Having been to the original We Can Survive back in 2013, I jumped at the chance to go again. This year, the lineup featured Charlie Puth, G-Eazy, Meghan Trainor, OneRepublic, Pitbull, Ariana Grande, and Bruno Mars at my favorite outdoor venue: the Hollywood Bowl. The concert, put on by CBS Radio, celebrates Breast Cancer Awareness Month and raises funds for the Young Survival Coalition.
Back in 2013, the show had an all-female line-up and a primarily female audience, so the focus felt like it was on the cause. Mother-daughter pairings were everywhere. By this year, though, it seemed like the audience came more for the music than the charity. In practice, that means a sea of pink flowered leis as far as the eye could see but much less of the female bonding experience from a few years back. I can’t say if that’s better or worse if it raises money either way, but it was certainly different.
About those leis… I’ll admit that finding one was a priority. People in the Hawaiian Host lounge were giving them out to the crowd, so of course I arrived just as they handed out the very last ones. I headed up to my seat, minus the pink flowered leis and flashing pink flowered crowns, but well provisioned with chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.
Reaching my usual spot in the upper nosebleed section, I discovered that pretty much everyone held what I can only describe as a flashing, foam lightsaber… except me. The Bowl staff later told me they had placed one on every seat, but people had apparently been grabbing extras. Later arrivals’ seats had been pillaged. I can’t quite imagine what people were doing with the extras. Double fisting them, Darth Maul style? So I trudged back to the ushers to see if they had extras, just to see them/give away the last one. Torn between laughing and suspecting that it was a bad omen for the evening, I saw the crowd part as another box arrived. Now happily clutching both my own lightsaber and enough macadamia nuts for a Halloween party, I made my way back for the first act.
Charlie Puth took the stage, announcing that it was his first performance after a bout of the flu. Either he sang with a backing track or he legitimately has a great voice because you would never have known he was sick. He sang his biggest hits, ending with “See You Again.” This was a highlight for me: given my great love for the cinematic masterworks of The Rock and Vin Diesel (I am a “Fast & Furious” superfan). Charlie introduced the song, saying he wrote it in 10 minutes and it changed his life. The crowd sang along, lightsabers waving. It seemed particularly poignant at a cancer charity event.
Next up was G-Eazy. Until partway through his set, I didn’t recognize his music. As an unabashed fan of the greatest hits of whatever decade, I’m frankly not that interested in seeing artists I don’t already know. That meant this was the low point of the show for me. He brought out guest performer Bebe Rexha for a duet on “Me, Myself, & I,” which was the only song I knew in his set. Everyone around me seemed to sing along with his music, though, so I’m not sure how I missed that moment in pop culture.
Everyone jumped to their feet for the next act: Meghan Trainor. She jammed through her hits, starting with “Me Too.” Fans were happy to see the non-photoshopped versions of her videos playing in the background. After she admired all the light-up flower crowns (note: I’m still bummed I don’t have one), she inexplicably launched into a cover of Drake’s “One Dance” – but with better dancing. She wrapped up her set with “No” as long streamers blasted from the stage into the fancy seats and got caught in the lighting grid, where many of them would flutter for the rest of the show. Since I love shamelessly pop-y music, this set was one of the highlights of the night.
Perez Hilton then came out to introduce Pitbull, who has amazing stage presence. I’d seen him headline at the Bowl a few years back when he was on tour with Kesha, whose act I completely missed because of the worst traffic I’ve ever seen in LA – which says a lot. At both shows, he gave a shout out to Los Angeles as his biggest market for the past 16 years. He knows the crowds here love him, and he puts on a fabulous show. For We Can Survive, though, his backup music kept breaking into random covers: “In the Air Tonight,” “Pretty Woman,” “Smells like Teen Spirit,” etc. While I’m glad to know Pit has eclectic taste, it was a bit jarring. He rocked his hits, starting with “Don’t Stop the Party.” Since he had brought out a parade of guest artists during his last concert, it wasn’t a surprise to see LunchMoney Lewis stride on stage for “Greenlight.” Pit then criticized the “bullshit election” and announced he was celebrating the United States of America as he launched into a Spanish-language song I didn’t recognize. He was accompanied by a bevy of background dancers who changed from outfits that looked like they’d been lifted from the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders’ lingerie drawer and into black thong bodysuits. The better to dance with? As smoke machines blasted clouds into the air, he strode off into the night.
One Republic was the weakest artist of the night, possibly because they were singing live while the other acts largely seemed to have used backing tracks. They also seemed a bit overconfident in their own stardom, introducing one song by saying that “if you do not know this song, I would like to officially welcome you back from North Korea.” They, too, broke out the confetti cannon (shooting past the still-dangling streamers) but were otherwise somewhat forgettable.
The next act was Ariana Grande, adorable in a jumpsuit and her trademark ponytail. While she ran through a list of crowd-pleasing hits, I’ll confess to being mesmerized by her hair – insanely long and apparently rocking its own choreography. I was disappointed that she skipped “Problem,” but she seemed to be focusing on newer material.
Out of nowhere, there was a huge surprise guest: the Backstreet Boys. The audience went nuts as they launched into a concert straight out of 2002 – complete with the outfits. Vest? Check. Goofy hat? Check. Plus a few touches of pink, giving a nod to the charity. With tickets for their Vegas residency on sale, I guess Backstreet is indeed back on the promotional circuit.
With the crowd still losing their minds, 97.1 Amp Radio DJs came out to transition to a more serious topic – honoring young breast cancer survivors. After a quick nod to them, Bruno Mars closed the show. You have to give Bruno and his band credit for looking like they’re actually having fun. So many artists look like they’re phoning it in, but they were having a party on the stage. Even the band had choreography, jamming with Bruno at the edge of the stage. He, too, ran through an array of hits before ending with his newest release, “24K Magic.” For a song that had been out for all of two weeks, it was surprising to see the audience singing every word. I’m not loving it as much as his earlier hits, but apparently everyone else is.
No outdoor concert would be complete without fireworks, and We Can Survive didn’t disappoint. As Bruno Mars ended his final song, fireworks rocketed off of the top of the Hollywood Bowl concert shell. Shell after shell blasted into the sky, ending this unseasonably warm night with a bang. While I’m hoping that next year’s show puts the focus back on the young survivors, it was overall a successful celebration of their lives.