At Tuesday night's Concert for Valor on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Bruce Springsteen played a stripped-down blues version of "Born in the U.S.A." and Metallica rocked out with a stage full of head-banging military service members.
The free Veteran's Day event, which also featured performances by Eminem, Dave Grohl, the Zac Brown Band, Rihanna, the Black Keys, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and Jessie J, attracted an estimated crowd of more than 100,000 and was broadcast live on HBO. Video segments between the performances, narrated by – among others – Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama and Meryl Streep told the heroic stories of post-9/11 veterans. The segments, along with stories from onstage hosts like Jack Black, Bryan Cranston and John Oliver, emphasized the need to focus on supporting the 2.6 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After Jennifer Hudson sang the national anthem and an uncharacteristically nervous Jamie Foxx admitted that he couldn't follow the "telethon" (teleprompter), President Obama offered a video message about the importance of re-integrating recent veterans into civilian life. "Let's find ways to serve our veterans as well as they have served us," he said. Jessie J followed, sharing vocal duties with Hudson on "Titanium" and going solo for her latest hit, "Bang Bang."
After a Steven Spielberg-directed video tribute, Meryl Streep (whose nephews are active-duty military members) introduced Dave Grohl, who launched into acoustic versions of "There Goes My Hero" and "Everlong." Next up, the Zac Brown Band ran through a mini-set including "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless the U.S.A." Brown, who looked a little frozen when he first saw the mass of people, warmed up talking about "a lot friends who serve in the military" and got the crowd truly riled up when he sang "Chicken Fried," complete with slide guitar and fiddle solos. Brown ended the set by inviting Grohl and Springsteen ("Bruuuuuuce!") out to play "Fortunate Son," a pleasantly subversive choice.
After a Reese Witherspoon-narrated video tribute to Kellie McKoy, the Army's first female battalion commander, John Oliver pointed to the latter in the bleachers, explaining that his wife was a combat medic in Iraq with the Army's First Cavalry. When he shouted "If you ain't Cav," the knowing vets in the crowd shouted back, "You ain't shit!" He then introduced the Black Keys, who played a straight-forward set of "Howlin' for You," "Fever" and "Lonely Boy."
Next up, Tom Hanks! After the actor paid tribute to two former Marines who volunteered with post-earthquake cleanup in Haiti, George Lopez paid tribute to Latino and Latina veterans, and Carrie Underwood performed in front of "the Singing Sergeants of the U.S. Air Force."
After Underwood's songs of property destruction ("Before He Cheats") and spiritual redemption ("Something in the Water"), Jack Black lightened the mood with jokes about the event and himself. When he directed the crowd to the Concert for Valor website, he reminded, "Don't forget the 'the.' ConcertforValor.com wasn't available." And when he brought out Metallica, he asked that everyone make some noise for "a favorite of our troops – no, not Tenacious D."
In front of a crowd of headbanging veterans and service members, the band played the night's heaviest set, moving from "For Whom the Bell Tolls" to "Master of Puppets" and "Enter Sandman." "We finally get to play for our heroes," James Hetfield said between songs, adding "Freedom isn't free" before leaving the stage to a chant of "U-S-A!"
Michelle Obama then offered a video tribute to Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Cedric King, and ABC anchor Bob Woodruff introduced both the Army Ranger and Bruce Springsteen. The latter came onstage with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, playing "The Promised Land" "as a prayer for our recently returned veterans." Following with "Born in the U.S.A." Springsteen said, "I wrote this 30 years ago – I think it still holds," and played a stirring bluesy slide-guitar version of the often-misunderstood tune about a Vietnam veteran's experiences after returning home."When you leave, take all these men and women home in your hearts," he told the crowd, encouraging them to support veterans groups and noting, "you can't start a fire without a spark." "Dancing in the Dark," as you might have guessed, brought his short set to a close.
After a tribute to another Army Ranger, Leroy Petry, Rihanna, in a sparkly pantsuit and cape, sang "Diamonds" and "Stay," the latter accompanied by videos of military families. Eminem came out to join the Bajan singer for "The Monster" and finished the show with a set of his own.
Jumping onto the stage yelling "Happy motherfucking Veterans Day, D.C.," the rapper was an odd choice to end the otherwise poignant, carefully choreographed event. He dedicated "Not Afraid" to "everyone serving in the armed forces," then went into "Lose Yourself," which in this context seemed to speak to the anxieties and struggles of veterans returning home. Down the stretch, Em's hype-man introduced each member of the extensive band, and then Eminem said thanks and goodnight. It was a strangely sudden and disappointing climax to an evening full of powerful moments.