“This is a rock concert!” Dave Grohl kept repeating, over and over, with and without the F-word inserted, at Sunday night’s filming of Global Citizen’s “Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World” at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. Some of the other participants might have begged to differ on the exact genre classification — not-such-hard rockers Jennifer Lopez and J Balvin were among those sharing the bill — but the basic sentiment was widely shared: Stadium-sized entertainment is back. In pastels, bright colors or black.
The latter shade was born out during Foo Fighters’ climactic six-song set, when Grohl brought out AC/DC’s Brian Johnson as an unannounced guest to sing “Back in Black.” Given the options, it was a much more appropriate choice than “Highway to Hell” for a show partially celebrating lights at ends of tunnels … although the latter might have fit the telecast’s aim to put a spotlight on woefully under-vaccinated nations that are still suffering from hellish COVID conditions.
Speaking to a deliberately far-less-than-capacity crowd of 25,000 made up largely of fully vaccinated frontline workers, Grohl shared his puppy-ish enthusiasm to make shows of this size the new re-normal. “I’m so thankful that you guys could be here to share that with us,” he told the crowd, many of whom in the front rows were wearing their paramedic or police uniforms or hospital scrubs. “We ain’t out of the woods tet, but let me tell you, I am a firm believer in the idea that music should be shared with people, all right? So let’s work as hard as we can to make sure that we can do this every fucking night for the rest of our lives.”
The show was being recorded for an hour-long special to air this Saturday on ABC, CBS and Fox (with a 90-minute extended mix on YouTube). Selena Gomez acted as host for a lengthy taping that also included a live performance by Eddie Vedder, the showing of a number recorded two nights earlier in the parking lot by H.E.R., and appearances on stage by Prince Harry, David Letterman, the combination of Ben Affleck and Jimmy Kimmel, Chrissy Teigen, Nomzamo Mbatha, Olivia Munn, Sean Penn and others.
Each of the live performers got more than one number, but Lopez was the only one to merit two separate setups. First, a complete forest was constructed for her on stage, for a rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” that led to an unannounced cameo by… no, not Brian Johnson, but her mother, Guadalupe Rodriguez. They’d had to spend Christmas apart because of quarantine, Lopez explained, but “she’s here tonight with me and she’s vaccinated.” The Diamond perennial, she explained, was “the song she always used to sing to me when I was a baby. So if you will indulge me, I would love to sing that one tonight.” It eventually morphed into the actual childhood lyric, “Sweet Jennifer.” Later in the filming, Lopez retook the stage in a less demure outfit with a phalanx of dancers replacing mom.
Affleck and Kimmel took the stage as Affleck-and-Robin. “I said wear a suit,” Affleck mock-protested, looking at the late night host’s tights. “Yeah, I’m wearing my suit, and you’re not wearing your suit,” Kimmel retorted.
The show kicked off with Vedder leading a band that included Josh Klinghoffer, formerly of Red Hot Chili Peppers, striking some wide-stance poses as they sped through two numbers at least as thrashy as anything Pearl Jam could have managed, including a punked-up cover of Little Steven’s 1984 anthem “I Am a Patriot.”
The purpose of the show was two-fold, as Prince Harry reminded the crowd the two times he appeared on stage, once to introduce a clip about worsening pandemic conditions in India and another to kick off a video about Africa. Global Citizen is using the special to advocate for governments and medical leaders in countries that are already well-vaccinated to make it available in more desperate nations, especially for frontline workers. “As long as other nations struggle with COVID-19, we all struggle with it,” Harry said. He also addressed the event’s other goal — to work to overcome vaccine hesitancy at home. “Misinformation is not simply harming those who believe it, but those who don’t,” he said, “We must tackle each of thes issues head on: vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.”
The prince added that more vaccinated nations cannot “be comfortable with thinking that we can be fine when so many others are suffering. … What we do in this moment will stand in history. And tonight we stand in solidarity with the millions of families across India who are facing a devastating second wave.”
Said Gomez in her hosting duties, “Our goal was to call on leaders to find dollars and doses to make vaccines available everywhere.” She said the money already raised through the event from corporations like Cisco and Coca-Cola made it possible to “share millions of vaccines with frontline health workers in the poorest nations, but we need more governments, including all nations from the G7, to step up and commit to sharing vaccines.”
Letterman was making a rare appearance at a public event (although he did make repeat quips about having just been at the Kentucky Derby). “You know me from TikTok,” he told the crowd.
Gesturing to the wrap-around enclosure of the still-rarely-seen SoFi Stadium, he said, “This is amazing — the show, the evening, the cause. But honest to God, I’ve never been in a space port before. This is unbelievable. You could play football in this place.”
“Earlier tonight, my hand to God,” he added, “the guy in the parking lot vaccinated my beard. That’s a true story.”
On a more serious level, Letterman said, “Like a lot of people for the last year, my family and I have been hiding, and it was because we didn’t know what to do but hide. And while we were hiding, frontline workers became the frontline workers that eventually made it safe for us to come out.”
“If you think about it, a vaccine produced in about a year, that’s amazing. Listen to this. By comparison, I was talking to a guy from Taco Bell the other night at the Kentucky Derby. He said, ‘It’s taken us two years to develop the Doritos Logos Tacos. Two years!’ And he said, ‘We’re having a lot of trouble with the side effects on that.’”
His ostensible purpose was to introduce Grohl and company, saying, “When I used to be in show business, I made some friends. … They helped me remember two important moments in my life. They were the first on the show after I had open heart surgery… They were also nice enough to come and be guests on my last show, and they were on many, many times in between. Young, personal, eager to perform, fully vaccinated — Foo Fighters!”
Lopez’s two settings might have seemed to be the most spectacular, but Balvin gave her a run for her money with a half-moon set — assembled at some length during a break — that he and a half dozen dancers emerged out and periodically back into, garnering a reaction that made it clear that he might have been the “rock star” of the night, for many in attendance.
Video messages appeared on the super-wide screen behind the stage periodically during the evening from luminaries ranging from the Pope to President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, with many other world leaders represented.
“Tonight is a call to action,” said Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans. “We need to open up vaccine hesitancy (in the U.S.), and we need to demand equitable distribution and access to live-saving COVID vaccines all around the world.”
Gomez announced that the moneys already raised through Global Citizen prior to the evening (with lobbying from some of the stars, including herself) meant that “more than 10 million doses will be purchased” for nations that are far behind in the struggle, even as billions are still needed to get across the global finish line.