Monday, May 28, 2018

National Memorial Day Concert (PBS-TV, aired May 27, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on the big show for the night, the annual Memorial Day concert from Washington, D.C., which this year honored the 150th anniversary of the Memorial Day holiday. The holiday was originally called “Decoration Day” and it was originally promoted as an occasion on which people would honor the Civil War dead by placing flowers — and, later, miniature flags — on their graves. These “concerts” are less about music than multimedia shows honoring America’s servicemembers, living and dead, and it’s a measure of the inevitable passage of time that though there were readings of letters from as far back as the Revolutionary War, the oldest people who were actually present were from the Korean War (the so-called “forgotten war” that’s being remembered now that President Trump may or may not be meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore June 12 and the U.S. may or may not actually make a peace treaty with North Korea — though the actual combat stopped with a cease-fire in 1953, the U.S. and North Korea are still technically in a state of war with each other!). I can remember a time when the musicians featured on these concerts included major “names” like the Beach Boys and B. B. King; this time around the only musical act that got showcased was something called the “Lieutenant Dan Band,” led by Gary Sinise (who, along with Joe Mantegna, has hosted this concert every year it’s been televised) and named after the character Sinise played in virtually the only movie he made that anyone’s ever heard of, Forrest Gump

The concert opened with a singer named Charles Esten doing Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Some Gave All” — and doing it quite well; it was the title track of the artist’s first album, though the dance novelty “Achy Breaky Heart” was the hit and he’s now much more known as Miley Cyrus’s father than for his own career — and then a Black singer who was apparently a winner on the TV contest The Voice named Spensha Baker (I think I remembered and wrote down the first name accurately) did “The Star-Spangled Banner” and did it pretty “straight,” with a minimum of the soul ornamentation previous African-American singers like Aretha Franklin have brought to it. After that came an historical montage of film clips from World War I and Gary Sinise reading the first two stanzas of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. Then Mantegna and Sinise narrated a montage of clips from World War II and Korea while the orchestra — the National Symphony, conducted by Jack Everly — played “Mars” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, and actors Brian Tee and John Corbett told a quite moving story of Hiroshi Miyama and Joe Annello, two U.S. servicemembers in Korea who were part of a unit ambushed by the Chinese; both were taken prisoner, but Hiroshi (whom Annello called “Hershey”) was released early and Annello, after suffering a wound that threatened to leave him unable to walk, waited to get out until the end of the war, wondered what had happened to his buddy, and then was astonished to see a photo of him in Life magazine being received by President Eisenhower. The two real men were in the audience and the actors who’d played them greeted and hugged them at the end. Then singer Alfie Boe came out to honor the story we’d just heard with a rendition of, of all things, the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” in a stentorian, almost operatic style — Charles said he thought it was one of the worst mismatches of singer, song and occasion he’d ever heard. 

After that was another sequence of a montage of footage and an account of a servicemember read by an actor — only the war this time was the one in Afghanistan (at 17 years and counting this has become America’s longest-running conflict in its history, reflecting that we’ve got caught up in the trap Mao invented and a number of guerrilla groups have used since of entrapping the enemy in a protracted armed struggle they can’t ultimately win and which ends when the imperialist occupier gives up and goes home — this is how we lost the war in Viet Nam), the actor was Mary McCormack (the marvelous lead in the late, lamented series In Plain Sight about the U.S. witness protection program) and the servicemember she was playing was Leigh Ann Hester, the first woman ever to win a Silver Star. Another woman star, Allison Janney, did a presentation of women in the U.S. military through history (including a Revolutionary War veteran who enlisted by disguising herself as a man), and the orchestra played John Williams’ “Summon the Heroes,” a piece of typical Williams mock-heroic bombast similar to the Star Wars theme and his Olympic anthem. Then it was time for Gary Sinise’s band — he’s the bass player and he is O.K. but not a great musician, though there are some solid players and singers in the group, including a violinist who sang most of the leads — doing a country song called “The Things We Love,” a duet with an unidentified woman on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (blessedly following the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell original rather than Diana Ross’s overwrought cover) and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” a song I’ve actually quite liked even though people of my progressive political persuasion are expected to hate it.

The Viet Nam segment that followed featured actor Graham Greene paying tribute to veteran Bill Rider (apparently Greene was picked because Rider is part Native American) while the orchestra played Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (which has become the unofficial theme song for the Viet Nam War due to its use in Oliver Stone’s film Platoon) and the “Goin’ Home” Largo from Dvorák’s New World Symphony. The segment ended with a gospel chorus led by an unidentified woman soloist singing, of all things, Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (though only the first two verses), and singing it quite well — on her first chorus she seemed to be dodging the high notes Art Garfunkel nailed on the original record, but she pulled it together and her overall rendition fell stylistically between the Simon and Garfunkel original and the cover by Aretha Franklin that returned the song to its gospel roots. Then the concert lumbered to its traditional close with an appearance by General Colin Powell, the presentation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, another patriotic song (I can’t make out from my hastily scrawled notes either the singer’s name or the song’s), the medley of the five U.S. military service songs, Megan Hilty doing “God Bless America” (and singing in a fine, pure voice that’s what the young Julie Andrews would have sounded like if she’d been American) and a finale featuring Spensha Baker leading the ensemble in, of all things, Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” to highlight the brotherhood — and, now, sisterhood — of the U.S. military (though regarding the latter I couldn’t help but wonder why in the age of “#MeToo” there isn’t more public attention to the plight of servicewomen who have to deal with sexual harassment, out-and-out rape and the impunity all too often given to the rapists, especially when their rapists outrank them). The Memorial Day Concert is a blundering spectacle but one I still wouldn’t want to miss, and in one regard it’s a welcome to those who get too caught up in the idea of war as a noble enterprise that it’s still, at its base, about people killing other people; as General George S. Patton famously said, “Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country. You win a war by making the other son-of-a-bitch die for his country.”