WASHINGTON - Addressing a sea of thousands who gathered for a concert yesterday that officially opened his inaugural festivities, President-elect Barack Obama kept it brief.
He let the music do the talking.
"Welcome to the celebration of American renewal," Obama said, succinctly summing up the energy behind the performances on the National Mall by some of the top names in pop music.
The music was interspersed with historical passages read by Hollywood's brightest: Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah and Jamie Foxx among others. But the history lessons didn't dent the momentum of a show energized by optimism and spirituality.
Such songs have been rendered countless times over the years. But the renditions yesterday were invigorated with a strong gospel charge, which was bolstered by mass choirs backing several of the artists.
The bold combination of rock energy and gospel soul worked best during John Mellancamp's performance of his 1983 protest hit, "Pink Houses." Backed by an all-black choir, the arrangement was mostly faithful to the original. But the groove was fatter. And Mellancamp, whose voice is frayed these days but still strong, belted over the powerhouse choir and rocking rhythm section behind him. It was easily the highest-octane performance of the evening.
But Garth Brooks, one of country's most successful artists, came close behind with a choir-backed take on Don McLean's "American Pie." To further invoke the gospel spirit, Brooks convincingly led the young choir and band into "Shout," the Isley Brothers classic and perennial frat-party favorite. But Brooks performed it as if it were a selection from the Holiness Church.
But the rock-gospel marriage didn't work for everybody. Springsteen, for instance, kicked off "We Are One" with a slightly folkish reworking of "The Rising," the inspirational title track from his acclaimed 2002 album. Maybe it was the frigid weather, but the Boss seemed a bit wooden at the mic. And his vocals were almost overwhelmed by the mighty choir behind him. He finally powered through toward the end of the number.
Mary J. Blige, looking chic in cream, infused Bill Withers' "Lean On Me" with a refreshing vocal fervor mostly unheard on her last album. The underrated blues-soul great Bettye LaVette - whose wrenching, scarred approach to everything she sings presages Blige - was incongruously paired with Jon Bon Jovi for Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." His rather colorless voice was no match for LaVette's. She would have devastated the song had she not had to share vocal duties.
But the music wasn't all about braiding strains of gospel and rock. Usher, Shakira and Stevie Wonder briefly brought the funk with a fine take on the Motown legend's 1973 hit "Higher Ground." Sheryl Crow, will.i.am and Herbie Hancock added a touch of reggae to the program with a spirited, hip hop-laced version of Bob Marley's "One Love."
Renee Fleming gave the sole majestic performance of the evening. Her take of "You'll Never Walk Alone," backed by the U.S. Naval Glee Club, was downright glorious. Her agile, full-bodied soprano soared over the oceanic orchestral arrangement of the tune, giving it heft.
Afterward, U2 brought the unfettered rock feel back to show with bright takes on its hits "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "City of Blinding Lights."
After Obama's warm greeting, the show closed with a performance by pop's superdiva, Beyonce. She graciously returned the show to its gospel feel (sans her usual melisma) with "America the Beautiful." A sense of reflective reverence supplanted the earlier rock inflections. All the stars returned to the stage, smiling and bowing. Of course, everything had been rehearsed to the nth degree. But the palpable sense of renewal felt genuine.