I made a vacation out of this event. Really, I mean, I could have worked, but that meant that at some point during the concerts, I would not have been watching the performances. Not a chance. Going into this I knew that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concerts were going to be an event for the ages.
Opening with remarks from event producer Tom Hanks, the music started with the Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, a 1986 inductee, pounding out “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.” He was followed by Crosby, Stills and Nash. The trio and their band were clearly psyched up for the show and hit the stage with an energetic “Woodstock.” Each of the night’s billed acts had a slate of special guests and CSN first brought out Bonnie Raitt. Possessing one of the greatest voices in rock, Raitt sang a moving “Love Has No Pride” with Crosby and Nash adding harmonies. Stills rejoined them and Raitt pulled out the bottleneck slide for a take on Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.” Next up was “The Pretender” performed with its author, Jackson Browne. James Taylor was next with versions of “Mexico,” “Love the One You’re With” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock and Roll Woman.” They all returned for “Teach You Children” and enacted a No Nukes reunion of sorts.
Madison Square Garden is one of the oldest major arenas in the country and undoubtedly a legendary venue, but it’s also deceptively intimate. Even in the cheap seats, a relative term for this show, the energy was palpable all night. Paul Simon, a favorite son of Queens, worked that feeling with a tight set that featured hits from throughout his solo career. He welcomed interludes from fellow New Yorkers Dion, performing “The Wanderer,” and Little Anthony and the Imperials. Their version of “Two People in the World” made me wonder how many people in that crowd had actually heard an acappella group before. Simon brought out his longtime musical partner Art Garfunkel to a rapturous welcome. Their five-song set was commanding and deeply emotional. I can’t count how many people I witnessed wiping tears from their faces.
Faced with a sound system problem, Stevie Wonder dished up an impromptu solo version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” a hit for him in 1966. Problem solved and full speed ahead. Wonder’s set was a voyage through his formidable solo career and a tribute to many of his contemporaries and heroes. Guests included John Legend (“Mercy, Mercy Me”), Smokey Robinson (“Tracks of My Tears”), B.B. King (“The Thrill is Gone”), Sting (“Higher Ground” and “Roxanne”) and Jeff Beck (“Superstition”). During “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Wonder’s homage to Michael Jackson, he choked up in a wellspring of emotion only to recover and lead the crowd in a call and response.
You could witness a hundred shows from Bruce Springsteen and never have seen anything like the set he and the E. Street Band delivered on Thursday. In a seventeen-song set, there were only two performances by just Springsteen and the band. Like Stevie Wonder, it was a guest-filled bonanza that covered soul (with Sam Moore), rock and roll (with John Fogerty), Brill Building pop (with Darlene Love), and social consciousness (with Tom Morello). If that wasn’t enough, Springsteen and fellow east-coast legend Billy Joel paired for a rare set of duets from both of their respective songbooks. Six hours after it all began, Springsteen brought out all his guests for a roof-raising run at Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher.
Revisiting the show like this is nearly exhausting as the actual experience. As I went over my notes, I kept thinking, this was all one night? One show? I need a vacation from my vacation, just to digest it all.