449 days. That’s how long it had been since the last concert. The last real concert. With people in seats. In a theater. Live.
448 days ago I wrote about it in a piece called “The Last Concert."
Thursday, June 3, I was at the first concert. The first real concert since then. With people. In a theater. Live. The two events couldn’t have felt more different but were clearly related.
The asymmetrical symmetry (if that makes sense) was lost on no one who was there last night and at the previous show. The Beacon Theatre was the venue for the first real live concert in New York in nearly 15 months and had been for the last one too. It was the fifth annual Love Rocks NYC benefit for God’s Love We Deliver.
The last concert was the fourth. Last time we were all whistling past the graveyard. We had no idea what we were in for as the Pandemic was just getting revved up and no one had a clue. The sold-out crowd of over 3,000 had been cut down to just friends and family of the bands and a few media folks like me — maybe 300 people. We weren’t wearing masks yet. We were happy to be there but nervous as hell and no one was comfortable. This time was all of that in reverse!
A few months ago I got a call from Greg Williamson, the intrepid force who, along with his partners John Varvatos and Nicole Rechter, were forging ahead with this year’s show even though they thought it would have to be completely virtual. We’d ask for donations for people to watch on yet another live stream. Then everything started to change. It turns out the vaccines were doing their job as the experts predicted and the virus was on the run. A month later we would have some people in the audience, mainly from the major donors. A month after that it was up to 1,000 fully vaccinated folks. It turned out to be nearly half the house in the Beacon Theatre but we were all down front, shoulder to shoulder and it was glorious!
Where there was fear there was now hope. Where there was guilt there was now joy. Where there was worry there was now relief. Yin and Yang had never been so fully in effect. I hugged people I hadn’t seen in over a year with full confidence that we weren’t going to wind up in a hospital or worse. We danced, we sang, we clapped, we yelled and in the fully vaccinated floor of the Beacon we were maskless!
The show was the usual master class in musicianship and comedy. The curtain raised and there was a set of bongo drums center stage. A dark figure was playing slowly. The lights came up and we saw it was Love Rocks fixture Bill Murray! Then the owner of the drums walked out, Cuban percussion maestro Pedrito Martinez, and stood behind the interloper. After a brief drum battle between them Bill gave way, Pedrito went off and so did the crowd. Just like that we were at a concert again!
Grace Potter got things cranking with Tom Petty’s “American Girl” with the usual Hall of Fame band playing behind her led by Will Lee of Late Show with David Letterman fame. Steve Gadd and Shawn Pelton drumming, Eric Krasno and Larry Campbell on guitar, Jeff Young and Ricky Peterson on keyboards, the God’s Love Horns and the We Deliver Singers all just crushing it as they have every year for 5 years now.
We were just getting started! Ivan Neville and Jimmy Vivino doing the super appropriate “Yes We Can”. Yola (one of those artists I get introduced to every year at Love Rocks and wonder where someone this good has been hiding) followed and filled that room to the rafters with her amazing voice. Emily King did the coolest cover of the Beatles “Help!” that was more joyous than you can imagine.
The Reverend Billy F. Gibbons, another fixture, ripped off a killer "Cheap Sunglasses" with the horn section giving the song a dimension that somehow made it even better than the original! Then he joined forces with Robert Randolph and the one and only Bernie Williams. They took off on Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady." Robert was playing a crazy guitar adapted to play like his usual pedal steel but standing up and channeling Jimi. Bernie more than held his own. He clearly puts in the same effort that he did all those years up at Yankee Stadium to master the guitar.
Jon Bon Jovi did a pair of tunes: the somber, touching new one “American Reckoning” and then blew the roof off the place with Grace Potter coming back out to duet on “You Give Love a Bad Name." The crowd came to its collective feet and sang along. How long had it been since we could do that?!?!?
The night went on and on with one performance better than the next. Warren Haynes (who I believe lives in the basement of the Beacon) with Robert Randolph and Bernie Williams covering “Can’t You See?” Tash Neal and Jimmy Vivino doing Neil Young’s “Down By the River." Sara Bareilles doing “Brave” and then teaming up with Yola on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."
Gary Clark Jr. brought his effortless skill, this time without a cast on his arm like the first time he played Love Rocks.
Grammy winning singer Fantastic Negrito pulled off a terrific “Ain’t No Sunshine”, Nathaniel Rateliff channeled Van Morrison on “Caravan." Ledisi (another new artist for me) brought sheer joy to the stage.
Then it was time for the full-frontal assault of blues guitar – Joe Bonamassa, Warren Haynes, Robert Randolph (seated this time at his traditional sacred steel) and Jimmy Vivino – ripping up “Going Down” with Pedrito Martinez joining in for good measure on the congas as they passed solos around like a good bottle of whiskey.
Then practically everyone came back out for the big, messy, wonderful, insane jam on the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And just like that it was over.
The house lights came up. We all looked around at each other. We couldn’t believe it. Smiles, joy, happiness, relief. Cathartic doesn’t begin to explain the feeling, the 10 ton weight lifted. We did it. We went to a show. We raised around $3 million for God’s Love We Deliver!
By the way their mission did not slow in the last 15 months, in fact it grew. 10,000 New Yorker’s who are suffering from serious illness get nutritious, customized meals delivered to them every day without charge by the incredible people who work there and have been working there throughout the pandemic. They need your help by the way. www.GLWD.org if you’d like to donate.
As we went out into the drizzly night I thought about the last year plus of misery. It’s ending. It’s ending for one reason. Vaccines. Our country, for all we did wrong in handling the virus, was able to punch our way out of it. Many countries that did a better job than us but haven’t gotten to the vaccination levels that we have are still locked down or worse. Nearly 600,000 Americans didn’t make it. But now there is a way out.
I don’t want to get on a soap box here but for those who “aren’t sure” or are convinced this is a conspiracy or whatever, I wish you were there last night. The pandemic is a wildfire. It only goes out if it runs out of fuel. Vaccines get rid of the fuel. But it takes all of us. Want to get rid of your mask? Want to hug people that aren’t “in your bubble”? Want to go see an absolutely amazing concert live in person? Get your damn vaccine. I don’t care if you’re comfortable or not. I can’t believe you might need to be bribed with free beer or doughnuts or college tuition or whatever and it doesn’t matter. As long as you get it. Some people can’t for legitimate reasons. They might be allergic to the vaccines or immune compromised. The rest of us need to protect those people by taking care of our own business.
Last night was the First Concert A.C. (After Covid). It won’t be the last. I will be dancing in the aisles. Get your shots and join me.
- Eric “Big E” Wellman, Program Director, Q104.3 New York