Vax Live: Inside the First Full-Scale, Covid-Compliant Concert in the United States

In a stadium of 25,000 fans standing shoulder to shoulder eagerly awaiting their first star-studded concert in over a year, no one was more excited than Dave Grohl.  

“This is a fucking rock concert!” the Foo Fighters frontman said multiple times between the band’s set, as if he still couldn’t believe it himself. “In the last year, I’ve been having this dream that’s happening now.”

The Foos’ set was the closer for the night of May 2nd, following performances from Jennifer Lopez, J Balvin, and Eddie Vedder (along with H.E.R.’s performance filmed from outside the stadium) for Global Citizen’s Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite The World at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. Organizers have called the event the country’s first-large scale music event for a Covid-compliant audience. (The special airs this Saturday, May 8th at 11 p.m. ET/PT.)

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The country’s first sanctioned show of this size wasn’t without restriction. The 25,000 people in attendance was far lower than the 70,000 the L.A. stadium can seat, and attendees had to show proof of vaccination before they’d be allowed through the gate. Attendees were masked and alcohol and concessions weren’t available yet, but for the first time in a year, thousands of fans were allowed to sit within inches of one another to catch a show. After having received their Covid-19 vaccinations, those in the crowd are at a lesser risk than anyone to get infected, but Global Citizen still had zero margin for error. 

“Nervous is an understatement, everything had to be buttoned up,” Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans tells Rolling Stone about preparing the event for health compliance. “We had to make sure everyone was fully vaccinated, we needed temperature checks and rapid testing on site, contact tracing, and limited capacity in every area of the production. It’s very intense, but we did it because we wanted to demonstrate that if you take the vaccine, this is the pathway to open up.”

Vax Live has two messages its performers and celebrity speakers preached throughout the night: Everyone in the U.S. should be getting a vaccine, and countries with more vaccines and resources must help other countries in need rather than hoard supplies.

“If you’re a government, please don’t stockpile, please make [the vaccine] available to the countries that need it, please distribute it ASAP,” Vedder, the first performer of the event, said before breaking into a cover of “I’m a Patriot. “And if you’re a drug company, we thank you for your inventions; we’re so grateful for the rollout. If you really want to be heroes, it’d be great if you could distribute the vaccine at cost.”

Government and world leaders — including President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Pope Francis — all made video appearances, calling for heightened unity in the effort to beat the pandemic by getting vaccinated and by helping nations in need of resources. 

Among the concert’s highlights, the Foo Fighters brought out AC/DC’s Brian Johnson as a surprise guest to perform “Back in Black,” a fitting move to usher in the return of live rock & roll, and the band played hits “Times Like These” “Best of You.” Predictably, but perhaps impossible to avoid performing at an event such as Vax Live, the band also played “My Hero,” dedicating the track to the essential workers who carried the country for the past year and made the concert possible. 

Elsewhere among an intricate flowery setup was Jennifer Lopez’s surprise rendition of “Sweet Caroline” — with lyrics delightfully on the nose, evoking a post-pandemic world in which hands can actually touch another’s hands. Lopez brought out her mother, who sang “Sweet Jennifer,” instead of Caroline, the same way she’d sing the song to her as a lullaby when Lopez was a child. 

Balvin gave a trippy, stellar set, performing from a gigantic rotating moon assembled on-stage before Lopez would come out once again with dozens of colorfully dressed dancers to perform “Ain’t Your Mama.” 

Vax Live had the star power befitting Los Angeles’s first live event in over a year. Selena Gomez hosted the evening, Sean Penn introduced Vedder, and Prince Harry spoke on the importance of combating misinformation surrounding the vaccine and the need to help less-resourced nations get doses. 

David Letterman joked about SoFi’s Spaceport design and about getting his beard vaccinated, and with plenty of award show-style schtick, Ben Affleck came onstage with Jimmy Kimmel, who donned a revealing Robin costume as a reference to Affleck’s role as Batman in recent films.   

The concert came with all the idiosyncrasies that usually accompany such an event that’s being pre-taped to air later on TV: Gomez would have to start back from the top of an introduction if she fumbled a word or if producers wanted another take, and fans had to wait for intricate stage setups between performances, which prevented the night from ever finding a true rhythm the way a normal concert would.

The concert is intended to be viewed as an edited and polished television broadcast but, in a way, the concert isn’t even the point. The night was really more of a symbol of what can happen when enough people get their vaccines — even more than a bespoke musical extravaganza.

Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World airs Saturday, May 8th at 11 p.m. ET/PT on ABC, ABC News Live, CBS, YouTube, iHeartMedia broadcast radio stations, and the iHeartRadio App.YouTube will also stream an extended version of the event with an additional performance by NCT 127 and appearances from YouTube creators Daniel El Travieso, Kati Morton, ShootforLove, Thembe Mahlaba, and the Try Guys.

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