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Joining in the chorus

Musicians of many stripes gather in Glendale for a cancer benefit focusing on survivor Wally Ingram, who sits in on drums.

February 02, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Things have been quiet lately on the rock-music benefit front, with the Kerry campaign and the Katrina crisis having receded as galvanizing issues.

But the musical troops were mobilized Wednesday at the 1,300-seat Alex Theatre in Glendale, where they lined up against a formidable foe that hits close to home as the members of the No Nukes generation grow older: cancer.

During her segment of the show, benefit-concert perennial Bonnie Raitt told the near-capacity audience that many of her friends and relatives, including her brother, have dealt with the disease and noted that the struggle "brings out the best in us."

Raitt also linked the issue to a broader concern for the environment and health, but the focus of this fundraiser was one individual: ailing drummer Wally Ingram, a longtime colleague of Raitt and some of the evening's other participants, including Jackson Browne and Sheryl Crow.

Those musicians are regulars at events such as this, but Wednesday's five-hour show veered sharply from business as usual, as the specifics of Ingram's personal and professional life intertwined to generate an unusual and invigorating mix of musical styles and generations.

Browne's California singer-songwriter rock and Raitt's rootsy, bluesy music are firmly identified with the '70s and '80s, but it was a more current band, Garbage, that got the most rousing welcome. One of rock's rising forces in the late '90s, the band ended a two-year hiatus Wednesday with a three-song set that reflected a renewed sense of purpose.

Replacing high-voltage flash with a more understated, emotionally resonant approach, the band was joined by some of the other performers, notably the Section Quartet string section and the six-member Radiant Voices choir.

Singer Shirley Manson seemed to relish the altered environment they provided, singing with focused intensity on "Queer," the dramatic ballad "Cup of Coffee" and "Bleed Like Me," which she described with a phrase from her native Scotland, "stretching a hand across a dark wave."

The band's presence Wednesday traces to the personal side of Ingram's history. Garbage drummer Butch Vig and Ingram became friends in their early days in Madison, Wis., and one of the most touching segments of the concert came when other cronies from those days, including singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston, came out to play music and share memories of beer and bratwurst.

Benefits such as this earn their stature by providing special surprises and collaborations, and Wednesday's unannounced set was a big one: the first performance by the reunited Crowded House, the New Zealand group that disbanded a decade ago after establishing itself as one of the leading inheritors of the Beatles' pop legacy. Ingram sat in on drums with the group, which is still auditioning replacements for its late drummer, Paul Hester.

In fact, the guest of honor was all over the place, having come through treatments for cancer of the tonsils and neck with positive results. Playing congas, the full drum kit and other percussion instruments, the elfin Ingram exhibited a humble charm and unalloyed joy that helped explain why he commanded such a show of support.

"This is my dream night," Ingram said to the audience near the end of the show, then joined Crow, Raitt, Browne and a group of musicians that grew to some three dozen (others included Victoria Williams, Pixies side band the Martinis and guitarist Eric McFadden, and funk visionary George Clinton made a bizarre surprise appearance).

They first offered an extended take on Crow's "Everyday Is a Winding Road," then closed with an epic version of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry." As it went on, it transcended the usual spirited jam, building to a massive scale as Browne played the part of conductor, shifting the focus from the ensemble to the strings, raising and lowering the volume, and ultimately spotlighting the refrain "Everything's gonna be all right."

Something to pull out whenever the odds look long.

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