Had it been organized for any other occasion, Friday night's "America: A Tribute to Heroes" would have been just another star-studded extravaganza. But even the return of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, new songs from the Dixie Chicks and Bruce Springsteen and a phone bank stocked with Hollywood's A-list couldn't distract from the task at hand: to honor the thousands who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks, to raise money for victims' families and to strengthen America's resolve to transcend the tragedy.
Glitz, glamour and ego were put on hold for the evening. Nearly all of the performers wore black, and the stages were lit with hundreds of candles and subdued red and blue lights. And rather than promote their latest hits, the performers chose songs that reflected on loss, called for love and celebrated the human spirit.
Springsteen opened the show, which was televised on 31 broadcast and cable networks, with "My City of Ruins," a song he introduced as "a prayer for our fallen brothers and sisters." Playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, and supported by backup singers including E Street Band members Steven Van Zandt, Patti Scialfa and Clarence Clemons, Springsteen delivered the gospel-tinged tune "My City of Ruins" which until Friday he'd played only at several small shows in New Jersey as a call for spiritual strength through the repeated line, "Come on, rise up."
Actors including Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Jim Carrey spoke between songs but didn't introduce the performers. "We are not heroes. We are not healers or protectors," said Hanks, and others echoed his sentiments, relaying anecdotes about the missing, the survivors and the rescue workers whose task continues.
Stevie Wonder introduced his song "Love's in Need of Love Today" by saying, "When you kill in the name of God or Allah, you are cursing God," and Sting dedicated "Fragile" to a friend missing after the calamity. Most of the artists, though, simply let their music do the talking. Mariah Carey sang a subdued version of "Hero," while Paul Simon wearing a New York Fire Department baseball cap delivered an eerie version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
Country crossover stars the Dixie Chicks played a new song, "I Believe in Love," while Goo Goo Doll Johnny Rzeznik joined Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst and Wes Borland for an acoustic version of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." Billy Joel sang his classic homage to the Big Apple, "New York State of Mind," with a New York firefighter's hat on his piano, and Wyclef Jean delivered one of the few musically upbeat moments of the evening, conveying hope through Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."
Somber performances predominated, however. Neil Young appeared close to tears during his rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" and later joined Pearl Jam's Ed Vedder and Mike McCready for "The Long Road," an Arabic-flavored tune Vedder originally recorded for the film "Dead Man Walking" with the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Boxer Muhammad Ali stood alongside Will Smith, who portrays him in an upcoming movie, and spoke up for the Islamic faith.
"I wouldn't be here representing Islam if it were terrorist," Ali said. "I think all people should know the truth, come to recognize the truth. Islam is peace."
Even Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," which radio has played frequently as a testament to strength and resolve, was quieter than usual, with guitarist Mike Campbell laying down ethereal lines as Petty sang "I'll stand my ground" and "There ain't no easy way out."
The show, which was broadcast live from undisclosed locations in New York, Los Angeles and London, ended with two patriotic tunes. Celine Dion, who's been on hiatus since 1999, sang "God Bless America" and Willie Nelson led a cast of musicians and actors singing "America the Beautiful."
Though the event was organized to raise money for victims' families and relief efforts, and contributions to the United Way's September 11 Telethon Fund are still being accepted at www.tributetoheroes.org, many actors called for something money can't buy.
"Life is so precious. Please, please, let's love one another," said a choked-up Julia Roberts. "Reach out to each other. Be kind to each other. Peace be with you. God is great."
For more information on and audience reaction to the attacks, including tips on how you can help, see "9.11.01: Moving Forward."