“It’s taken quite a lot to come here today,” said Alison Davies, from Warrington. Davies had attended Grande's Manchester Arena show with her daughter Isla, 13, and Isla's friend India, 12, and -- two weeks on -- still has her arm in a sling, having fallen and broken her shoulder in the aftermath of May 22’s bomb blast.
All three were at the One Love Manchester show, although Davies admitted that news of Saturday’s London terror attack had made her seriously question whether or not to make the journey. “The news this morning brought it all back and up until four o’clock [this afternoon] I was adamant I didn’t want to come,” she told Billboard inside the venue. It was only the girls' enthusiasm to see Grande and the all-star cast of artists the singer had assembled for the show that convinced her, said Davies.
"We came back tonight to be brave and show we are brave," said another teary-eyed mother who'd been at the May 22 concert with her daughter and asked not to be named.
Others said they’d wanted to come to show their resilience, as well as enjoy the A-list line up that had been assembled in Manchester for one of the biggest gigs in the city's history.
“I was a bit apprehensive this morning after last night’s news, but you’ve got to live your life and you can’t let them [terrorists] win,” said Kimberley Temple, attending the show with her two daughters.
“We really want to come and support the charity," agreed Fran Nelson, there with her 10 year-old daughter Rose. "You’ve got to keep going and you can’t be scared."
The same message of defiance, compassion and unity was echoed throughout the three-hour-plus show, which began with a poignant address by Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham and the Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, pledging solidarity with the city of London, before leading a minute’s silence in honor of those who had lost their lives.
Manchester-based poet Tony Walsh followed with a reprisal of his now-iconic tribute to the city, "This Is the Place" -- which he had memorably performed at a vigil for victims of the bombing -- before Marcus Mumford officially got the show started with an impassioned solo acoustic run through “Timshel.”
Next up was Take That, whose rousing three-song set (“Shine,” “Giants” and “Rule the World”) initiated the celebratory party atmosphere that was to dominate the show, with Robbie Williams’ “Angels,” Niall Horan’s “This Town” and a jubilant rendition of "Happy" by Pharrell Williams and Miley Cyrus among the early highlights as the sun shone down on Manchester and 50,000 people -- many wearing “I heart MCR” t-shirts, face paint and Ariana Grande bunny ears -- enthusiastically danced, hugged and sung along.
Among the celebrations there were, however, somber reflections on the tragic events that had brought about the concert.
“It's not easy to always choose love, especially in moments like these,” Katy Perry told the audience before singing “Part of Me” and a chest-beatingly defiant “Roar.”
Justin Bieber also gave an emotional speech, with his voice audibly cracking as he paid tribute to those that had lost their lives. “God is good in the midst of the darkness. God is good in the midst of the evil. God is in the midst no matter what is happening in the world,” declared the singer, who said he was “not going to let go of hope.”
“Last night this nation was challenged and all of you were challenged, and you had a decision to make about if you were going to come out here tonight,” said Grande and Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun in a heartfelt and well-received mid-concert address. “You guys made that decision. You looked fear right in the face and said, ‘No, we are Manchester and the world is watching.'
“Manchester, your bravery is our hope," Braun continued. "You joining us here today, with so many watching around the world, sends that message spoken by Olivia Campbell’s mother Charlotte that her daughter and all the others lost will never be victims. Hatred will never win. Fear will never divide us. And on this day, we all stood with Manchester,” he declared before introducing a visibly affected Grande to thunderous applause from the audience.
From that point on, Grande was a near-constant presence on stage, dueting with Cyrus, Victoria Monet, Black Eyed Peas, her boyfriend Mac Miller and, in one particularly moving moment, a local school choir, putting her arm around soloist Natasha Seth when the 12-year-old became overcome with emotion.
Grande, wearing a white ‘One Love Manchester’ sweatshirt -- watched from the stands by her brother Frankie -- also delighted her fans (including around 14,000 who had been at the Manchester Arena show and received free tickets for the concert) with her solo hits “Be Alright,” "Side to Side," “Break Free” and “Love Me Harder.”
Other highlights from the show, which was broadcast live in almost 40 countries and streamed globally on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and by MTV and Apple Music, included Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland serenading Grande with a cover of Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” and a previously-unannounced appearance from former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, who performed a rousing “Live Forever” alongside Chris Martin “dedicated to the beautiful people killed and injured in the Manchester terror attack.”
As the night drew to a close, Grande was joined onstage by the night’s other artists for a stirring performance of “One Last Time,” which drew the singer to tears. "Manchester, I love you so much," she told the audience to huge cheers, before delivering a poignant closing cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”