“What we did last night was unprecedented.”
That’s how Greg Williamson, one of the masterminds behind the charity show Love Rocks NYC, described their latest iteration. Held Thursday (March 12) night at New York’s Beacon Theatre and benefiting the charity God’s Love We Deliver, the all-star concert put in place plans to livestream the proceedings and forgo an audience in the face of New York’s recently announced ban on mass gatherings in the face of the coronavirus.
“To pull off what we pulled off yesterday in the amount of time we shifted gear, it felt like nothing short of a miracle,” says Williamson, still marveling at the production.
Before the ban, Williamson explains that he and co-executive producers, including John Varvatos and Nicole Rechter, first felt they “were going to get in under the wire. The Madison Square Garden company was telling us the show was definitely going to be a go, we had every artist en route or in town and rehearsals were underway.” Those plans quickly changed and with hours to go, infrastructure for a livestream was set up.
The concert, now in its fourth year, boasted a stacked lineup that included Dave Matthews, Chris & Rich Robinson, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Leon Bridges, Warren Haynes and Joss Stone, among others. Despite the unfolding pandemic, none of the originally slated artists pulled out. “Not one single act didn’t show up,” says Williamson. “Nobody was uncomfortable being there. The heart, passion and commitment of the artists is astounding.” Ultimately, the 2020 event raised approximately $3 million.
Playing to a nearly empty theater full of core personnel, the four-hour show included a range of covers, including Stone covering the Janis Joplin classic “Piece of my Heart” and Dave Matthews delivering a spirited rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” With a house band led by music director Will Lee and a lineup including Jimmy Vivino (known for playing guitar in Conan O’Brien’s NBC house bands) and drummer Pedrito Martinez, Matthews also delivered an extended riff on his trademark “Ants Marching.”
“It was an absolutely incredible evening on so many levels, all of the artists showed up to play their hearts out,” said Varvatos. “They not only did that in spades, but they shared so much love with thousands of New Yorkers in need at a very difficult time.”
A highlight for Williamson was the surprise appearance of David Letterman, who joined his former bandleader Paul Shaffer. “It was amazing to see them reunited, especially given everything going on.”
Aside from the absence of an audience, the unfolding crisis was an overarching theme, whether Matthews noting on stage “Don’t listen to the president” or the nod to a possible future of more livestreams courtesy Jackson Browne.
According to Williamson, there was also a historical connection. “This concert celebrated 35 years of the God’s Love, which started with the AIDS epidemic,” he says of the charity which cooks and delivers 2.1 million meals per year to New Yorkers with severe illnesses free of charge, even medically tailoring meals to people with dietary restrictions. “It’s now 35 years later and we’re the middle of another public health crisis and they didn’t shy away and held this concert.” Karen Pearl, the president and CEO of God’s Love We Deliver, noted that the concert is a bright spot. “While this is an uncertain time for New York City, what we saw last night at Love Rocks NYC on stage and through the livestream is what we know: that music and food unite us and we’re all in this together.”
Love Rocks co-executive producer Nicole Rechter shared the same sentiment: “I am overwhelmed with gratitude to every artist and our entire team for the heroic effort in pulling off what will be one of the last live rock n’ roll shows for a while.”