HBO held its veteran-honoring Concert for Valor on the National Mall Tuesday evening, and rough early estimates were that it would draw 800,000 people to see spectacles such as the Zac Brown Band singing the national anthem and Jamie Foxx leading a crowd-wide chant of "USA! USA! USA!"
The two-hour concert was treacly at times—Dave Grohl's acoustic performance of "Everlong" came off as self-congratulatory, while the Black Keys are about five years past their prime—and it was very pitchy at others (Carrie Underwood, mostly). But the mini-vignettes celebrating individual veterans were truly inspiring, and well placed: in one particularly resonant segment about Team Rubicon—a non-profit begun by two military veterans to respond to disaster zones from Haiti to Hurricane Sandy—one veteran described coming home from combat and being on the verge of suicide before he found Team Rubicon, which gave him a renewed reason to live. It did an excellent job of showing both the obstacles and triumphs that veterans face once they return home, a human aspect that isn't often depicted otherwise. One may have expected more jingoism—and there were definitely several "USA!" chant interludes—but the production itself offered nuance that was both respectful and relatable.
A few of the performances matched this level of quality. Bruce Springsteen performed to crowd hollers of "BRUCE," and while the rampant Bruce worship among a certain set of male is often deeply tiresome, he showed why he inspires it. He pared down "Born In The USA" to a voice and a guitar and gave it a whole new blues melody; the mournfulness and lack of bombast centered the fact that it honors the lost generation of Vietnam vets who made it home, and that it is one of America's most seething protest songs: "Down in the shadow of penitentiary/ Out by the gas fires of the refinery/ I'm ten years burning down the road/ Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go/I was born in the USA."
Metallica, which from empirical evidence may be the biggest band with the troops from the '90s onward, performed for longer than any other act, including what seemed to be a 12-minute version of "Master of Puppets." Which ruled. During "Enter Sandman," the troops in uniform who were situated at the back of the stage could be seen losing their minds, fist-pumping, and mouthing "FUCK YEAH." James Hetfield made sneerface during his guitar solo.
From a truly unbiased critical perspective, the best performance of the night came from Rihanna, who emerged in a dazzling Tom Ford cape/catsuit combo accessorized with butt-length hair, and opened with "Diamonds."
It seems as though Rihanna has been working with a vocal coach, perhaps, because she sounded better than ever—in that song, she's often passed off some of the higher notes or the chorus to her backup singers (who are astonishing in their ability to blend into her tone), but at Valor, she shouldered the whole thing herself, with a newfound richness to her voice. Some people had other theories about why she sounded so excellent (SOBRIETY, which, YUP), but were in agreement nonetheless. "Stay" was excellent too, as was the beginning of "Monster" before walking dead/perpetual woman-abuse-threatener Eminem decided to come out to crone-rap his verse like a troll under the bridge. Seriously, gross.
During her "Stay" performance, the camera cut to these two Marines singing along with their arms around each other, redefining the definition of "NAVY" and forcing us all to seriously step up our game. Shout out to the Navy that is both Navy and Actually Navy!
Rihanna's new album is rumored to have a November 24 release date, but nothing has been confirmed, except that Ne-Yo thinks it "sounds absolutely incredible."