It was a surreal day.
As reports rolled in of postponed cancelled seasons for NHL, NBA, MLB, PGA, Broadway and every big concert from coast to coast, there was one event that was still on – Love Rocks NYC.
In its fourth year, this concert to benefit God’s Love We Deliver quickly became the highlight of the year for true music lovers. The all-star house band is better than any group you’ve ever seen with the likes of Steve Gadd and Shawn Pelton on drums, Eric Krasno and Larry Campbell on guitars (and anything else with a string), Ricky Peterson and Jeff Young on keyboards and the amazing Will Lee playing bass. Lee led the whole band along with its incredible horn section and back-up singers.
In front of that group was a parade of artists who each could sell-out the Beacon Theater on their own; all together this lineup could fill MetLife Stadium. But on this night the theater which holds 3,000 only had 250 or so people in the seats.
I was one of them.
I am the Program Director of Q104.3. Over the years I’ve had dozens of people walk into my office with a “big idea” about a benefit concert who want the help of America’s largest Classic Rock station to promote it. Usually the idea starts with a massive show, winds up aiming for a modest show and ends up at a level that was barely worth the effort. Unless there is a massive issue like Superstorm Sandy or 9/11, it’s hard to get buy-in.
Then I met Greg Williamson. He got to me through one of our sales people. Williamson was in the real estate business, and I had no idea what he was doing in my office talking about a benefit concert. At the time, I had never heard of God’s Love We Deliver even though their headquarters are only six blocks away from Q104.3. Williamson described a show that I felt certain wouldn’t ever live up to the billing. But I didn’t know Greg.
By sheer force of will, a passion for music and a cause that has many powerful friends, Greg and his producing partner, fashion designer John Varvatos, started putting together a show that would blow away any expectations and raise millions of dollars for God’s Love.
Their work providing meals to New Yorkers who are too sick to leave home has been going on for 35 years (find out about them and donate at glwd.org).
The first year of the Love Rocks NYC benefit concert boasted Joe Walsh, Mavis Staples, Gov’t Mule and around 15 others in front of that same All-Star band. The next two years included Sheryl Crow, Lukas Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Hozier, Billy Gibbons, The Wilson Sisters and, oh yeah, Robert Plant and Keith Richards!
This year’s bill was as outstanding as ever including Dave Matthews, Chris and Rich Robinson, Jackson Browne and dozens of others. The theater was sold out within days of the announcement back in January. And this week everything changed.
Coronavirus has swiftly upended the lives of millions — perhaps billions of people — around the world. As the response unfolded in this country, things started getting reluctantly cancelled or postponed, and as one domino fell many more followed.
But all of the artists on this bill were here in New York already. The dress rehearsal on Wednesday was amazing.
New York City put a ban on any gathering over 500 people.
Even though that wouldn’t take effect until the day after the benefit show, Greg, John, Nicole Rechter (their amazing Executive Producer) and Karen Pearl (head of God’s Love) had a decision to make and they made it.
The show would go on but with a “restricted attendance policy” – only essential staff, family and credentialed media (that’s me!) would be allowed in. The show would be live streamed by Relix so that maybe they could raise a few bucks beyond the ticket revenue, a lot of which would probably be refunded. This statement was issued mid-afternoon on Thursday.
Ken Dashow and I talked and decided we would go, and if this is the last concert we see for a while, man, was it worth it!
The 300 or so in attendance were allowed to sit anywhere. They had an open bar. I sat right in front of the sound board (pro-tip: That’s where you go if want the best sound).The seats in front of me were about 1/3 filled with everyone “socially spaced.”
The seats behind me (half the floor) were essentially empty. Both balconies were empty. We all were there to see this thing through, but you could feel the sense of “whistling past the graveyard."
That quickly went away and was replaced by what we all need — a pure sense of sheer joy that only great live music can provide.
The show opened with a large string section sitting in front of the closed curtain. Out walked the amazing Cyndi Lauper, a supporter of GLWD since the early days, who opened the show with an incredible “True Colors." The curtain went up, out came the all-star band and the parade of artists began.
Macy Gray covered Radiohead “Creep." Joss Stone channeled Janis Joplin with “Piece of My Heart." The War and Treaty, a married duo with Army Vet Michael Trotter Jr. and his wife Tanya Blount-Trotter, came out and blew everyone away with the gospel-blues tinged “Hey, Pretty Moon." Never heard of this band? That’s your loss. Go look them up, like now!
Jackson Browne introduced Marc Cohn playing “Walk Through The World” (he does have many great songs besides “Walking In Memphis”). Jimmie Vaughan and Jimmy Vivino, two Love Rocks veterans, came out for some Texas blues and brought in the amazing Sue Foley, who is the best Canadian-redhead-female-neo-Texan blues player I’ve seen (seriously, look at those hyphenates!). All of this and we were just getting warmed up!
Whatever was going on outside with surgical masks, suspicious looks at anyone who dared clear their throat, cancelled events and empty restaurants was falling away. It was being replaced by a feeling of witnessing an event that was really great and really important and really bizarre all at once.
Jackson Browne jammed out on “Doctor My Eyes” with Pedrito Martinez whipping the crowd up with an insane conga solo. Young phenom Marcus King came out and joined him and Joss Stone on the Stephen Stills classic “Love the One You’re With" — good advice these days.
The incomparable Warren Haynes, another Love Rocks stalwart, (who I believe lives in the Beacon Theater) played his amazing cover of U2’s “One” before being joined by Derek Trucks and Jimmy Vivino for the Derek and the Dominoes' “Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad?”
As the infomercial hucksters would say, “Now, how much would you pay?”
Dave Matthews ripped off a three song set with “Don’t Drink the Water,” “Ants Marching” (Pedrito Martinez, Shawn Pelton and Steve Gadd joined in with dueling percussion solos) and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer." Derek Trucks came back with wife and bandmate Susan Tedeschi and burned the place down with “The Letter,” which was more Joe Cocker than Box Tops.
Then things got even better. The background theme of the night was a certain former late-night host. Will Lee was the band leader. Paul Shaffer was MC’ing a little bit. Alan Kalter was the announcer. So who shows up, but the one and only David Letterman, with his resplendent white beard in full effect. His five minutes on stage was as good as any performance and reminded me just how much I miss his voice, especially in troubled times. They literally got the band back together from The Late Show!
Chris and Rich Robinson were the icing on an incredible cake coming out and giving us a taste of what we hope will be a great show this summer (if shows happen) playing “Jealous Again,” “She Talks to Angels” and of course the Otis Redding rave up “Hard to Handle."
Finally everyone on this incredible bill (and I missed a few I’m sure), came out for the full cast sing along “All You Need is Love." It was beautiful, it was ragged, it was filled with missed words and missed notes and it didn’t matter. It was perfect.
All you need is love. True. But you also need music.
Last night delivered that and then some. Hopefully you got to see some of it on the Relix live stream. If not my few half-assed iPhone videos might give you some idea of what it was like. If you have a few extra bucks please give to God’s Love We Deliver. You might be stuck in your house for a few days in the coming weeks. The people they feed are stuck in their houses for far longer than that.
Over the last few days my thoughts have been mixed. Frustration, anxiety, anger – what aren’t “they” telling us? Is this just a huge overreaction? Should we be scared? Am I putting my family at risk just commuting to my job? How are we going to get through life without any of the things we use to distract ourselves — sports, theater, parties, parades?
But ultimately the thing that I think I will miss most is live music. Nowhere else can you completely lose yourself — belt out your favorite songs, dance like no one is watching and just feel good, if only for a few hours before reality crashes back in.
If last night was indeed the last concert, I’m so glad I was there. I wish you could have been too.
Be safe, wash your hands, stay home if you don’t feel well, rock on.
Eric “Big E” Wellman
Program Director, WAXQ-FM New York
Photo: Getty Images