"A performance must be larger than life, but to be worthwhile you must have an element of humanity."
Rock's Hall of Famers Mix It Up
The New York Times,
October 31, 2009
There were hugs all around at the second Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert, Friday at Madison Square Garden -- a night full of collaborations, some inevitable, some improbable, and most ending in hugs. U2 joined by Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith singing "Because the Night"? Sure, makes sense: rocker-poets finding spirituality in desire. U2 and Mick Jagger doing "Gimme Shelter," with Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas singing the crucial female vocal part? Well, why not?
The Hall of Fame presents the history of rock, plausibly, as a giant family tree, branching from profound ancestors -- blues, country, gospel, pop, folk ballads, jazz, R&B -- to wild offspring, legitimate and illegitimate. That makes its induction ceremonies, and made the two Madison Square Garden shows, the kind of family reunions where distant cousins finally meet.
Friday's headliners were U2, Metallica, Jeff Beck (replacing an ailing Eric Clapton) and Aretha Franklin. Fellow Hall members, including Sting, Lou Reed, Ozzy Osbourne, Ray Davies of the Kinks and the bluesman Buddy Guy, sat in. Jerry Lee Lewis, from the first group of musicians inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986, started the concert with "Great Balls of Fire."
Where the first concert, on Thursday -- with Mr. Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Crosby, Stills and Nash -- fell within a classic-rock radio format, Friday’s pushed the timeline forward with the post-punk of U2, the thrash-metal of Metallica (which joined the hall this year) and a glimmer of hip-hop with Black Eyed Peas. And where Thursday's show concentrated on songcraft, Friday's reveled in untrammeled sound: Ms. Franklin's churchy improvisations, Mr. Beck's eruptive guitar solos, Metallica's ironclad blasts of hard rock and U2's oceanic reverberations.
Selections from the Madison Square Garden concerts, billed with uncertain math as the hall's 25th anniversary shows (the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation was incorporated in 1983), are to be telecast on HBO on Nov. 29.
With guests coming and going, and bands playing songs by others, the concerts broke musicians out of their routines.
There may have been some battle-of-the-bands competitiveness when U2 followed Metallica's gargantuan riffs with the aggressive blare that starts "Vertigo." But U2 was, as usual, striving for uplift. During the set, Bono called Madison Square Garden "rock 'n' roll's great cathedral" for "the saints and the heretics, the poets and the punks, that now make up the Hall of Fame."
"It's a dangerous thing," he continued, "this business of building idols, but at least rock 'n' roll is not, at its best, about worshipping sacred cows. It's about the thousands of voices gathered in one great unwashed congregation."
U2 plays arenas with a garage-band informality, proffering vulnerability as much as grandeur. The first attempt at "Because the Night" went awry -- U2's rippling beat was too subtle for Ms. Smith, who started in the wrong place, and the band later botched a chord change -- so Bono ruefully called for "Take two," which improved.
Bono preached that rock 'n' roll was about "political, sexual, spiritual liberation" and Mr. Springsteen, no stranger to earnestness himself, interjected, "Let's have some fun with that!" Then they performed "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for" together, singing lines in call-and-response. Eventually, Bono switched to singing lyrics from "The Promised Land," a Springsteen song.
And from there, U2 was as much host as headliner. During "Mysterious Ways," Black Eyed Peas arrived onstage, and U2 segued into Black Eyed Peas' wide-ranging protest song, "Where Is the Love?" U2 started playing a limpid, meditative but still recognizable version of "Gimme Shelter," with Fergie singing the introductory oohs, before Mick Jagger strode onstage and took over, answering Fergie’s vampy body language with his angular rock-scarecrow moves. He stayed onstage to sing U2's "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out of," finding its kinship with the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden."
Metallica's own thrash-metal songs had the unified, accelerating thrust that make it unstoppable onstage. During the set, Metallica's singer, James Hetfield, admitted to the curatorial hand of the Hall of Fame. The band was joined by an obvious guest: Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath, whom Metallica had inducted into the Hall of Fame. Its two other guests, Mr. Reed and Mr. Davies, Mr. Hetfield said, had initially seemed to fall outside Metallica's sphere. But Mr. Reed sang his primal Velvet Underground songs, "Sweet Jane" and "White Light/White Head," bolstered by Metallica's mighty impact. Before Mr. Davies had Metallica backing him for the Kinks' riff-rocking "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night," Mr. Hetfield said, "We got schooled on early, early riff-rock," as if he had just met Neanderthal Man.
Ms. Franklin, reveling in her upper register on Friday night, was less accommodating to her guests. She allowed them to wedge themselves into her hits: Annie Lennox in "Chain of Fools," reclaiming the low notes as Ms. Franklin soared higher, and Lenny Kravitz rushing through a verse alongside her in "Think." But Ms. Franklin was following her own program. Between soul songs, she performed numbers from musicals, dodging the beat and rasping like a jazz singer in "New York, New York" and treating "Make Them Hear You" from Ragtime, a song about justice, like a gospel hymn. She wouldn't be confined to the category of soul music.
In the Hall of Fame’s taxonomy of styles, Jeff Beck represents the British blues movement from which he emerged in the 1960s. But since then he has applied the tension and release of blues guitar to other structures, particularly jazz-rock fusions. He had Sting as vocalist for "People Get Ready," but for most of Mr. Beck's set the guitar did the singing: crooning long melodic phrases in "Cause We've Ended as Lovers" and the Ray Charles hit "Drown in My Own Tears," spiraling toward a frenzy in "Freeway Boogie," using bent notes and distortion to make sustained lines seethe with tension in "A Day in the Life."
Mr. Beck gave the concert its most familial moment. He acknowledged that seeing Buddy Guy "inspired me so much in 1962 that I never got over it." And he hung back, sticking mostly to rhythm guitar, as Mr. Guy tore into "Let Me Love You," singing with a blues shout that built toward raspy hysteria and playing solos that attacked the blues shuffle like a machete. Afterward, Mr. Beck knelt worshipfully at his feet, paying homage to a venerated ancestor who can still overpower him.
© The New York Times Company, 2009.