It was a long night — close to five hours. By the time Bruce Springsteen came on at 11:45 p.m., it felt like we’d seen Crosby, Stills & Nash the day before. But there were sublime, even transcendent, moments on the first night of the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts at Madison Square Garden (they will air on HBO starting November 29). Also some surprises: We’ve never seen AARP members scalping before. (They’re super polite!)
The evening opened with executive producer Tom Hanks, looking inappropriately corporate in a suit, reading a stodgy speech off a huge teleprompter. It set up the tone: sterile, over-produced nostalgia — like the Hard Rock Café without hamburgers. Hank introduced Jerry Lee Lewis, who did a wobbly version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” but, bless him, the guy is 74. And at least his suit rocked.
Crosby, Stills & Nash were up first. Graham Nash — the hammy British one — was barefoot, in honor, perhaps, of their first song, “Woodstock.” Stephen Stills had his glasses on, the better to read the lyrics of a song he wrote on the TelePrompTer. (At the end, Nash quipped, “This is the real Woodstock!” Sorry, dude. Those tickets were free. And there was no TelePrompTer.) CSN couldn’t hit the high notes anymore, but the musicianship was super tight and the senior version of David Crosby’s voice was, in some ways, more interesting. Crosby introduced their first guest as “one of the greatest singers of all time — Miss Bonnie Raitt!” Amen to that, brother. (Cranky aside: Raitt was just one of two women who performed last night. Rock is still a boy’s club — fuck you, Jann Wenner!) A remarkably unchanged Jackson Browne followed Raitt: Same hair, same lack of charisma. So thank God for James Taylor. He and CSN broke into a rollicking “Oh, Mexico.” Sweet Baby James is still hot!
Next up: Paul Simon, with a big band. Rock’s biggest ego in the smallest body. Simon is a genius songwriter who introduced African music to a lot of white people, blah, blah, blah. But we can’t help but feel that the sleazy producer he played in Annie Hall didn’t involve acting. And it bugged us that he made poor Art wait around backstage while he did his solo stuff. On the other hand, the band was kick-ass, the songs (“Graceland,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”) are still beauties, and it finally got the crowd off their asses.
When sweet, Jewfro-ed Garfunkel was finally allowed out, the crowd went nuts, which we could tell kind of pissed Simon off. (Sweet!) They did “Sounds of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson” and a mind-blowing version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Art brought it! We forgave him his hideous Hawaiian shirt.
And then, perfection! When Stevie Wonder and his badass band ripped into a medley of early hits, including “For Once in My Life” and a smoking version of “Signed Sealed Delivered,” there’s no other word for it: magic. Nothing in the world is sweeter than hearing Stevie Wonder play harmonica. And what a voice. Still.
Wonder’s second guest (after Smokey Robinson, whose face was so taut you could bounce a quarter off it) was John Legend, who did a faithful version of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me” — he’s not Marvin, but who is? — then accompanied Wonder on a cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” And, whoa: In the middle of the song, Wonder forgot the lyrics. He kept playing the piano, but you could see his face on the big screens around the Garden, agonized to the point of tears. He eventually just faked the parts he couldn’t remember, and somehow it ended up being more moving — heartbreaking, really — because of the flub.
Sadly, Wonder wasn’t even off the stage before some loser behind us started lowing like a cow: Bruuuuuuuce! So, Bruce. We have mixed feelings. But we finally got it last night. One of his guests was Sam Moore, of the legendary Sam and Dave. He can still sing the pants off just about anyone. Listening to him was like the anti-American Idol: He’s authentic. Their versions of “Hold On” and “Soul Man” were the kinds of performances you regale (and annoy) your friends with stories of for years to come. Plus, we loved Sam’s T-shirt, which said, “Sam Is Who I Am.“
Those two songs should have been the last word. But after Sam left, Bruce launched into one of his earnest, Common Man songs, with Tom Morello guesting on guitar. We hate masturbatory guitar solos, so we bolted — no doubt missing an all-star finale of history-making proportions. We’ll watch it on HBO.