By Marissa G. Muller
There was no shortage of highlights at the second annual CBS Radio We Can Survive concert, which took place at the Hollywood Bowl last night (Oct. 24). Not only was the stage shared by Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams, Gwen Stefani, Ariana Grande, and a handful of other heavyweight acts, there were fireworks and confetti, surprise guests, and a nonstop stream of hits.
Pharrell touched on the female-forward nature of the evening in his monologues throughout his set.
“We are here to celebrate women tonight and their survival,” he said midway through his opener “Come Get It Bae,” where the hat-clad singer was joined by his backup dancers, the Baes, and, later in the evening, Gwen Stefani. Pharrell introduced Stefani as his sister and “the queen,” acting as her hype man throughout a particularly powerful rendition of her 2004 hit “Hollaback Girl.”
While stalling for her arrival, Pharrell spoke candidly about his grandmothers who lost both of their lives to cancer, the resilience of mankind, and how women are essential to the survival of the species. His preaching was balanced by a medley of his old hits—“Hot in Herre,” “I Just Wanna Love U (Give it 2 Me),” and “Pass the Courvoisier” —and new ones including, of course, “Happy.” The song’s thoroughly positive message rang especially true that night.
As he closed with his Oscar-nominated song, his powerhouse set culminated with a rainbow-lighted dance party on stage where Pharrell was joined by three young girls and a bright stream of fireworks. Midway through his performance, you almost didn’t think he’d make it to the end without getting emotionally overwhelmed. The crowd’s reaction — or “energy,” as Pharrell identified himself as a firm believer in that — nearly moved him to tears after he took them “down memory lane” with classic Skater P tracks. “Before you make me cry, let me finish the show,” he told the audience, taking a moment to collect himself as the applause rolled in.
Pharrell wasn’t the only artist to get worked up over their reception. A few slots before him, Taylor Swift got personal with the crowd as she revealed this set marked her first time performing at the Bowl. After giving a pep talk about how music is an escape from the drudgeries of everyday life — frenemies, people talking behind your back, and the problems of work and school — the country-gone-pop-singer closed with her lead 1989 single “Shake It Off.”
Earlier in the evening, Swift performed another track from her upcoming album, “Out of the Woods,” co-penned by Bleachers and .fun’s Jack Antonoff. She also treated the crowd to her older hits “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Trouble,” which she asked the audience to sing loud enough to reach Sunset Boulevard. With all the overdrive instrumentals — especially the horn section — it very well could have. Swift’s performance added a cohesion to the genre-spanning evening, which featured artists of every background, from country to R&B.
While Swift didn’t have time to play her new single “Welcome to New York,” a very pregnant Alicia Keys provided the crowd with an ode to the city. The piano balladeer walked onto the stage singing the opening of “Empire State of Mind” and then sat down at her piano where she also delivered her “We Are the World” kind of song, “We Are Here,” from her upcoming album planned for next year, and “No One.”
The other R&B artist of the evening, Ariana Grande, powered through a five-song set, belting out her most well-known tracks and conquering some technical difficulties. Backed by eight dancers, Grande had the most impressive stage production quality of the evening, next to Pharrell’s fireworks of course.
Amid platforms projecting outer space images, and clad in a black two-piece outfit and her now-signature cat ears, Ariana danced and sang her way through her club-bound collaboration with Zedd, “Break Free,” “Break Your Heart Right Back,” “Bang Bang”—where she sang both Jessie J and Nicki Minaj’s parts —”The Way,” and “Problem,” the hook of which (“I got one less problem without you”) could have been interpreted literally here.
Iggy Azalea had surprise guest Jennifer Lopez to help her out with their recent collaboration, “Booty,” which was one long twerkfest. Lopez emerged in a silver two-piece outfit and high ponytail — a look straight out of Grande’s sartorial playbook — at the beginning of the track. “That was a lot to take in, right?” Iggy asked afterwards, before announcing her new single “Beg For It,” featuring the Danish pop singer Mø. The Aussie rapper’s set also included her Charli XCX-featuring track “Fancy,” “Beat Down,” “Bounce,” and “Black Widow.”
Lady Antebellum followed-up Iggy Azalea and Jennifer Lopez: a tough order for any act, let only one so sonically different. But the potentially jolting transition worked in their favor. It was a refreshing sidestep from the rest of the more pop-centric acts. The country-glam act performed their greatest hits and a few new tunes: their opener “Bartender,” where Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley’s vocals were filled out by electric guitar wails, their first No. 1 single on country radio, “I Run to You,” the Blondie-referencing “Downtown,” “Freestyle, from their recently released album 747, “Just a Kiss,” “Things People Say,” and their biggest hit to date, “Need You Now,” the title track from their 2010 full-length.
Paramore didn’t have any special guests, but they did have a whole bunch of confetti. Singer Hayley Williams dressed for the occasion in a lightning bolt-emblazoned top with a pink cape. She explained her clothing choice (“Those that are surviving a tough battle — you’re superheroes. I’m wearing a pink cape for you,”) while introducing “Last Hope” from her piano, a song from the band’s fourth self-titled album that, with its resilient lyrics, could have been written just for the evening.
That was as somber as their performance got; otherwise Williams showed her uncanny gift as a charismatic frontwoman — and one who can make pop-punk palpable to all of the pre-teens who came mostly for Taylor Swift. While twirling across the stage and high-fiving those in the front row, Williams blazed through “Still Into You,” “That’s What You Get,” “Misery Business,” “Proof,” and “Ain’t It Fun.”
On the other end of performance spectrum from everyone else, opening act Sia kept a very low profile during her set. Standing with her back turned to the audience the whole time, amid a dorm room kind of scene with a day bed and desk, the Australian songwriter-turned-breakthrough-solo-artist let her interpretive dancers clad in platinum blonde wigs (like the artwork for her new album 1000 Forms of Fear) do all of the engaging with the crowd.
Though they weren’t as notable as Lena Dunham or Maddie Ziegler, who starred in the video, her dancers did introduce most of the preteen crowd to many of Kate Bush’s moves and abstract art in a very accessible way, as they danced to “Diamonds,” the song she penned for Rihanna, “Big Girls Cry,” and ”Elastic Heart.” Out of all the performers on the bill, Sia is perhaps the only one who can claim her persona has no influence over her following. She was also as memorable as an opener gets.