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 T-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.
Liam Gallagher flew in on a private jet but did not join in the singalong of what has become the defiant anthem of the Manchester attacks. Instead, he donned a big orange cagoule like the good old days and belted out Rock ‘n’ Roll Star. The curveball came when he shared vocal duties on Live Forever with Martin, whom he has variously compared unfavourably with a vicar, a geography teacher and a presenter of children’s TV show The Tweenies.
The charity concert was pulled together in scarcely a week and drew the biggest names in pop, including Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. Yet one one of the most moving moments of the night came when the choir from Parrs Wood High School in south Manchester duetted with Grande on her ballad, My Everything.
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 strolled through the crowd, granting selfies and telling teenagers to not give in to fear.
Solidarity was a key theme. Robbie Williams, once of 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.
Yet despite the flashing bunny ears and Sex Pistols-esque T-shirts declaring “Never mind the terrorists, we are Manchester”, there was a subdued atmosphere on the covered cricket pitch. Eyes darted left and right, nails were bitten. An bag abandoned in the stands caused a ripple of panic before its Japanese owner rushed to reclaim it.
Thousands of those present had been at the Arena on 22 May. Some, such as eight-year-old Lily Harrison, had been badly injured, along with her mum and dad. She took a special bus from the Royal Manchester children’s hospital, determined to be in the crowd, along with two other children from her ward.
She had promised Grande that she would be there when the pop star turned up at her bedside on Friday night, unannounced. The girl was determined to be at the concert, despite the pain from shrapnel which had torn through one of her shoulder blades. The hospital visit evidently affected Grande’s whole team. Scooter Braun, the singer’s manager, introduced her by quoting from a patient the pair had met there. Adam, 15, asked him to deliver a message: “Don’t go forward in anger. Love spreads.”
Everyone who could prove they had been at the arena gig was invited to apply for free tickets. Just over 14,000 people were at the original show and yet 25,000 people applied for freebies: a state of affairs described as “absolutely disgusting” by 19-year-old Finlay, who had come back with three friends from Blackburn.
A few days after witnessing the attack, Finlay got a tattoo of a Manchester worker bee. Tattoo artists all over the UK have been inking the city’s symbol for £50 each, with all proceeds going to the We Love Manchester appeal by the Red Cross. On Sunday morning Lily Harrison and her mum each received an envelope at the hospital containing £50 each from one tattooist in Oldham.
Also in the crowd was Molly Baigent, 18, a bona-fide Ariana Grande superfan. She has been a member of the American star’s fan club for six years and was lucky enough to meet her idol in 2012 – a signed T-shirt and framed picture of the pair together adorns her bedroom wall.
The Manchester Arena concert was the first time she had seen the pop star live – it ended with them being 30 yards away from the bomber. “She was just incredible but it was awful the way it ended. It was terrifying,” she said on Sunday, sat in the stalls with her mother Sarah. “As soon as our feet hit the foyer, we heard this bang go off. The first reaction was has a light gone off, but deep down I knew it was a terrorist attack.”
Sarah said: “When we got to the top of the stairs and we were about to to go out I said to Molly ‘Go left’ but at the last minute I said ‘Go right.’ I feel so lucky.” It was that split-second decision that likely saved their lives. “I’m not going to forget the sights and sounds I heard that night,” said Molly. “I’ve reflected on it and the other Sunday I woke up having never experienced a terror attack then I woke up Tuesday morning having experienced that.”
Molly was determined to go see her idol again but said she felt “sick” and “terrified” all weekend thinking about it. Her mother said loud noises had scared her every day since the incident. Pulling up in the car park before the concert, Molly said she began to well up. “It was the fact it felt so real. It all feels very surreal to be here. I genuinely felt I wouldn’t be able to be here and I’d have to watch it on television – but to be here is giving us some closure.”
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.