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Peace, love, rock 'n' roll

Musical royalty -- Bruce, Sting, Jerry Lee and more -- salutes the

October 31, 2009|Geoff Boucher

NEW YORK — The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sits on the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland, but if you wanted to see the music legends it celebrates, the best place to be this week was Seventh Avenue in rainy Manhattan. Even in this era of nonstop all-star benefits and award shows, it was a bit stunning to see the rock royalty that walked on stage at Madison Square Garden for two concerts honoring the silver anniversary of the museum in the distant Midwest.

The rhythm of the event went something like this: An iconic music act would step to the microphone and bring the crowd to its feet with a single line from its signature songbooks.

"Hello darkness my old friend . . . "

"The rangers had a homecoming in Harlem late last night . . . "

"Very superstitious, writings on the wall . . ."

On Night 1, in a show that stretched 4 1/2 hours, it was Simon & Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Fogerty, Sting, Smokey Robinson, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Dion, Little Anthony & the Imperials, Tom Morello and John Legend.

As this article was written, the Friday night schedule included: U2, Metallica, Aretha Franklin, Lou Reed, the Jeff Beck Band, Ray Davies, Ozzy Osbourne, Annie Lennox, Buddy Guy, Lenny Kravitz and a several notable surprise guests.

The performers came on stage beneath two arches that were adorned with portraits of the founding voices -- Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Little Richard and Buddy Holly among them. The 74-year-old Lewis was the only person who appeared in both the paintings and in the spotlight; the man who gave the world "Great Balls of Fire" was among the Hall's first class of inductees in January 1986, which is why, undoubtedly, he was the only performer scheduled to play both nights and was given the honor of the opening number.

The real tilt for most of the first evening, though, was the 1960s, an emphasis made clear by the act who followed Lewis into the spotlight: Crosby, Stills & Nash opened with their familiar harmonies on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" as an image of Yasgur's farm filled the screen behind them. "This is Woodstock," Stephen Stills yelped waving at the arena and audience around him.

That festival celebrated its 40th anniversary this past summer and it has become such a relentless revisited generational signpost that younger music fans might wonder with a wink if their elders might better be called the Woodstuck Generation.

But an anniversary show for a museum is precisely the right place to look backward and many of the artists took the chance to share their own life-shaping memories of rock heroes and peers. For instance, Simon (who performed a solo set of his 1970s and 1980s hits before old frienemy Garfunkel joined him in the spotlight) waxed on about Alan Freed, the Cleveland disc jockey who popularized the term "rock 'n' roll" (and earned Ohio the home-field advantage for the museum) and channeled Holly on "Not Fade Away."

He also dedicated a gentle version of "Here Comes the Sun" to the late George Harrison.

The night's bumpiest performance was from Wonder, who changed his set order on the fly to deal with some nasty sound problems. It was interesting that he treated the show as a concert, not a television taping -- it will air Nov. 29 on HBO; instead of halting the set and starting over, he pressed on, which was admirable and likely preserved the perceived momentum of the night for the arena audience.

Wonder also performed a spirited version of the 1987 Michael Jackson hit "The Way You Make Me Feel" but turned away from the microphone for a moment; viewed from a distance it wasn't clear if it was because of the emotion of singing his late friend's endearing hit or frustration with the balky sound issues. Wonder also led the audience in a call-and-response chant of Jackson's name.

There was even more crackling energy in the venue late Thursday as the crowd waited for the show-closer, a band of note from New Jersey. Much of the night had been about gentle harmonies with songs such as "The Boxer" and "Teach Your Children," and the audience was clearly ready for some roadhouse evangelism.

A TiVo-sabotaging announcement was made in the arena that the Yankees had just defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series and then Springsteen walked out on stage and belted out "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"; needless to say, these two back-to-back moments had a significant effect on the heart rate of middle-aged East Coast men in the audience.

Springsteen didn't disappoint anyone. He was joined by Sam Moore of Sam & Dave fame for sinewy versions of "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "Soul Man" and then Fogerty for "Fortunate Son," which roared like a sawmill.

Springsteen, making the night's lone comments about contemporary issues, spoke a bit about the battle for "decent healthcare" and was then joined by gifted guitarist Morello of Rage Against the Machine for a glass-shard rendition of "The Ghost of Tom Joad."

The great mystery of the two-night affair in New York is how exactly the producers of the show will turn it into the planned four-hour broadcast for HBO. The show's producers, Jann S. Wenner and Playtone partners Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, loaded the stage with historic talent and they also brought in Robbie Robertson, T Bone Burnett and others to curate the moments and film segments that played between sets.

Those film segments, though, certainly will force director Joel Gallen and his team to leave a number of startling stage moments on the cutting-room floor -- although a future DVD document of the night seems a certainty.

--

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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