Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Foo Fighters, The Black Keys, Band of Horses, and K’naan – all playing in Central Park for free. The catch was that you had to win a lottery. You did this by reposting or retweeting links from various global poverty and rights organizations. Amazingly, all three of us (rtb, violaleeblue, and me) won two tickets each. Unsurprisingly, rtb and violaleeblue found someone for their extra tickets (mollyT and Mrs. Devereaux) and I could not. I did manage to give it away via craigslist. I also sold my ticket for the David Byrne / St. Vincent show for the same night at Williamsburg Park, which wasn’t easy since that show wasn’t sold out.
We got there a little after 2:00pm for a 5:00pm show – Global Citizen had sent out emails with warnings to get there early because people would be camped out overnight. Despite not camping out we were still part of the first thousand (of the 60,000) and we had a pretty good view.
The sky was gray all day with occasional glimpses of the sun. When I woke up and looked out the window I told myself that the sun hates poor people. The ground was wet from the rain the night before but I was ready – I used my plastic rain poncho under my towel.
Like so many other progressive organizations there were a ton of rules. The list of prohibited items included the usual (no weapons, no drugs, only empty plastic bottles) and the unusual (no picnic blankets, no beach towels of a specific size). It also stated no picnic baskets and no coolers and specified no liquids but did not specify no food. So we thought we were welcome to bring food. I made arroz con pollo and a salad, mollyT brought snacks, Mrs. Devereaux brought fruit salad, violaleeblue brought dessert, and rtb brought plates and plasticware.
And then the 60,000 were confronted with a list of prohibited items at the entrance, which included no food.
This, of course, didn’t stop anyone from trying. The walk into the Great Lawn was long and there were stops along the way for crowd control. mollyT brought out a cheese plate and crackers and we all enjoyed ourselves. When we got to the first security checkpoint violaleeblue was still holding the cheese plate and crackers. The security guy told her, “You gotta work with me here. I won’t check your bag for food but you’re killing me by carrying the food out in the open.” He worked with violaleeblue to get the plastic back on the plate while we were all laughing and holding up the line. The plate went under my towel in my bag and then we realized she still had the crackers box in her hand and I just threw that on top of my bag. The next security checkpoint was not so easy. In the garbage cans I could see tons of food and even a picnic blanket and a yoga mat.
Which brings to mind the question that everyone there was thinking – this festival is to raise awareness of various organizations that fight global poverty. Why couldn’t the unopened food be taken to a food bank?
At the second security checkpoint the guard was yelling about how the first checkpoint was letting all this food through. He spied violaleeblue’s plastic bag (which we had forgotten about in our earlier rush) and into the garbage went a bag of cupcakes. He didn’t see the crackers sticking out of my bag otherwise my food would have met the same fate.
Lucky for us, violaleeblue had back-up dessert in her bag.
Entering the Great Lawn we could see that they had divided it into pens. We were in pen #2, which was upfront and center to stage left. Center to stage right was the VIP section, so we had the same view as them without paying any money. We also saw people with sheets and one woman with a chair. Next to us were two guys who were carrying binoculars that actually contained Jack Daniels. A lot of prohibited items were getting through.
Next surprise was that the water stations weren’t working. So your alternative was to buy a $4 bottle of water. Since they weren’t expecting people to be buying water there was only one line. violaleeblue was gone for an hour standing on that line to get us water.
While we waited, we ate and talked and read. The time went by quickly. It was 3:00pm by the time we were settled and the speeches started after 4:30pm. First celebrity was Katie Couric.
You may see a little problem there. The stage design didn’t take into account people who were not sitting center stage. So the big screen in back was a partially blocked view. The screens at the side were stage height so when everyone was standing it was as difficult to see the screens as it was to see the performers on stage (at least for short people like me).
Petra Nemcova was the first of several supermodels who spoke. Later in the day we were commenting on the number of supermodels and my thought was, “Who would know more about hunger than supermodels?” Other celebrity speakers included Olivia Wilde, Archie Punjabi, Selena Gomez, and Sophia Bush.
There was a short speech and then a performance film by Beyonce. And then K’naan (whose name I kept pronouncing as if it were Klingon). K’naan is a Somali-Canadian singer/rapper. He only did three songs. The last one was “Wavin’ Flag,” which he said was a very personal song that through its popularity now belonged to everyone but he was taking it back as a personal song. You could hear the emotion in his voice.
Band of Horses also played a short set with only four songs. They came out rocking for their first two songs and then Ben Bridwell told the crowd they were going to do slow songs. Bridwell was overcome with being at the show and performing on the same stage as Neil Young. The side screen showed a view from the stage and it was an incredible view of 60,000 people with the Central Park trees around them and the skyline behind them. Songs in their set included “The Great Salt Lake” and “No One’s Gonna Love You.”
Our next surprise was an appearance by John Legend and his version of “Imagine.”
There were awards and stories about several people who have been working very hard to fight poverty (both its causes and results) around the world. There was the Haitian soccer player who has a prosthetic leg and hopes to make the Haitian Olympic soccer team. Urmi Basu, who runs an Indian organization (Half the Sky) to educate and shelter girls and women who are at high risk in red-light districts. Edna Adan from Somaliland, who trained as a midwife in the UK and then went back to her country to train other women and build birthing centers, which have lowered the by 75% the deaths by childbirth. There was the Canadian Rotarian who contracted polio as infant in India and was adopted by a Yukon couple and now he works to eradicate polio. There was an unintentional funny moment when Sophia Bush introduced a woman who is working to build schools worldwide and when the older woman got her chance to speak she said, “Thank you, Sonya” and Mrs. Devereaux started riffing on the old woman shoving young Sophia out of the way and declaring this to be her moment and I was cracking up.
The Black Keys were the first headlining band with a full non-headliner’s festival set. (That sentence makes sense if you think about it.) Dan Auerbach seemed awed by the experience and got increasingly pumped up by the crowd’s reactions to the band. “Broken Heart is Blind” was a highlight. They also performed “Money Maker,” “Howlin’ For You,” and ended with “I Got Mine.”
Dave Grohl came out alone to start a quiet version of “Times Like These” and then the rest of the Foo Fighters joined him for a riotous finish. Dave, as always, looked so thrilled to be there. He also must have the whitest and biggest teeth of anyone in rock and roll (with drummer Taylor Hawkins a close second). The band played “My Hero” and “All My Life” with the audience singing along to every word. He howled “Heeeeeeeeeeeey” and we howled back. They also played “Learn to Fly,” “Walk,” “Best of You,” and “Arlandria.”
At this point a lot of the crowd left. There was a lot of talk from the stage about how these organizations needed young people like us – and I kept shouting out, “What about us old people!” – and a lot of the young people did not stick around for the best of the night.
Neil Young with Crazy Horse proved himself the rock god/icon/legend that he is with his guitar playing and use of feedback and distortion to make these incredible sounds. They began with “Love and Only Love” and “Powderfinger.” One of my hopes was that we’d get to hear “Needle and the Damage Done” but I didn’t think it was possible and then the old acoustic came out and I heard the opening chords and screamed with joy. He also played a new song, “Twisted Road” on the acoustic. Another new song was “Born in Ontario” and it looks like Neil is indulging in some nostalgia. “Walk Like a Giant” ended with the Neil’s guitar stomping over and over like a giant onstage.
And then Neil invited everyone up for “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Dave Grohl and Dan Auerbach were on either side of Neil playing guitar and having the time of their lives. Everyone else was singing the chorus. It was an incredible ending to an absolutely incredible day.
By Carene Lydia Lopez