When the Who Ruled ‘The Concert for New York City’
Paul McCartney might have been the driving force behind The Concert for New York City (as well as the epic show’s headliner), but it’s the Who’s unbridled performance that remains the brightest highlight for people who attended or watched that night.
Thirty years after his Beatles bandmate George Harrison had organized the Concert for Bangladesh in the same place, Madison Square Garden, McCartney planned a similar event – this time for a cause that was closer to home. The charity event took place Oct. 20, 2001, 39 days following the attacks of Sept. 11, when the ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering and bodies continued to be pulled from the rubble. Broadcast live on VH1, the concert raised money for the Robin Hood Foundation while also serving as a huge thank you to 9/11 first responders. The crowd was packed with New York City police and firefighters, who were allowed free entry – and beer – by way of their uniforms.
The night was heavy on classic rockers, particularly those who had been McCartney’s friends and contemporaries for decades: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Elton John, James Taylor and many more. Other acts included Bon Jovi, John Mellencamp, Jay-Z and Adam Sandler as “Operaman.”
There were many memorable moments, from Bowie’s tender cover of “America,” which opened the show, to Jagger and Richards’s “Salt of the Earth,” which toasted N.Y.C.’s finest, to Joel’s apocalyptic “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” which Joel followed by saying, “I wrote that song 25 years ago. I thought it was gonna be a science-fiction song. I never thought it would really happen. But unlike the end of that song, we ain’t going anywhere!”
McCartney closed the show with a run of Beatles classics (“I’m Down,” “Yesterday” and “Let It Be”) along with a new song, which he’d written just after the terrorist attacks called “Freedom.” “That’s one thing these people don’t understand that’s worth fighting for,” Macca said before debuting the stomp-along tune.
But it was the Who – appearing midway through the evening’s five-hour-plus run of music, comedy and filmed tributes to New York – who provided nearly 30 minutes of catharsis for an arena filled with people who seemed so desperate to enjoy this release of energy. The crowd roared with Pete Townshend’s first windmill, drowned out the “teenage wasteland” interlude in “Baba O’Riley” and roared throughout “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” working itself into a frenzy as the band’s four-song set concluded before a screen where the Union Jack was flanked by the Stars and Stripes. Before the Who left the stage, Roger Daltrey said, “We could never follow what you did,” but the raucous audience apparently disagreed.
The Who’s participation in the Concert for New York City was a big moment for the band, perceived as a “comeback” by some and showing others that the band was still capable of muscular, anthemic performances, despite being in their fifties. Sadly, it would also mark the last time the band performed in the U.S. with John Entwistle. The band’s founding bassist died in 2002.
Seven years later, when Townshend and Daltrey were celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors, a chorus of New York police officers and firefighters joined Rob Thomas to sing the end of “Baba O’Riley.” It was an act of gratitude for members of the Who, who had provided a little light in a dark time.
The Concert for New York City raised more than $35 million for 9/11 victims and their families through ticket sales and charity auctions, as well as from the sales of a CD and DVD of the show. It wasn’t the only musical performance following Sept. 11, but it was the most celebratory.
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