The house lights in Madison Square Garden went out Sunday night, and the thousands of fans who sat like sardines in their seats were on cue. As they roared their approval and bounced on the balls of their feet in place, the ground began to shake. Cell phone flashes lit the darkness.
The sound of a keyboard echoed through the rafters. Dave Grohl, the front man for the Foo Fighters, appeared on stage.
“In times like these you learn to live again,” sang Grohl.
The lyrics have seldom gotten to the point.
After many difficult months of illness, death, hardship and pain, and the changing boundaries of how many people could congregate, especially indoors, Arena Rock returned just over a year after the city was the center of the outbreak, back to New York City. It was the Garden’s first concert in more than 460 days, and it drew a large crowd who were asked to provide proof of vaccination in order to enter. Inside the people sprawled, tightly packed, with few visible masks.
On Sunday, a concert-goer should have squinted to see signs of the pandemic continuing. In many ways, the evening felt like a prepandemic time.
In a sea of thousands, few guests wore face coverings here and there. Thousands of vaccinated people smacked the lyrics of famous songs with bare faces and let aerosols fly through the air. Nobody seemed concerned.
Fans were packed up. A sudden arm movement could blow up a beer. Strangers hugged and high-five. They collided in the busy hall. They beat in the air, waved their hair and danced, twisted and swayed in their seats in a state of high-decibel music-induced bliss.
It was “just epic,” said Rachael Cain, 51, who was one of the first people in the garden on Sunday afternoon.
But there were subtle memories of the pandemic everywhere. Hand sanitizer pumps were attached to the walls and wipes were found near each napkin dispenser. The ticketing was digital and the purchase of concessions was largely cashless.
At the entrances, employees checked people’s vaccination cards with varying degrees of care. Some, in a slow process, requested identification to match against vaccination records. Other inspectors just waved people through while they showed their passports as they passed. A small anti-vaccine protest on the sidewalk outside attracted little attention.
Several guests said the vaccination requirement helped them feel safe returning to such a large indoor gathering.
“I was expecting it to be a little longer before I get back to a concert,” said Nick Snow, 29, one of the few fans who wore a mask in the arena. “The precautionary measures with the vaccinated only help.”
Grohl himself made sure to honor the unique milestone in which he and his band participated from the stage. At various points during the roughly three-hour show, he rhetorically asked the crowd if they’d missed music, pondering how good it felt to be around thousands of people while they play rock songs. The band sang “My Hero” as a tribute to those who made the concert possible. And in a surprise cameo to celebrate the occasion, the band brought out comedian Dave Chappelle to sing a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”.
“Welcome back, New York City!” Chappelle exclaimed as he left the stage.
The show marked the return of some old, familiar conveniences that music lovers may not take for granted again anytime soon. There were calls and answers; People who don’t gesticulate wildly at anyone; Fans yelling the lyrics to the songs only to find their voices drowned out by the music; and an entire section of floor bounces up and down as a wave.
“I would get 10 vaccinations just to see a live show like this with people,” said Rich Casey, 53, of Massachusetts.
After reaching the ground floor of the venue and the reverberant square that leads to the street, the Foo Fighters fans, looking for a final communal experience for the night, broadcast a chant and revel in one of the band’s most famous songs, “Best of “you.”
Then they burst into one last cheer and went out into the New York night.