It’s hard to believe that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is 25-years-old. It seems like only yesterday that people were arguing whether a hall of fame was appropriate at all, given rock’s insistence that it’s still all about rebellion and stickin’ it to the Man.
Well, with every year that passes, you still see the embers of that argument flaring up. At this point, though, any arguments about the Hall seem like a half-hearted ritual — the Hall’s not going anywhere, and you can find something in every induction ceremony to support your particular hopes or misgivings about the whole affair.
So we’ll let those frictions slide for now, since none of them will be settled anytime soon as the Hall throws its induction party year after year. To mark its 25th anniversary, the Hall threw a heavyweight concert at Madison Square Garden, and released a nine-DVD set spanning that show and all of the hall’s previous induction broadcasts. It’s an embarrassment of riches, even if the stuff that’s missing — Led Zeppelin, for example — can be pretty glaring. This three-DVD set serves as a sampler of that larger set, as it consists of that nine-disc collection’s first three discs, and it’s representative of both the good and bad of Time-Life’s effort.
To begin with, it goes without saying that there are plenty of fun, once-in-a-lifetime performances here. Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson join Creedence Clearwater Revival for a scorching “Green River”, Springsteen sits in with U2 on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, Springsteen tears through his own “Promised Land”, and Bruce Springsteen sings with his hero Roy Orbison (somehow fumbling the lyrics to a song he’s probably been singing to himself most of his life).
OK, OK, it’s not like Springsteen’s the only artist featured, or that a performance needed him to be memorable — there’s plenty to be said for things like Jefferson Airplane’s surprising performance of “Volunteers”, or how tight Santana sounds, or Neil Young’s fearless attack on “All Along the Watchtower” — but let’s face it, the Boss is everywhere on this set. For this viewer’s money, though, you still can’t do any better than Prince’s massive guitar solo during “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as part of the tribute to George Harrison. It’s classic Prince, tipping his hat to a legend but also reminding people why a purple rain fell on the rock landscape for years.
Some of the induction speeches are top-notch, as well. Springsteen’s memories of comparing his male-dominated audiences to Jackson Browne’s female-dominated crowds is a winner, as is Eric Clapton’s revelation that he once chickened out of asking to join the Band. There’s even a taste of Eddie Vedder’s go-for-broke, wired beat poet induction style (his self-parody in the film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is spot-on).
Above all, there’s a charming, seat-of-the-pants atmosphere to the Hall ceremonies, especially in the early days when it seemed like an ego or a technical snag could bring the whole thing to a halt. Presenters and inductees show varying degrees of respect for the institution, and those all-star jams are notable if only because they’re not total chaos.
Unfortunately, that ragged nature extends to these DVDs, as well. The video quality is passable, but not great (the earliest years suffer the most, but no one back then seemed to be thinking about recording anything for archival purposes, so there’s not much to be done there). The more frustrating aspect of this set is the arbitrary way it’s put together. Clips are assembled seemingly at random, when a chronological approach might have made more sense, and equal weight is given to virtually every act, regardless of their stature.
Apart from the occasional moment like the George Harrison tribute, it’s pretty much “edited induction speech followed by one song, boom, on to the next act, repeat”. Thankfully, many of the best induction speeches are included in their entirety as bonus features, along with some scattered rehearsal footage.
Ultimately, the real shame of this collection might be the knowledge that so many stories aren’t being told. For example, what did it take to get Creedence back on stage together, or for that matter, most of the Band? It seems a little silly to fuss about these DVDs’ shortcomings, but as good as many of these performances are, this collection also feels a bit like an amateur mix tape, where everything’s just been dumped onto each disc. What does 25 years add up to? It’s sometimes hard to tell from this set.