After a long night of celebratory campaign reunions (patriotic bunting and ironic “Mission Accomplished” banners were two recurring decorative themes), my sister, a couple friends and I left her apartment on Capitol Hill to make our way down to the Lincoln Memorial for the Inaugural celebration concert. If one did not know the way there, it was easy to ascertain by watching the mass of people heading down Pennsylvania Avenue to the 17th Street entrances. Memorabilia vendors lined the sidewalks hawking all manner of Obama-related merchandise.
Concrete barriers and eight-foot-high panels of interlocking grates had been set up along some of the sidewalks lining the section of the city to be closed off for Tuesday’s Inaugural parade; stacks of unassembled grates were piled up on street corners. Out-of-place, camouflaged humvees sat idling in the middle of blocked-off intersections; equally incongruous MPs directed cars and pedestrians. I was amused to see my first motorcycle with a sidecar outside of a Disney movie and surprised to encounter US Customs and Border Patrol agents at the official staging area entry point. Clearly, this was no ordinary Bruce Springsteen concert.
Although we cleared security little more than an hour before the event was due to begin, we were able to work our way through the estimated crowd of 400,000 people until we had passed the iced-over Reflecting Pool. This required navigating the concertgoers on the south side of the venue closest to the portable toilets lining the sidewalk. When the moving mass could push forward no further, we cut through a break in the wall of toilets and kept inching up the dusty, downtrodden grass on the other side of the euphemistically named Constitutional Gardens. As we staked out a position with sightlines through the trees, some agile crowd members began to climb on top of the portable toilets. Soon the roofs of the toilets were covered with excited Obama supporters. As Denzel Washington took the stage to offer the opening address, the crowd in our section had gone from shouting “Off the pot!” to “Get down!!” and began throwing twigs and litter at the people on top of the toilets or in the trees who were obstructing their view. Police on horseback waded through the agitated audience and got down the climbers.
Springsteen kicked off the music by playing “The Rising,” the title-track of the September 11-influenced album he released a year after the epochal terrorist attacks. Sung with the backing of a joyous choir in this celebratory setting, the song took on a new hopeful meaning. After The Boss’s weighty opening, Mary J. Blige single-handedly kicked the concert into gear. James Taylor’s attempt to get the audience clapping was hurt by the lag on the Jumbotrons. The delay also made it difficult to immediately comprehend the two deviations from an otherwise highly scripted event: Will.i.am’s freestyle break in the middle of “One Love” and Bono’s brazen and admirable acknowledgment of the “Palestinian dream” before U2 launched into “City Of Blinding Lights.”
Although many of the duets were lacking in chemistry, the individual performers all put in professional and passionate performances. John Mellencamp, without whom no national concert or small-town rodeo is complete, put in a particularly spirited performance, as did Steve Wonder–who, when he took over the vocals on “Higher Ground” from Shakira and Usher, was the only person at the concert who was still seated. The crowd erupted in unrestrained adoration when the first family was shown on the Jumbotrons dancing along.
In a concert unlike any other, it was not headliner Bruce Springsteen who got the biggest cheers but rather the last speaker of the day. President-elect Barack Obama gave a stirring speech that deftly acknowledged the enormity of the challenges facing the nation, the monuments crowding the horizon which attest to previous obstacles overcome and “what fills the spaces in between…Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there.” It was a solid warm-up for his impending inaugural address, a speech that some are calling the most anticipated in history.
Springsteen and 89-year-old Pete Seeger were faced with the unenviable task of following up the President-elect. After they performed “This Land Is Your Land,” Beyoncé Knowles appeared, and received the loudest ovation of any musician–even though many in the crowd had already begun to file out–to sing “America The Beautiful” backed by all of the day’s performers. Over the roar of rapturous applause, she echoed Denzel Washington’s opening speech in her final words: “America, we are one!”