadcast featured often-moving interviews with teachers, nurses, doctors, and mental-health professionals. No overt political statements were made. But as a two-hour information session presented by the WHO, the broadcast — which was not shown on Fox — nonetheless served as a rebuke to President Donald Trump, who announced Tuesday that he would withhold funds from the organization pending a review.
The hosts played to type. Fallon was at his best on a Zoom performance with the Roots of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance,” with health-care workers showcasing their footwork. Kimmel had an amusing bit, thanking a food delivery person with a pizza, a cake, and a cash tip kept in a zip-locked bag.
But it was Colbert who addressed the moment with grace and empathy. He spoke of his late father, an immunologist employed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
“He would say follow the advice of scientists, but also that science can answer only how this world works, not why we are in this world," Colbert said. "And this crisis has reminded us with urgency that we are here to be as kind as we can. Because when this is all over — and it will be over — what we will remember is how we treated one another. And I pray that when we look back on this time of trial, we can say that we faced it with determination, hope and love.”