Friday, September 5, 2003

Britney Spears didn’t plant any scandalous same-sex kisses, but the barely dressed pop diva last night helped inaugurate the pro-football season in a concert that drew 100,000 people to a soggy National Mall.

The “NFL Kickoff Live,” which was nearly called off yesterday afternoon by D.C. administrators for fear of lightning, coincided with the Washington Redskins-New York Jets game at FedEx Field in Landover, and portions were aired live on national TV.

Miss Spears, who lip-synced her way through “Baby One More Time” and a cut from her forthcoming album, was joined by R&B star Mary J. Blige, hometown favorites Good Charlotte and classic rockers Aerosmith.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Secretary of Interior Gale A. Norton also greeted the throng lining the Mall, and “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin wrapped up the evening with a rendition of the national anthem.

Concession stands were few and far between, and a veritable battalion of Metropolitan Police, state troopers and U.S. Park Police made security feel as tight and unwelcoming as a presidential inaugural. But that didn’t stop people from descending on the Mall as early as 4 p.m. yesterday.

Up to 400,000 people had been predicted to show up, but the prospect of thunderstorms — which never materialized during the balmy evening — depressed the turnout.

In addition to kicking off this year’s first NFL matchup, the concert was a tribute to the nation’s armed forces.

Todd Cross, a member of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division — one of the units that helped capture Baghdad — caught a USO concert in Kuwait before transferring to the action in Iraq. But that didn’t compare to a nationally televised concert in the nation’s capital, he said.

“This is awesome,” he said. “This is just phenomenal.”

About 25,000 service members were treated to the best seats in the house last night, packed in front of a stage set up between 4th and 5th streets on the Mall, with pairs of video screens fanning out for several blocks.

Flanked by giant helmets with Redskins and Jets logos, each housing jumbo video screens a narrow strip of the stage served as a platform for retired NFL greats such as Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, Redskin legends Joe Theismann and Darrell Green, and former pros Warren Moon and Marcus Allen to warm up the audience before the musical performances.

The gridiron greats were joined by a member of each of the four military branches, who hailed from the performers’ hometowns.

Cpl. Antonio Deascanis, a Marine from Waldorf, Md., introduced Good Charlotte, while Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard Duken, from Miss Spears’ Louisiana hometown of Kentwood, introduced the pop princess.

“I’ve never met her before tonight,” said Mr. Duken of his encounter with Miss Spears. “And here’s what I think: It’s good to be in the Air Force.”

Due to the vicissitude of live television and frequent commercial breaks, last night’s production had a hurry-up-and-wait quality to it.

During one of the many lulls, the stage crew tossed thousands of penlights to the audience for use during the Aerosmith classic “Dream On.”

The song’s climax was punctuated by a burst of pyrotechnics, and thousands of arms began waving the penlights back and forth, creating a sea of twinkles that seemed to stretch to the Lincoln Memorial.

Earlier, Good Charlotte guitarist Benji Madden wondered if one of the neighbors could hear the racket emanating from the Mall.

“While I was playing that song, I was wondering if the president could hear us,” Mr. Madden said.

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