WASHINGTON – Starting with Bruce Springsteen and ending with Beyonce, the patriotic We Are One concert kicked off a three-day inaugural celebration that filled the National Mall with an ocean of humanity and reached out to them with a call to national unity.

Though President-elect Barack Obama stressed that the event was “a celebration of America” rather than of his election, there was no mistaking the outpouring of affection from both the performers on stage and the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the man who will become the 44th President of the United States on Tuesday.

“Only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now,” he said. “Our nation is at war. Our economy is in crisis. Millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes; they’re worried about how they’ll afford college for their kids or pay the stack of bills on their kitchen table . . .

“I won’t pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy. It will take more than a month or a year, and it will likely take many. Along the way there will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our fundamental resolve as a nation.”

Obama – whose family watched, alongside Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, from behind bulletproof glass on the left side of the stage – nodded and sang along to a Garth Brooks version of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” He got up (and got down) to an inspirational performance of “Higher Ground,” in which Stevie Wonder was joined by Usher and Colombian singer Shakira.

U2 singer Bono paid tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a stirring “Pride (In the Name of Love),” and said the song was about “not just an American dream” of unity, but also “an Irish dream, a European dream, an African dream, an Israeli dream – and a Palestinian dream.” He also thanked Obama for using the band’s “City of Blinding Lights” as a campaign song.

Other than Bono, most of the long list of performers – who included soul singer Bettye LaVette, who delivered a stunning “A Change Is Gonna Come,” with Jon Bon Jovi, as well as will.i.am, Sheryl Crow and Herbie Hancock, who teamed up on Bob Marley’s “One Love” – sang their songs, and didn’t comment from the stage.

Springsteen was the first musical act, doing an acoustic “The Rising,” accompanied by a gospel choir, and he returned later with 89-year-old Pete Seeger toward the close for a sing-along with thousands of voices on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which the Boss referred to as “the greatest song ever written about our home.”

And Beyonce – in her demure rather than “Sasha Fierce” mode – closed the show with a soaring “America the Beautiful,” in which she was joined by all of the afternoon’s celebrities including such heavyweights as Denzel Washington, Tiger Woods and Tom Hanks, and well as more unlikely speakers such as “The Office” star Steve Carell and actor Kal Penn, of “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.”

The afternoon wasn’t without its corny moments – a bald eagle named “Challenger” was brought out on stage at one point, after country singer Brooks roused the crowd with not only “American Pie,” but also “Shout” and his own “We Shall Be Free.” And an extended segment by actor Tom Hanks, who quoted from several of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, was ponderous in the extreme.

But much of the day’s message of unity was rendered with emotional power. Openly gay Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson delivered an invocation asking the nation to be “blessed with anger” at discrimination directed against “minorities, gays and lesbians and transgender people,” and he asked everyone to understand “that our new President is a human being, and not a messiah.”

Obama himself delivered uplifting words to go with the uplifting music, talking about “the hope that we can recognize ourselves in one another and bring everyone together.”

Legend

Those words were echoed in the crowd. Dianne Primavera, 58, from Broomfield, Colo., said she came to the concert because “of the excitement. It’s the first black president. He’s rekindled the excitement of so many people. Plus, if my daughter knew I had a chance to go see John Legend and I didn’t go, she’d kill me.”

Also making the trip from Colorado was Denver’s Adam Masonbrink, 24, who was selling $10 Obama earrings outside the concert. Masonbrink said he also sold McCain earrings during the election, but Obama outsold them “by far.”

“Obama is bigger than pop culture right now. A lot of my friends are losing the jobs they got out of college, so I’m just looking for capitalization anywhere I can. Thank God for Obama.”

Regina Williams, 48, who lives in Washington, said that in addition to her Obama scarf and T-shirt, she was also wearing “Obama pajamas” to keep warm. “The night he was elected with the greatest night of my life,” she said. “Because we’ve waited so long. My grandmother wasn’t here to see it, but she fought so hard for this. Every time I think of it, it brings tears to my eyes,” she said, starting to well up as she sat on a park bench alongside her friend Zella Carver, who waved an Obama flag to go with multiple buttons bearing the visage of the president-elect.

“People still have their Obama signs in their yards,” Carver said. “They’re here to show their love for him. It’s because of what he says: It’s not about him. It’s about us. There are no bigger I’s, or little you’s here. We’re all in this together.”


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