In any year, the line-up assembled for Global Citizen’s Vax Live concert – filmed on Sunday night to be televised next weekend – would be an impressive one: performances from Jennifer Lopez, Foo Fighters, J Balvin, Eddie Vedder and HER interspersed with speeches from Prince Harry, Selena Gomez, Ben Affleck, Jimmy Kimmel, Chrissy Teigen and David Letterman. In May 2021, it represents something even more significant: the first time live music has been played in front of a mass audience in LA County since the outbreak of the pandemic in March last year.
If you were looking for an ideal venue to signify a fresh beginning, the SoFi Stadium in Inglewood would be it. The $5bn new home for Los Angeles’ NFL teams the Rams and the Chargers had been scheduled to open last July with a pair of Taylor Swift concerts. After the pandemic put paid to those best-laid plans, the stadium finally opened for NFL games in September but as yet, they’ve all taken place behind closed doors. That made Vax Live’s invited audience of 27,000 key frontline workers – a fraction of the 70,000 capacity – the first crowd to ever enter the suitably futuristic stadium, which resembles a giant stainless-steel cross-section of an internet router. As Letterman put it from the stage: “Honest to God, I’ve never been in a spaceport before. You could play football in here!”
On arrival, audience members – many of whom wore hospital scrubs – were asked to provide evidence that they’d already been fully vaccinated. Inside masks were universally worn by everyone bar the performers on stage, and social distancing was maintained with pairs of empty seats separating each family group. Still not quite a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, then, but when Sean Penn introduced Eddie Vedder for the first performance of the night the atmosphere immediately started to feel a little more familiar. Vedder blasted through full-throttle renditions of his band Pearl Jam’s “Corduroy” and a cover of Little Steven’s “I Am a Patriot”, assisted by former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. “Holy f***! This is a feeling we haven’t had for quite some time,” Vedder told the crowd. “You look good, and it’s not just your uniforms.”
Vedder went on to address world leaders and pharmaceutical companies directly: “If you’re a government and you have vaccines, please don’t stockpile it.” To drug companies, he added: “If you really want to be heroes it would be great if you could distribute this vaccine at no cost.” His speech set the tone for a night with three stated intentions: to thank essential workers for their service during the pandemic, to quash vaccine hesitancy among Americans, and to call on those in power to ensure that vaccines are rolled out globally and equitably.
That message was repeated not just by those present in the stadium, but also by a roll-call of high-profile video messages. Pope Francis appeared on the big screen to encourage vaccination, after self-deprecatingly admitting to the night’s performers that he does not “sing and dance as you do.” President Joe Biden also appeared on screen alongside his wife Dr Jill Biden, emphasising over and again that the vaccine is safe. “Every person who gets vaccinated is giving us those moments back that we’ve missed,” said Dr Biden, whose opening remarks were almost drowned out by roars of support from the audience.
The biggest spontaneous standing ovation, however, was reserved for the in-person appearance of Prince Harry on the Vax Live stage. He addressed the audience twice – first calling on people to commit to their “shared humanity” and emphasising: “The vaccine must be distributed to everyone everywhere.” In his second speech, he took aim at the spread of false information which is deterring some Americans from getting vaccinated. He called online misinformation a “global humanitarian crisis”, and added that as vaccination slows the spread of the virus: “Misinformation is not simply harming those who believe it, but also those who don’t.”
While much of the night had the stop-start feel of an event primarily designed for the eventual televised audience, it was left to Foo Fighters to raise theSoFi’s stadium’s hi-tech roof. Their six-song set was the longest and loudest of the night, with frontman Dave Grohl visibly moved to be back performing in front of a live audience for the first time in over a year. He dedicated the band’s 1997 single “My Hero” to the assembled frontline workers, while the high point of their set arrived with the surprise guest appearance of AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson who joined the band to perform “Back in Black”. It’s hard to imagine any event in musical history that wouldn’t have been improved by Brian Johnson coming out to sing “Back in Black”.
On any other night that would have been the highlight, but it was Jennifer Lopez who provided Vax Live’s most surreal and memorable moment. On a stage set surrounded by flowers, reeds and rushes, Lopez explained to the crowd that the pandemic had meant she had missed out on Christmas with her mother for the first time in her life. To celebrate being reunited with her – and them both now being vaccinated – she chose to cover a song her mother Lupe had once used as a lullaby: Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”. It was an unexpected decision but one that felt heartfelt and touching, one of those unique moments that only live music can produce. Midway through the song Lopez brought her mum onstage to join her, changing the lyrics to the ones she remembered from her childhood.
Whether Vax Live lives up to its billing as “The concert to reunite the world” remains to be seen, but after 14 months without live music it was enough to hear Lopez uniting the thousands inside theSoFi stadium in one voice, singing: “Sweet Jennifer… bom, bom, bom”.