Befitting a huge spectacle featuring many of 2014’s biggest pop hitmakers — from Iggy Azalea and Ariana Grande to Taylor Swift and Sia — CBS Radio breast cancer benefit We Can Survive at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl on Friday (Oct. 24) featured many finely produced and expertly polished moments.
There was Swift’s finely choreographed intro and performance of the single “Shake It Off,” a fun-loving and energetic number that impressively saw her dance almost the whole time and end the number standing in place without a single hair mussed. Jennifer Lopez showed up for a guest appearance with Azalea on “Booty,” a crowd favorite that featured an endless array of ass shaking to remind anyone in the crowd who might’ve missed the song’s subtleties and complexities just what “Booty” was about. Azalea again appeared with a charismatic live debut of her new single, “Beg For It,” and Grande overcame admitted technical difficulties, which she spoke of when the camera focused in on her between songs as she worked on her ears (inner ears, not the cat ones she sported), to deliver two outstanding vocal notes that delighted the crowd, and so many more.
As one would expect with a show of this size and scope it was often as well run as the Grammys and the iHeartRadio Music Festival (though it could’ve used more collaborations and Grande performing “Problem” without Azalea in person when both had been on the bill that night felt absurd).
But live music isn’t supposed to be polished, finely coiffed and choreographed — it’s supposed to be human and spontaneous. And as expert and crowd pleasing as the uber-produced moments were, it was the instances of real human emotion that shone brightest on the Bowl stage. Country group Lady Antebellum’s first touching then rousing rendition of “Need You Now,” which featured a huge sing-along, was one of those highlights.
Opener Sia displayed both her vocal prowess and individuality as she performed songs like “Diamonds” and “Chandeliers” with her back to the audience for the entire set — strange, yes, but honest. Another standout moment was Alicia Key’s entire three-song set, as she delivered songs like “Empire State Of Mind” with the same elegance and grace she brings to every performance.
The star of the night was surprise closer Pharrell, something he alluded earlier in the day to when he said, “This is a special moment, I can’t believe we’re the last act on this stage.” Pharrell began the proceedings when he let a couple of hundred fans come in for a “Citi Thank You cardmember experience with Pharrell Williams,” which was a special and intimate look at his soundcheck. After closing that rehearsal with “Happy” he promised, “We’re gonna try a lot harder when we come back out here tonight.”
He was not exaggerating as he returned to close the night with a heartfelt parade of hits that cemented his status right among the top of the pop threshold in 2014.
Passionate as he spoke repeatedly about the night’s cause, helping women in their fight for survival against breast cancer, a battle that is personal to him as he explained he lost both of his grandmother’s to cancer, and utterly entertaining in such hits as “Get Lucky,” “Different,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “Hot In Herre,” he captivated the sold-out throng with both his songs and humility. And as over the top as his praise might have been for special guest Gwen Stefani, who he repeatedly called the queen, first dubbing her the “queen of cool,” it was unquestionably genuine.
Proving there is no substitute for raw emotion he had arguably the night’s peak when, after getting a thunderous ovation that only built as he put his hand to his chest to say thanks, he finally spoke, saying, “So you all made me cry, let’s finish the show.”
That was a moment that could not be planned or rehearsed as no one knew the crowd would embrace Pharrell so vociferously. In some ways, though, that spontaneous ovation was every bit as memorable as the fireworks show that sprouted from the stage during the night’s closing number, “Happy.”
In the end both moments, the rehearsed and the unexpected, were memorable and crowd pleasing, much like the show itself. But the one that genuinely moved people was the human reaction.