[5 November 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In October 2009, two nights of star-studded shows at Madison Square Garden celebrated the silver anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The performances were, naturally, documented and edited footage was later aired on HBO. Now the concerts are available in a three-disc DVD set.
While The 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts DVD doesn’t actually feature absolutely all that attendees witnessed in 2009, it does include more than an hour of rock ‘n’ roll that didn’t make the HBO special. The first DVD, like the concerts, opens with remarks from event producer Tom Hanks, who name-checks a long list of hallowed cities where rock ‘n’ roll was born in an impassioned speech, during which he shouts “Hail, hail rock and roll!” at which point you might expect Chuck Berry to duck walk across the stage.
Instead, the concert started with another of rock’s progenitors. Jerry Lee Lewis, a 1986 inductee, is shown playing “Great Balls of Fire”, and while the Killer’s still got it on the keys (he really is amazing to watch as he caresses those notes), it seems as though this performance took away some of his bite; he looks bored and it’s probably because the crowd just seems to be sitting politely. It doesn’t help that the ‘50s footage of Lewis is inter-cut awkwardly, but it’s a rather inauspicious opening, not to mention disappointing. That is until Lewis stands at the end and, with a spark of that old fire in his eyes, kicks his piano bench back defiantly, pounds out the last of the song and struts off stage. Now that’s the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll you want to see in a Hall of Fame Concert!
Unfortunately, that energy was doused by the fact that it was followed with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Though fine musicians and the first of the DVD to play with other guests, including Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and James Taylor, it hardly seems fitting that they get six tracks to Lewis’ one. Particularly when nothing about the CSN set is notable, even those guests.
However, it’s a hallmark of the Rock & Roll Hall o Fame ceremonies that various inductees and other stars play together, so the concert continues this tradition. Stevie Wonder is the next to play host to a host of other performers. After a perfunctory version of “For Once in My Life”, he introduces Smokey Robinson and accompanies him on “Tracks of My Tears”, which, it will turn out, is the highlight of not only this section, but of this disc and maybe the entire DVD set. Smokey still sounds as sweet and soulful as ever, and you feel a little sad watching him exit.
You also feel a bit sad for those that have to follow him. John Legend joins Wonder at the keyboards for a tribute to Michael Jackson, which is immediately eclipsed by B.B. King dueting with Wonder on “The Thrill is Gone”. Sting steps up next to slap some funky bass on “Higher Ground” that segues into “Roxanne” and then back to “Higher Ground”. Finally, Jeff Beck joins Wonder for a fiery solo on “Superstition”. Now we’re getting somewhere!
The concert portion is paused at this point (because, clearly, pacing is a foreign concept to the editors) to show still photos of Elvis Presley as “Love Me Tender” plays in the background. Then vintage footage of the Everly Brothers gives way to grainy photos of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and you realize this is the set up for the next part of the show. The Brill Building and press shots of several songwriters and vocal groups dissolve into folk music and early ‘60s Greenwich Village. Simon takes the stage for “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” and “You Can Call Me Al”, and he’s joined by Crosby and Nash for a truly lovely “Here Comes the Sun” before introducing Dion DiMucci, who like Lewis, Robinson, and Beck, reminds the crowd it’s not about the big names or the flash staging. It’s all about the spirit and the songs when he lets the lyric flow on “The Wanderer”.
The New York love continues with Little Anthony and the Imperials, who Simon introduces as “perhaps the best” of the New York doo-wop groups. Art Garfunkel comes out to sing “The Sound of Silence”, “The Boxer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with Simon and it’s another standout moment in the music. Forty-odd years on, and the blending of those voices still send a chill.
More stills and stock footage lead up to several rousing renditions by Aretha Franklin including “Chain of Fools” with her special guest, Annie Lennox. Franklin is, perhaps, the one performance in which the presentation is as important as the sound. Looking regal in a red ball gown and sequins, and flanked by six or seven back-up singers, Franklin is clearly all about putting on a show both visually and vocally. I should note here that you can choose to watch just the performances from the main menu if you wish to avoid the stills and such, but you may also miss some of the artists’ introductions and banter.
The second disc opens with a set by Metallica, and while you’re busy wondering why Lou Reed, Ozzy Osbourne and Ray Davies are the special guests of Metallica, don’t forget to enjoy the muscular version “Sweet Jane”, a medley of “Iron Man” and “Paranoid” and a blistering “All Day and All Night”. You may be surprised to find that Ozzy’s performance is the one to beat among these musicians. Or maybe not, but you’ll definitely be thrilled by how energetic Davies is. Everyone on stage, even Reed, is obviously enjoying themselves and that’s something that wasn’t necessarily apparent on the first disc.
Up next, U2 does what it does best, and that’s big, crowd-pleasing stadium anthems. They pull out “Vertigo” and “Magnificent” before Bruce Springsteen joins them for two songs, including an unbelievably moving version of “Because the Night” featuring Patti Smith and Roy Bittan. Maybe it’s that Springsteen rarely performs it himself, maybe it’s that Smith has always owned the song or maybe it’s the obvious glee Bono exhibits sharing the vocals with them, but this is another of those unexpected highlights that can come only from something like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame event. Rather than do another of his own songs, Springsteen takes on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Again, it’s unexpected, but it works.
The stakes are raised when Fergie and will.i.am come out—still with u2—for a shattering “Gimme Shelter” and are joined, mid-intro, by Mick Jagger himself. It’s intriguing to hear the Edge’s treatment of the classic guitar lines, but it’s Fergie who steals the song. The woman’s got some serious pipes, if you didn’t know from her hits, and not that they’re slouches or anything, but she pretty much hands Jagger and Bono their hats. Jagger refers to U2 as the world’s best house band. He does have a point. The band’s hosting gig is certainly the best of the concerts’ so far, in terms of guests and songs, as well as in sound and audience excitement. Stuttering momentarily, Bono gestures to Jagger, saying, “Special song, uh, this man with make this a special song” as they slide into a stunning “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”. U2 closes its set with “Beautiful Day”.
How do you follow U2, Springsteen and Jagger? With another consummate showman, of course. The next Hall of Fame “host” is Jeff Beck, who wastes no time bringing on his guests. First, Sting sings “People Get Ready”, then Back and Buddy Guy trade licks on “Let Me Love You Baby”, and Billy Gibbons takes the mic for a fiery “Foxey Lady” in which the two legends pay a fitting tribute to Jimi Hendrix, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992. Finally, Beck hypnotizes the crowd with his intensely emotional instrumental version of “A Day in the Life”. If you were keeping score, Jeff Beck just surpassed the U2/Springsteen/Jagger trifecta, at least in this reviewer’s opinion.
Bruce Springsteen comes back, this time with the E Street Band, to, arguably, the most enthusiastically received sets of the entire DVD (it’s probably a toss up with U2, actually). It’s unclear from the booklet included with the discs whether he actually had to follow Jeff Beck, or whether his “host” set was occurred in the order presented here (there were cuts), but his portion of the concert is certainly the longest. It also features a lot of great tribute songs and duets over his own material. Sam Moore helps out on “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and “Soul Man”, Tom Morello guests on “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, John Fogerty appears for “Fortunate Son” and sticks around for a tribute to one of Springsteen’s heroes, Roy Orbison, with a cover of “Pretty Woman”. The E Street Band takes back the spotlight on “Jungleland”, before Darlene Love sweetens the proceedings with “A Fine Fine Boy”. Then Billy Joel is brought out for his own “New York State of Mind” and then Bruce’s “Born to Run”. Joel is a treat. I don’t think I’ve seen him enjoy himself on stage like this in quite a while. Springsteen ends his extended set by having all of his guests back out for an ecstatic run through Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”.
Because the second disc progressed from high to high, and the last two sets, especially would be hard to top, it makes sense that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts’ third disc be a collection of bonus performances. Presumably, these are those that did not air on HBO’s original broadcast. CSN does “Mexico” with James Taylor and “Teach Your Children” with Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. I’m not sure why that was cut, because it’s really nice. Stevie Wonder’s unaired tracks are “Uptight”, “I Was Made to Lover Her”, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”.
Simon and Garfunkel only lost one song, but, inexplicably, it was “Mrs. Robinson” in a medley with Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”. It kind of makes you worry about the mental state of whoever made these editing decisions for HBO. Metallica’s cuts were apparently “Turn the Page” and what must be included here as a mistake, because it’s the Ozzy performance that appears earlier. U2 did “Mysterious Ways” in addition to the songs I’ve already mentioned, as well as a medley of “Where is the Love” and “One” with The Black Eyed Peas. At least the editors had the sense not to cut the Jagger.
They did, however, cut what’s clearly the best song of Jeff Beck’s set, “Freeway Jam”. Thank god for bonus material with this one, it’s what makes the third disc worth it. Also included from Beck’s set is “Big Block”. While it might be understandable that Bruce Springsteen’s set was shortened, given that it was longer to start with, it’s unfathomable that the song chosen for excising was “London Calling” featuring Tom Morello. Really? You cut the Clash? Again, it’s instances like this when bonus material really becomes the reason for having the DVD. “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” is listed as a bonus, like the Ozzy performance, it appears to be the same as the one included on the second disc. Perhaps those songs were performed exactly the same on both nights, but that’s highly unlikely given that one of the performers is Ozzy Osbourne. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with any of the performances themselves and I don’t detect any technical glitches, so the conclusion I reach about all these cut performances—the ones actually absent from the broadcast, that is—is that it was purely a matter of editing for time.
Then again, maybe HBO planned to have a bonus disc all along. Either way, it’s great that these are documented and now available for those who missed the live concerts, whether or not they caught the original broadcasts.
The 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts DVD comes with a booklet that contains essay material written by David Fricke and Brian Hunt for Rolling Stone with photographs by Mark Seliger, and features 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 Surround sound options.