Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame 25th Anniversary Concerts [television review]

* Currently airing on HBO and HBO Canada
On October 29th and 30th, New York City's Madison Square Garden hosted historic concerts to mark the 25th anniversary of The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame And Museum. Why, you might ask, did the concerts take place in NYC and not Cleveland, the actual home of the HOF? That probably has something to do with the fact the annual induction ceremony and dinner has always been held in the Big Apple, plus it sounds a wee bit more prestigious holding such an event at the hallowed Garden, as opposed to Cleveland's arena, which is saddled with one of the worst venue names in North America (Quicken Loans Arena). You've gotta love the advent of corporate naming rights.
HBO edited down the best moments (in their opinion) from both shows into a four hour program that presents a ridiculous abundance of music legends on one stage. As is the custom with special events like this that bring together such diverse talent, the results are very much hit and miss, but when they really hit it's a joy to watch and listen to.
After a brief introduction by Tom Hanks, a 74 year old Jerry Lee Lewis starts things off with a lively solo performance of "Great Balls Of Fire". At the song's conclusion, rock and roll's original badass kicks his piano stool over and then, for good measure, picks it up again and gives it a toss. The crowd eats it up.
Next up is Crosby, Stills and Nash, who I've never been a fan of. Their sleep-inducing set here only reinforces my opinion of them. Joining them at different points are James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, who all similarly leave me reaching for the fast forward button on my PVR. Question: how the hell have Browne and Taylor managed to get their names included in the company of great 70's singer/songwriters? I've never gotten it. And has Browne's haircut changed since 1974?
Stevie Wonder is on next. I'm not much of a fan, although you can't help but respect a guy who's been doing what he has for so long (especially with the whole, you know, blind thing to deal with). Wonder does provide the night's first surprise for me, as his energetic set and phenomenal sounding band act as a highly effective antidote to the musical Ambien that preceded him. The highlight is a spot-on version of Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks Of My Tears", sung by Robinson himself. John Legend then takes the stage to accompany Wonder on a tribute to Michael Jackson with "The Way You Make Me Feel", which takes on added emotional depth as Wonder breaks down during one of the verses, unable to complete the words as he fights back tears. After a duet with B.B. King on "The Thrill Is Gone", Wonder brings out Sting for a smokin' version of "Higher Ground", with a healthy portion of The Police's "Roxanne" sandwiched in the middle (where a couple of times Wonder misses his "put on the red light" vocal parts). Jeff Beck gets a little wank happy during his guitar solo on "Superstitious", but it's still an exceptional performance of the song.
Paul Simon's portion of the broadcast starts with "You Can Call Me Al". Utter dreck, in my opinion, but it's worth watching if only to see the elfin, mid 60'ish Simon dancing absolutely horribly. Graham Nash and David Crosby join him for a version of "Here Comes The Sun" that I deem not worth my time because I don't care for any of these singers, plus Simon has now picked up an acoustic guitar and is longer dancing. Another duet with Dion on "The Wanderer" follows and then a cool acapella version of "Two People In The World" by 50's doo-wop group Little Anthony And The Imperials. Eventually, Art Garfunkel comes onstage, much to the crowd's delight. The pair deliver a haunting and sublime take on "The Sounds Of Silence", which I know is considered a classic, but I must admit I've never cared for (nor any of Simon & Garfunkel's music). I now look at the song completely differently. The rest of their set, including "Bridge Over Troubled Water", doesn't make a similar impression on me.
Aretha Franklin is next. Her voice still sounds amazing and Annie Lennox does well to keep up with her during their "Chain Of Fools" duet. True to form, Franklin played her diva card by threatening to pull out of the event unless some of her outrageous demands were met (the best of which was requesting that all ventilation in the arena be turned off a few hours before her performance).
Next, going about as far in the other musical direction from Aretha Franklin as possible, Metallica blows the crowd's face off with a tight "For Whom The Bell Tolls", save for a noticeably clumsy drum fill from Lars Ulrich early on in the song. Perhaps he was a little over-amped at either the upcoming guests about to join Metallica onstage, or just finally getting a chance to play on the same stage as U2, something he mentioned in recent years as probably the only goal left in his career to accomplish. The first of the guest vocalists to join the HOF's newest inductees is Lou Reed, who looks out of it, quite frankly. I've never subscribed to the "genius" label attached to him (that awful voice!) and his lacklustre effort on the ultra repetitive "Sweet Jane" bores. Ozzy Osbourne then joins the band for "Iron Man" and "Paranoid". His voice still sounds good and he's as manic a physical performer as ever, but he constantly resorts to the same annoying mid-song stage banter that he's been doing for decades now, screaming at the crowd to make more noise. Metallica lead singer/guitarist James Hetfield is clearly enjoying his experience playing with Osbourne, though. In one of the program's more surreal moments, as Ozzy walks offstage following his appearance, Bonnie Raitt is seen in the audience raising her arm and presumably throwing the devil horns (her hand is just out of frame...let's just assume she was). Ray Davies of The Kinks then appears and leads the band through what surely must be the heaviest version ever of his band's classic, "All Day And All Of The Night". A faithful version of "Enter Sandman" closes Metallica's set, although I could have done without the pandering to the New York crowd by showing video images of New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera on the screen behind them (Rivera takes to the mound in every home appearance while the song plays on the stadium's P.A.).
Night two headliners U2 hit the stage with an aggressive "Vertigo", with Bono hinting at an upcoming special guest by throwing a snippet of the Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'N Roll (But I Like It)" into the song's ending. Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen later emerge from the stage wings, with the musicians turning in a powerful version of "Because The Night" (written by Springsteen and Smith). After Smith leaves, Springsteen duets with the band on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, with additional piano accompaniment from E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan. It's a reprise of their performance from U2's induction in 2005 and, while it sounds great, it would have been nice to hear another U2 classic tackled. Springsteen exits and Bono introduces Will.I.Am and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. As a U2 fan, I hate the fact they sing the praises of this band, as I'm at a loss at the last time I saw such an out of whack ratio of talent to number of albums sold. U2 starts into the Stones' "Gimme Shelter", which immediately gives thought to "is Mick going to appear?". Yes, he does. Jagger comes strutting onstage, but even his presence can't save a weak version of the song. At Jagger's request, the song's guitar arrangement has been slightly altered, detrimentally so. And Fergie's off-key singing doesn't help. Aside from her butchering the song, one other thought comes to mind as I watch her slink around in her tiny dress: the only thing she's missing onstage is a stripper pole. Jagger hangs around and the musicians redeem themselves with a solid version of "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" (Jagger actually recorded background vocals for the studio version, which were never used).
Jeff Beck is up next (subbing in for an ailing Eric Clapton). Again, I'm not a fan, but he does a pretty good version of "People Get Ready", with Sting assuming the vocal role. I fast forwarded through most of his set (which includes appearances from Buddy Guy and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons), although I found myself fascinated by the presence of Beck's bass guitarist, who is female and looks to be in her teens. In fact, she is 23, her name is Tal Wilkenfeld and her resume is already scarily impressive.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band closed the concert on night one and they show up as the final act of the TV program. Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame) accompanies The Boss and a horn section with extra background singers playing with the E Street Band, churning out killer versions of his soul classics "Soul Man" and "Hold On I'm Comin'". The slight distance between Springsteen's music and his r & b influences is immediately bridged. Moore and Springsteen are obviously having a ball...Moore occasionally busts out some slick dance moves and sounds in fine voice, while Springsteen can't wipe the grin off his face, frequently breaking into a two step shuffle. Moore exits and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine comes onstage for "The Ghost Of Tom Joad". He contributes vocals (such as they are) and guitar to the song, which goes on damn near forever. Morello displays some nice fret work and fancy moves, but by the time he does his record scratching effect you're asking yourself "uh, is Born To Run coming any time soon?". And really, HBO? You couldn't find a stronger song than "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" to broadcast?! John Fogerty arrives next, dueting on "Proud Mary" (good) and "Pretty Woman" (not so good). Springsteen's own "Jungleland" is next and it's as good a live version as I've ever heard of the epic song. At the song's subdued climax, lingering camera shots show a performer giving his heartfelt all to the performance, even if for the 5oooth time - veins bulge on his forehead and his shirt is drenched in perspiration, which also dramatically drips off his arms and fingers as he accentuates his words with arm gestures. The heavy intensity of "Jungleland" gives way to the feel-good spirit of "A Fine, Fine Boy" , with 60's r & b legend Darlene Love. Billy Joel follows, trading off verses with Springsteen on a boring "New York State Of Mind" and then "Born To Run". "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher" is the final song of the program, with all of Springsteen's guests (and a couple of others) returning to the stage for the traditional "everybody out for the last song" appearance. Normally, they're cheesy and unmemorable, but the group keeps its head above water with this one. Unfortunately, much of it isn't visible, as HBO ran credits and still shots from the concerts over the music.
All in all, HBO has compiled a worthwhile souvenir of these two memorable shows. Five hours from the two concerts were cut from the broadcast portion, which will inevitably see the light of day in a future DVD box set.
Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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