National Memorial Day Concert salutes ‘our most important holiday’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the Memorial Day Concert (Part 1)

A 32-year annual tradition returns this Memorial Day weekend.

The National Memorial Day Concert airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on PBS.

“It’s our most important holiday because it allows us to have all the other holidays,” Host Joe Mantegna told WTOP. “Without paying tribute on Memorial Day, we wouldn’t have a Fourth of July, Presidents’ Day, Labor Day, Easter, any holidays, because the United States wouldn’t exist as we know it. Freedom isn’t free and these people paid that price.”

Mantegna will once again co-host with Gary Sinise (“Forrest Gump,” “Apollo 13”).

“This is my 20th year doing it [and] I was in my third year when I suggested that we have Gary come in with his band because he’s such a patriot and such a strong supporter of our military,” Mantegna said. “Gary was so taken by the experience [that] he said, ‘Joe, I’ll come do this as often as you want.’ I suggested, ‘Why don’t we just do it together?'”

This year’s concert features prerecorded segments due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Mantegna said. “It would have been impossible to do it like we normally do live on the West Lawn of the Capitol in front of 2,000 people in attendance. God willing we should be able to do that next year. … It forced us to get imaginative in how we do the show. I think they’ve come up with a really great formula.”

Steve Buscemi (“Fargo”) will host a special 20th anniversary tribute to 9/11.

“Steve, being a former New York firefighter, [is] the perfect one to comment on the 20th anniversary,” Mantegna said. “The very first concert I did was 2002 after 9/11. Steve was also on the program then, so it’s a return to 20 years ago to share this with Steve again.”

Joe Morton (“Scandal”) will mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, while Kathy Baker (“Picket Fences”) will honor American nurses of the Vietnam War by reading a passage from Vietnam Women’s Memorial Founder Diane Carlson Evans.

The telecast will feature star-studded performances by Alan Jackson singing “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” Vince Gill singing “Go Rest High on that Mountain,” Gladys Knight singing “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Brian d’Arcy James singing “You’ll Be In My Heart,” and The Four Tops singing “Baby I Need Your Loving.”

Other famous guests include Sara Bareilles, Denyce Graves, Mary McCormack, Bailee Madison and Mickey Guyton, who will perform “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

You’ll also hear the National Symphony Orchestra, U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, U.S. Army Voices & Army Chorus, Soldiers’ Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band, U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants and Service Color Teams of D.C.

Accomplished military officers will once again be on deck, including retired Gen. Colin Powell and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley.

A simulcast airs to troops around the world on the American Forces Network.

“Just take 90 minutes of this holiday that’s been bestowed upon you and check it out, [then] you tell me that you haven’t been moved, enlightened and entertained,” Mantegna said. “I get so many emails from people who said, ‘Wow, I watched it for the first time. It totally knocked me out. I understand why Memorial Day is such an important day.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the Memorial Day Concert (Part 2)

Listen to our conversation with Joe Mategna here.

Listen to our conversation with Steve Buscemi here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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