Ariana Grande had just left the stage at Manchester Arena on 22 May when a suicide bomber detonated a nail bomb in the foyer, killing 22 people and injuring 116 others. She left the UK “broken, from the bottom of my heart” and could have been forgiven for hiding herself away and not leaving the house, especially after terrorists attacked London on Saturday night.
Instead, the 23-year-old American was back in Manchester on Sunday evening, headlining a benefit show for 50,000 fans at Old Trafford cricket ground, just two miles away from the arena.
It was no ordinary gig. Wearing a sweat shirt graffitied with the legend One Love Manchester, she fought back tears and played all her hits – on the orders of the mother of Olivia Campbell, who died in the arena attack aged just 15 – and duetted with Coldplay’s Chris Martin on Oasis’s Don’t Look Back in Anger.
The evening began with a minute’s silence led by Marcus Mumford, the frontman of Mumford & Sons, and the words: “Let’s not be afraid, Manchester.” It was a credo repeated by Grande’s mother Joan, who walked through the crowd, granting selfies and telling teenagers to not give in to fear.
Solidarity was a key theme. Robbie Williams, once of the Manchester band Take That, changed the lyrics of his 1998 hit, Strong, so the chorus went: “Manchester, we’re strong, we’re stro-ong, we’re stro-o-o-ong.” Pharrell Williams kept up the good mood by opening with Get Lucky, one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. “I don’t see, hear or smell any fear here this evening. All I feel is love and positivity,” he said.
In an evening of relentless hits, it was perhaps Katy Perry who provided the evening’s most defiant moment, when she sang Roar – most recently deployed as Hillary Clinton’s theme song. “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter/Dancing through the fire/‘Cause I am the champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar” she sang – an apt description of Grande and the thousands who survived the Manchester attacks to come back for more.