National Memorial Day Concert To Feature 9/11 Tribute As 20th Anniversary Approaches

This year’s National Memorial Day Concert, the annual tribute to members of the military and their families, will once again be a pre-taped event with performances and tributes from around Washington and other parts of the country, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less moving.

The Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on the Capitol grounds prevent the traditional large-scale live concert, but producers have planned a lineup that includes Gladys Knight, Vince Gill, Sara Bareilles, Alan Jackson, Denyce Graves, The Four Tops and Brian d’Arcy James, along with Kathy Baker and Joe Morton.

Among the highlights will be a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, in which Steve Buscemi hosts a segment against a backdrop of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York. “A morning that began so sunny and bright was the beginning of America’s darkest hours, images that can never be erased from memory, pictures that will never be lost to time,” Buscemi says. In the first Memorial Day concert after 9/11, Buscemi appeared for a tribute to four fathers, all firefighters, who lost their sons, also all firefighters, on that date.

Michael Colbert, the executive producer of the concert special, said they the shot the segment on the 20th floor of a building that overlooked the memorial.

“That is sacred ground to many, and Steve brings us back to that time,” Colbert said. “I’m not a big crier, but I shed a tear or two when Steve was sharing about that day. He also reminded us of that time when we were all united after that horrific tragedy, and I think that is an important thing for us to remember as well.”

To say the least, the post-9/11 sense of unity seems ever more elusive this year, with political divisions seeming to only have deepened.

But the show avoids partisanship and has been, throughout its 32 years, pointedly apolitical. Hosted by Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna, the event also will feature the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jack Everly, as well as Mickey Guyton performing the National Anthem. Colin Powell and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will appear, but no elected officials are on the bill.

Last year, plans in the works to stage the event as it has always been, on the grounds of the Capitol, but the pandemic forced the live event to be cancelled, and Colbert and producers instead switched to taped segments. They had a bit more time for planning this year, as there was an expectation that an in-person event would not happen given ongoing restrictions.

The 9/11 tribute will recognize Gold Star families, with a segment  featuring Mary McCormack and Bailee Madison that spotlights the family of Staff Sgt. Joseph Phaneuf II, who was inspired to rejoin the National Guard and was soon deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He died in December, 2006, after an IED detonated near his Humvee.

The family “shared what thousands of American families have gone through and are going through today, what it is like to lose a father,” Colbert said. “We have an awesome responsibility to share these families who are still with us who have sacrificed so much. It is humbling.”

The 9/11 tribute also features Jackson from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville singing Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning), which became a 9/11 hymn, as well surviving veterans of Pearl Harbor, he said.

Other highlights of the concert include a footage from Arlington National Cemetery, including a segment at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. D’Arcy James sings You’ll Be In My Heart. 

The hopes are obviously for the concert to return to the Capitol next year, and he anticipates going back to a concert centered on a live format.

“I don’t think there is anything like the immediacy of live television,” he said. “I’m glad that we are staying true to the mission of Memorial Day. If you think about it, it is our most important national holiday. Many say that without Memorial Day you can’t have the Fourth of July. But [taped and live shows] are both powerful ways to do it.”

The concert airs from 9-9:30 PM ET on Sunday on PBS. It also will be shown on the American Forces Network, and available for streaming on Facebook, YouTube and on PBS.org. It will be available on demand from May 30 to June 13.

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