A fedora perched on his head and black capri pants high on his calves, Justin Timberlake peered out at the capacity crowd of approximately 40,000 at the University of Virginia’s Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, VA. He and his 14-piece band, The Tennessee Kids, had just performed a fiery version of “Cry Me A River” that had concertgoers on the floor attempting to imitate his slick dance moves. But now JT wanted to make a point.
“As you may or may not know I’m a new dad,” he said, prompting screams from ladies in the mostly white audience. “I just got on a plane from Nashville and kissed my son goodbye. I know that 15, 20, 30 years from now he’s going to see this somewhere, and he’s going to remember, and you’re going to remember. So give yourselves a round of applause for making history. This is what unity does.”
If, later in his life, young Silas Randall Timberlake does happen across footage of his father at the Concert for Charlottesville, the night of ‘Music and Unity’ that Dave Matthews, Matthews’ manager Coran Capshaw and Live Nation put together in the wake of deadly August riots there by white nationalists, he will almost certainly swell with pride (save, perhaps, for dad’s choice of pants). In a night of stellar performances by Cage The Elephant (the first band to volunteer for the event), Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland of Coldplay, Chris Stapleton, The Roots with Bilal and Brittany Howard, Pharrell Williams, Ariana Grande and the Dave Matthews Band — with and without surprise guest star Stevie Wonder — Justin Timberlake owned the night.
JT’s set showcased his impressive musical range and tastes, beginning with a soulful cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” followed by “Drink You Away” and “Suit & Tie.” By mid-set, he was a human DJ, slipping in verses of JAY-Z’s “Holy Grail” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” during his performance of “Cry Me A River,” segueing into Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” during “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” and even beginning “SexyBack” with Rock Master Scott and The Dynamic Three’s “The Roof Is On Fire.”
Those wouldn’t be the only throwbacks. Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, backed by The Roots, performed a taut version of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” that was one of the highlights of the day, and a much looser cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” The formidable Tonight Show band, this time with Bilal and MC Black Thought on vocals, performed their ferocious take on racial divisiveness, “It Ain’t Fair,” from the film Detroit.
During a weekend when President Donald Trump added more countries to his travel ban and kicked up a media storm by denouncing NFL players who protested the National Anthem by kneeling or sitting, the concert could have been peppered with diatribes against the president and his white-supremacist supporters, but the artists who took the stage mostly let the music do the talking with songs that hearkened back to the fight for Civil Rights in the turbulent ‘60s, or with songs that acknowledged life and the world are fucked up without giving up hope. Matthews set the tone at the start of the show when he walked onstage alone with his acoustic guitar to perform “Mercy.”
“Don’t give up, I know you can see/All the world and the mess that we’re making/Can’t give up and hope that God will intercede/Come on back, imagine that we could get it together/Stand up for what we need to be.”
Matthews then brought out Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed while protesting against the white nationalists who besieged Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12. “Sing your hearts out,” she told the crowd. “Feel the music and fill the void left by those we have lost. I will be right here with Heather singing.”
And that’s what Grande, Stapleton, Pharrell and especially Matthews, who not only organized the event in a little over a month but had the difficult task of following Timberlake, did. He and his band turned in a visceral set that included “Don’t Drink The Water” and “You Might Die Trying.”
“If you give, you begin to live,” Matthews sings repeatedly at the end of the song, and it should be noted that he, along with Martin, Grande and Wonder, have become familiar faces at concerts that benefit the disenfranchised and disaster-struck — whether it was Matthews Stand with Standing Rock concert in November 2016, Grande’s One Love Manchester concert or the Hand in Hand hurricane relief telethon in the aftermath of Harvey.
Given the political and racial turmoil of the past year and nature’s recent vengeful whims, more of music’s finest will be needed to answer the call.