From Paris to Beirut to Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, 2015 has been a year defined by violent tragedy. Last night at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Bruce Springsteen, John Legend, Jill Scott and others performed songs of hope and despair, contemplating this ongoing era of mass shootings and Black Lives Matter.
The performances were taped for Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America, a two-hour special and fundraiser airing on various A+E Networks (A&E, History, Lifetime, FYI, LMN, H2) on November 20th at 8/7c. It pulled few punches, opening with Springsteen performing his “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song written after the 1999 New York police shooting of Amadou Diallo, who was unarmed.
“It ain’t no secret my friend,” Springsteen sang, as footage from the funerals of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray flashed on the screen. “You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”
The song began with waves of solemn organ, then erupted to the beats of drummer Max Weinberg and a fiery, elegant solo from sometime E Streeter Tom Morello. Springsteen was joined on lead vocals by Legend, as a vocal chorus added rich, emotional harmonies.
The night was meant as a plea for unity and peace in reaction to the recent series of police shootings of young African Americans, and to the June 17th massacre of churchgoers at Mother Emanuel allegedly by a young white supremacist. Decorating the stage was a tall church steeple. The money raised will go to the Fund for Progress on Race in America (affiliated with United Way Worldwide).
“Tonight is a celebration,” show producer Ken Ehrlich told the full 6,300-capacity room just before the show began. “It’s a celebration of hope. It’s a celebration of humanity.”
More than anything, the event was a TV taping, which usually means a less satisfying live concert experience for fans in the room, with many pauses between performances. But some of the night’s artists easily overpowered that hurdle, including Sting and Sia.
First among those was Jill Scott, who offered a searing take on “Strange Fruit,” the 1939 anti-lynching song made famous by Billie Holiday. The ballad was stark and dramatic on piano as Scott wailed at centerstage, the big screen behind her slowly revealing vintage images of black men hanging from the trees.
Ed Sheeran’s hopeful reading of “People Get Ready” couldn’t carry that kind of weight, but was fittingly warm as he bounced with a guitar behind the mic. Smokey Robinson joined Eric Church for “Kill a Word,” and Jamie Foxx dug deep into the spiritual on the modern gospel tune “No Weapon.”
At the Shrine, Legend sat at a grand piano to sing a duet with Pink on the optimistic Donny Hathaway ballad “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” The Zac Brown Band performed “Remedy,” from this year’s Jekyll + Hyde album, with fiddle, sax and three guitars. “We can break these chains that we’ve been handed,” sang the bearded bandleader.
Virtually every song was introduced by a celebrity (Morgan Freeman, Nicki Minaj, George Lopez, Pharrell), and ended with a standing ovation. Between songs were short documentary pieces with footage of artists visiting places of racial conflicts past and present. Alicia Keys was shown meeting with mothers in Baltimore, Pharrell leading the choir at Mother Emanuel on his hit “Freedom” and walking through a historic slave market in South Carolina. Legend is seen in Ferguson talking to wives of embattled police officers.
Smokey Robinson introduced Sting, who delivered another one of the night’s peak moments with his wounded, emotional “Fragile,” plucking an acoustic guitar. The closing song was “One Man Can Change the World,” performed by Big Sean and Legend, as the images of historic African Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr., Shirley Chisholm, Harriet Tubman and Marvin Gaye appeared on the screen.
The artists gathered at the Shining a Light taping were clearly aiming to inspire a little of that kind of heroism for another troubled time.