Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Celebration
Madison Square Garden
Thursday, October 29
The first half of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s two-night benefit concert and 25th-anniversary celebration lasted six hours, ended at 1:30 a.m. and featuring star-studded sets by curators Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, with guests ranging from Billy Joel to Tom Morello to doo-wop legends Little Anthony and the Imperials. All these artists showed a real humility and gratitude for the 60-odd-year-old genre: “Everybody’s got their own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their hearts,” as Springsteen put it. And no matter what you think of the museum itself or the state of rock at the moment (the closest thing to a hard-line rock album in this week’s Billboard Top 10 is the New Moon soundtrack), the evening proved what a great emancipator the music still is.
Before anything even begins, in the middle of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s soundcheck with Bonnie Raitt, a between-song break leads to one of the musicians playing Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” riff starkly on an acoustic guitar. It only lasts a couple of seconds, but in a way, that sets the tone: Throughout the night, 25 of classic rock and soul’s most celebrated musicians (if Peter Wolf counts) each unabashedly pay tribute to rock’s lineage. (The night’s only failing is not including or honoring the Rock Hall’s hip-hop members, Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC.) Even tonight’s youngest performer–30-year-old John Legend, who performed Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” (both with Stevie Wonder)–seems most caught up in the moment, as he’s had the best day ever, having just performed the National Anthem at the World Series hours before. “It was harder at Yankee Stadium,” he told the press. “The National Anthem is a fundamentally harder song to sing than ‘Mercy Mercy Me.’ And it’s also harder when you’re naked out there by yourself, no music, just you and millions of people around the world watching.”
Artists similarly caught in the moment provide some of the night’s most stirring moments. The night begins with Jerry Lee Lewis playing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and ends with Bruce Springsteen’s almost two-hour set, which resembles the sort of early rock revue that first inspired him. At one of the high points, the Boss invites out Sam Moore, of soul men Sam and Dave, who, hours before his performance, was flossing a “Burnt Out Star” T-shirt (he since changed into a “Sam Is Who I Am” shirt). But it’s the way Springsteen introduces him that matters: “I learned so much about leading a band from Sam Moore.” They go on to play impassioned versions of “Hold On, I’m Coming” and, of course, “Soul Man.” Though apparently burnt out, Moore still sounds great, too.
Earlier in the evening, Raitt performs a touching rendition of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” (Duane Allman died 38 years ago yesterday) with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, trading guitar licks with Stephen Stills, which meant a lot to him. “I’ve been wanting to play with Bonnie Raitt since I met her 25 years ago,” he tells the press afterward. “I’ve admired her slide playing for years, and she’s always of the vibe that she didn’t want to compete with the guys, so it was very hard to get her to play with other people, and I had to lobby that she finally let me do a little do with her. It was just the best.”
Cover songs are the plat du jour at the event, since tradition matters most. Stevie Wonder covers “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Paul Simon covers “Here Comes the Sun.” And Springsteen duets with John Fogerty on Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and closes the night with a version of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” featuring Joel, Fogerty, Moore, Morello, Wolf, and Darlene Love, all making a close-to-touchable wall of sound.
For all the onstage reveries canonizing rock’s past, the press room hosts a debate about who should be inducted into the Rock Hall in years to come. Producer Tom Hanks (who claims to have gotten involved in the event “for the backstage pass”) turned the question to the reporters, eventually citing Laura Nyro and the Go-Go’s. Morello, who performed “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and the Clash’s “London Calling” with Springsteen, has the most current suggestions, citing Dr. Dre, Bright Eyes, and Muse. Meanwhile, soul legend Smokey Robinson, who sang “Tracks of My Tears” with Wonder, expresses remorse that his band, the Miracles, aren’t members. None of the musicians take the Rock Hall lightly–except David Crosby, who compares it to the way his cinematographer father used his Oscar as a doorstop.
What’s clear is that these musicians, no matter how old they are, don’t see (or refuse to see) an end for rock. “As the Stones and us and everybody [else is] getting older, nobody’s giving it up,” Raitt said backstage. “None of us are being conventional. What does [this] establishment mean? Does that mean we follow like sheep? No. We go our own way. It’s a thriving form of music, and we’re thriving ourselves. We’re not signing it over to the next generation.”
The Rock Hall celebration continues at MSG tonight with U2, Aretha Franklin, Jeff Beck, and Metallica, with guests ranging from Lou Reed to Lenny Kravitz.