Whoever was in charge of booking the talent for Joe Biden’s inauguration clearly had an easier task than their counterpart in 2017. Donald Trump’s transition team promised the world a performance by Elton John. Instead, performers at various inauguration events included Tony Orlando, of Knock Three Times and Tie a Yellow Ribbon fame; a fading post-grunge band called 3 Doors Down; country singer Toby Keith; and a woman who came second on America’s Got Talent. Elton John, it transpired, hadn’t confirmed and evidently had no intention of playing. Here was a lesson for unscrupulous gig promoters everywhere about announcing an act before they sign up.
In fairness, they managed to grub up one actual musical legend – Sam Moore, one half of 60s soul duo Sam & Dave, who performed at a pre-inauguration event called Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration. But the swearing-in ceremony itself featured only a choir and military band – a climbdown from Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, who had Aretha Franklin sing at his 2009 ceremony followed by Beyoncé in 2013. An excruciating nadir was reached when a Bruce Springsteen tribute act called the B Street Band withdrew from an inauguration eve gig. When the tribute bands start telling you to do one, you’re in trouble.
Under the circumstances, almost anything would have been an improvement, but Biden’s team proved capable of drawing in some major stars: the Celebrating America TV special that was due to follow the inauguration was set to be hosted by Tom Hanks and feature Justin Timberlake, Foo Fighters, Demi Lovato, Jon Bon Jovi, John Legend and the real Bruce Springsteen.
At the inauguration itself, Lady Gaga sang the national anthem wearing an enormous red skirt and something you would have described as a brooch in the shape of a dove were it not the size of her head; by her standards at least, she’d dressed down for the occasion. She belted out The Star-Spangled Banner in potent Broadway style, before Jennifer Lopez showed up to perform a medley of America the Beautiful and This Land Is Your Land.
Performed by Pete Seeger and Springsteen – him again – at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the latter is a song that’s undergone quite a journey: what started life as a rough-hewn folky response to God Bless America sounded, on this occasion, remarkably like the finale of a Disney film with an unexpected burst of widdly-woo guitar soloing tacked on the end, but you couldn’t deny the emotional impact of Lopez delivering the phrase “one nation with liberty and justice for all” in Spanish midway through, given the previous administration’s attitude to those south of the border.
Finally, there was Garth Brooks, resplendent in stetson, denims and cowboy boots. He sang Amazing Grace a cappella, encouraging those at home to join in. More striking than his performance was the fact that he was there at all: a staunch Republican country singer performing at the inauguration of a Democratic president. You could see it as a symbol or reconciliation – or an up yours to the man who departed the White House earlier in the day to the strains of My Way.