Saturday, October 31, 2009

If There's a Rock & Roll Heaven, Then I Just Had a Near-Death Experience (Part 1)

I'd seen the ads for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Benefit Concerts in Rolling Stone and, though floored by the list of participants, didn't plan on driving down to Madison Square Garden from Cooperstown. When a friend from the Hall asked if I was going, it dawned on me that I needed to pursue one of the two shows and, clearly, Thursday night was the one for me. Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder. That's right in my musical wheelhouse. So me and the boys went down for the show last week and, let me tell you, it was a momentous evening. As Graham Nash said early in the Crosby, Stills & Nash set, "This is Woodstock!" And it kinda was.

We detoured to Westport, CT, to pick up a few friends, and then it was on to the Garden. I hadn't been there in decades - moving to Chicago took me out of that scene. I think the last time I was there was for the Bob Dylan-Tom Petty tour of '86. It was great getting back to the Garden (there's that Woodstock motif again). Besides the site of many sports heartbreaks (you can't grow up a Knick and Ranger fan and not be continually crushed), it's also the scene of my first concert, a 1980 Billy Joel show during the Glass Houses tour.

Our seats were pretty good, though among the cheapest at $150. Above is our vantage point. That guy did sit down. The arches behind the stage were filled in with pictures of all time greats, who watched approvingly as the night unfolded. The giant screen that says "CONCE" showed films between sets and the musicians were set up on a rotating circular stage. This allowed the next act to be ready when it was time to go on. They had a similar set up at Woodstock, but this time it worked.

After a movie montage of great acceptance speeches from past Hall Inductees, Tom Hanks strode to stage right to speak to the power of rock and he did so in Hanksian style. You either like that or you don't. It was fine, a little to smart-alecky for my taste, but Tom Hanks, well, you can't deny the star power there. He introduced Jerry Lee Lewis, who sat at a white piano and played "Whole Lotta Shakin'" in a lascivious, dirty old man style. He didn't move around too much, though. No more feet on the keyboard for him any more. Still, Jerry Lee can kick ass with the best of them and, it was with some sadness that he was only allowed one tune. He made mention, forlornly, that it was only him sitting at the piano. If you've heard Jerry Lee and Springsteen do The Boss's "Pink Cadillac," then you'd know why I wished for more.

Lewis was spun away and the screen lowered to play a movie about the California rock scene. Good stuff, familiar but strong. When the lights came back on, Crosby, Stills & Nash launched into a blistering version of "Woodstock," followed by "Marrakesh Express." "Marrakesh" is a song The Hollies wouldn't let Graham record, which led him to quit the band and pursue other things. That's a key part of the CSN story. With a grin, Nash announced they would finally do a "Crosby song," and "Almost Cut My Hair" began. Crosby was in fine vocal form, but when he sang "I feel I owe it to someone," I couldn't think who that might be these days.

Crosby introduced the first guest of the evening as "my favorite singer." Bonnie Raitt came out and, along with Crosby and Nash (Stills having departed), sang "Love Has No Pride." Stills returned and he and Raitt played some dirty old slide guitar on a surprising cover of The Allmans' "Midnight Rider." An interesting choice, and well done.

The night was finely programmed, leaving some doubt as to whether there would be any of the exciting impromptu mixes that make the Rock Hall's Induction jams so special. Bonnie left, and Nash introduced Jackson Browne. Browne had been championed by CSN early in his career and Crosby and Nash sang on the original record of "The Pretender," which was the selection du jour. Stills was pitch perfect on guitar and this was my first highlight of the show. Nash was into it, already barefoot, but when Jackson sang about how his protagonist "started out so young and strong, only to surrender," I had to pause and ponder. Was this true of the men on stage, had they all given up their youthful innocence and beliefs as the music business crushed their souls? Not so much, I think. CSN and Browne have stuck to their political guns and personal opinions to the detriment of their careers. That says something about the quality of the men.

Browne left to make way for James Taylor. Again, Stills took off for a bit to allow Taylor, Crosby and Nash to wail away on "Mexico," the arena bathed in orange light. Stills rejoined and the four took a swing at "Love the One You're With," Taylor taking a few verses for himself. After JT left, Stills' Buffalo Springfield pedigree got its due with "Rock and Roll Woman." Nash thanked Rolling Stone founder and Hall creator Jann Wenner for inviting them to the show and, with Raitt, Browne and Taylor back on stage, the first big set of the night closed with "Teach your Children."

So far, so good.

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