WASHINGTON - Swathed in red, white and blue, tucking miniature American flags into their baseball caps and flaunting "I Love America" stickers on their cut-off T-shirts, thousands filled RFK Stadium yesterday for a marathon concert that united rock stars and fans in a show of solidarity and healing.
Billed as the "United We Stand" benefit concert for Sept. 11 relief and victim funds, the nine-plus-hour long salute featured artists as diverse as Michael Jackson and 'N Sync, Mariah Carey and Carole King. The songs were rousing and heartfelt, like Pink's "My Vietnam," James Brown's rendition of "God Bless America" and King's "So Far Away," dedicated to American troops abroad.
What set this benefit apart from most other outdoor concerts wasn't so much the uplifting messages and rockin' music wafting from the stage on a spectacularly sunny autumn day.
It was the sight of baby boomers in their Ralph Lauren American flag T-shirts, twentysomethings and squealing teen-agers putting aside their anxieties over anthrax and terrorist attacks that have become part of the everyday. It was the image of these disparate groups converging on one concert venue, jiving together to Aerosmith, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Bette Midler - and delivering a proud display of American consumerism by lining up at booths to buy $40 T-shirts and $5 hot dogs.
"I was scared at first [to come] because this is a perfect place for them to bomb us," said Victoria Willard, a 14-year-old from Alexandria, Va., as she danced with her mother, Roxanne, to Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." "But we can't live in fear. Being here puts you in an atmosphere of positivity and enthusiasm."
Victoria's words resonated among the crowd and were often repeated throughout the sold-out concert that drew more than 46,000 and raised in excess of $3 million. Parts of the concert will be televised in a two-hour special on ABC Nov. 1.
Audience and artists alike saw the concert, which took place the day after a similar benefit at New York's Madison Square Garden, as a way for Americans to forget the strife for a moment and, also, to garner strength in this time of war.
"After everything that's taken place, seeing this reminds me that we still have the freedom to get together as individuals from different cultures and appreciate different music," said Rosalinda Robinson, 43, a retired computer librarian from Washington. "There's a great variety of artists, the weather is good and people are getting along. It's a great experience."
The cross-generational vibes could be felt throughout the evening. Beth Sinclair, 37, of Bethesda, brought her 12-year-old daughter Emily to the concert. And while Emily couldn't identify the "Godfather of Soul" (James Brown), she did recognize Carole King, thanks to a recent television ad for GAP jeans that features the '60s era singer-songwriter and her daughter.
Sinclair's husband Mark Morgan, 50, was happy that concert performers "were playing old people music." So delighted that he turned on his cellphone and called his brother in time for him to hear James Brown live.
The Backstreet Boys - two sporting sequined belt buckles shaped like a flag - kicked off the concert with an a cappella version of the "The Star-Spangled Banner." A flashy-jacketed James Brown brought the crowd to its feet when he held his hand over his heart and belted out "God Bless America." And, during Al Green's set, he paused to remind the audience not to let anybody "destroy the American spirit.
"I don't care who they are," he said as people erupted in cheers. "America is the greatest nation on the face of the earth."
As night fell, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs rushed onto the stage and invited the audience to put aside sad thoughts. He called on the crowd to stand and pump their arms into the air in memory of the thousands killed in hijacked planes that plowed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington and a Pennsylvania field.
"We're going to turn this into a party, we're going to celebrate life," said the hip-hop star, who wore Army fatigues, combat boots and a big diamond earring stud.
He then brought down the house with medleys of hits like, "All About the Benjamins" and "Around the World." In closing, he brought out a white-robed gospel choir to accompany him and Faith Evans in "Missing You," a poignant tune performed in the past as a tribute to his slain rapper friend, Notorious B.I.G. As the two sang, clips of the World Trade Center disaster and paratroopers jumping from planes flashed on a giant video screen.
Combs concluded with a military-sharp salute.
Near the end of the concert, Carey, clad in a flared black skirt and what appeared to be nothing more than a carefully taped down scarf, delivered a less than exuberant performance, stepping back from her customary high notes.