Trump concert draws excited fans to lower-wattage line-up

People attend the Make America Great Again Welcome Celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on Jan 19, 2017.
People attend the Make America Great Again Welcome Celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on Jan 19, 2017.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
People attend the Make America Great Again Welcome Celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on Jan 19, 2017.
People attend the Make America Great Again Welcome Celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on Jan 19, 2017.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON (NEW YORK TIMES) - No Beyonce. No Jon Bon Jovi. No U2. But no matter: For many of the hundreds gathering at the Lincoln Memorial on Thursday (Jan 19) afternoon for the pre-inaugural concert, the artists in the line-up were secondary to the chance to celebrate the coming presidency of Donald Trump.

And besides, several concertgoers said, if celebrity performers didn't support Mr Trump, there was no need for them to be here.

Standing by the memorial's Reflecting Pool a few hours before the show, Mr John Stephan, a 62-year-old retired banker, said he left California on Tuesday to be part of the festivities and snagged a ticket to the concert at the last minute. Calling himself a Trump supporter since "Day 1", he said he and his wife felt that after attending rallies and watching the televised debates, it would have been wrong to be at home.

"We thought: 'You know what? Let's end this story and go to the inauguration,'" he said.

As for the various entertainers who had snubbed the concert - or even said yes and then backpedaled - he was dismissive.

"I think it's sad when anybody says, you know, 'My opinion of a person's more important than let's-just-get-the-country-going,'" he said.

There has never been a president crossing over so directly from the pop-culture world as Mr Trump, who remains an executive producer of The Celebrity Apprentice and has cultivated big names in Hollywood for decades (even making a Home Alone 2 cameo).

Yet those big names are shunning his inauguration, including Thursday's event, unlike the Lincoln Memorial concert in 2009 for Mr Barack Obama that featured Beyonce and other stars. The artists who are showing up are reflective of the cross-section of the United States that buoyed Mr Trump to victory in November, while belying the opulence he is known for.

The concert, Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration, will have a distinct country feel to it, with performances by Toby Keith, the biggest act on the bill, and Lee Greenwood, best known for God Bless the USA, Mr Trump's walk-on song during the campaign.

Also on the bill are Sam Moore, one half of the soul duo Sam & Dave, and 3 Doors Down, an alternative rock band that has not made the Billboard Top 10 chart since 2003. The Piano Guys, a group that includes one pianist and one cellist, are likely to regale the audience with spirited and eclectic covers of pop songs.

Kenny and Katherine Dunham decided to make the four-hour drive from Kinston, North Carolina, after hearing that Representative John Lewis of Georgia would boycott Mr Trump's inauguration. The Dunhams were sitting on a blanket without a ticket, and neither seemed fazed by the lack of top-flight entertainers. (Visitors without tickets were able to view the show on the National Mall; those with tickets had seats near the concert stage.)

"I think if they don't want to perform, they shouldn't perform," Mr Dunham, 60, said. "But at the same time, my understanding is they weren't asked to. Toby Keith is going to perform. Lee Greenwood is going to perform." His wife of 19 years agreed.

"I'm disappointed that they chose not to perform, like Jennifer Holliday," she added. "I feel that it's an honour to be here in our capital."

Lines to get into the show began forming in the morning. About 5,000 tickets were available, and the crowd by the memorial and on the Mall was expected to be smaller than the hundreds of thousands of people who turned out for the pre-inaugural concert in 2009. That celebration for Mr Obama also featured Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Jamie Foxx and Steve Carell. For Mr Trump's concert, the highest-profile actor scheduled to appear is Jon Voight.

Along the streets leading to the memorial, people pulled wagons full of homemade Trump merchandise, including Make America Great Again hats and Trump scarves. Rick Storm traveled in from Philadelphia with a backpack full of US$10 T-shirts to sell.

By 1pm, he had sold only one T-shirt.

"I just started," he said.

On the National Mall, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, people had plenty of space to mill about and spread picnic blankets on the ground as Frank Sinatra's Come Fly With Me blared from a sound system.

As the occasional jogger passed by, three women sat on a bench waiting for the concert to start. Ms Kathleen Noonan, 56, had traveled with her best friend, Ms Peggy Gallagher, from Boston to stay with Ms Gallagher's niece, Ms Allison Collings, during the inaugural festivities. All three were wearing matching knit stars-and-stripes accessories.

"Everyone's stopping us because they like our hats and mittens," said Ms Gallagher, 56, a postal worker.

Ms Noonan, also 56, said she was most looking forward to Ms Trump's Inaugural Address on Friday.

"I'm hoping he'll say we're going to be united," Ms Noonan said, "and that he's going to kick-start the economy that's dying."

In the weeks preceding Mr Trump's inauguration, the artists walking sideways to avoid performing seemed to grow longer by the day. Some - like Elton John, for whom Mr Trump has expressed admiration in the past - immediately issued emphatic statements to push back rumours.

Others said they had been invited and declined, among them rapper Ice T, who wrote in a Twitter post: "I just got call to perform at the Inauguration... I didn't pick up and Blocked the number."

Holliday, the Tony Award-winning singer, was a surprise name on an initial list of performers announced by Trump's inauguration team. She said she had backed out after reading an article in The Daily Beast titled "Jennifer Holliday Will Perform at Trump's Inauguration, Which Is Heartbreaking to Gay Fans."

"I think so much pressure was put on her that I was very disappointed that she chose not to perform," Mrs Dunham of North Carolina said. "Because it's an honour. It's a freedom. Inauguration is a freedom that our country has."

Mr Trump's campaign, as some of his supporters see it, was never about fitting in with the Hollywood crowd. Thursday's line-up suited them just fine. Truth be told, they didn't want Beyonce anyway. They wanted Mr Trump, who was expected to speak at the concert.

"That'll be the highlight," Mr Stephan said.