While many people rightly consider the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame a joke because of the many artists denied induction that are deserving, it’s hard to deny the outstanding nights of rock ‘n’ roll that graced Madison Square Garden on October 29th and 30th, 2009, celebrating the Hall’s 25th anniversary a year late. The concerts were edited into a four-hour program on HBO and now Time Life presents an expanded presentation of the event across three DVDs. However, they aren’t in chronological order and don’t present all the performances from the event.
Disc 1 begins with an introduction by the event’s co-executive producer Tom Hank. Inaugural inductee Jerry Lee Lewis gets things started off with a raucous version, as if he does any other kind, of his signature hit “Great Balls of Fire.” He still plays it at a pretty good clip and punctuates the conclusion by kicking out his piano bench.
Crosby, Stills & Nash follow him. After a couple of their well-known tunes, they become a backing band for friends. Bonnie Raitt sings “Love Has No Pride,” which was a minor hit for her, and then Jackson Browne is next with his “The Pretender.” The pace is picked up as James Taylor trades lyrics on Stills’ “Love the One You’re With.” Pairings like these go on through both evenings and it’s what makes the event so special.
Stevie Wonder offers some Motown flavor with his “For Once in My Life” and by playing keyboards for Smokey Robinson, who sings “The Tracks of My Tears.” Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” gets a funky arrangement and John Legend sits in on piano. Mr. B.B. King and Wonder deliver an outstanding duet on “The Thrill Is Gone” with Lucille sounding as sleek and sultry as ever. Sting’s bass has never sounded funkier than the bass grooves he lays down on “Higher Ground” and Wonder returns the favor by singing back-up on “Roxanne.” When they return to “Higher Ground,” Sting adds his raspy vocals. Wonder’s set closes with “Superstition” and his final guest is Jeff Beck, the man who created the original drum beat and later recorded his own version. Beck rips it up.
Paul Simon follows and the DVD offers a bonus performance not seen on HBO of “You Can Call Me Al.” Simon brings out Crosby and Nash to honor his friend the late George Harrison; their harmonies create a beautiful rendition of “Here Comes the Sun.” Simon then takes a step out of the spotlight to feature two of his musical idols from New York. Dion sings “The Wanderer” and the doo-wop group Little Anthony and The Imperials perform “Two People in the World,” demonstrating all you need is a voice to make music.
Of course, Simon’s set wouldn’t be complete without Art Garfunkel. They sing a trio of songs and as enjoyable as they were, it would have been great if others had joined them. Their vocals sound slightly off during “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Now I don’t expect them to sound like they did nearly 30 years ago, but something else sounds amiss from a technical standpoint that I can’t quite put my finger on.
Aretha Franklin closes out the DVD with a trio of songs. It’s refreshing that we don’t get the overplayed “Respect” and instead get Top 5 hit “Baby I Love You,” her Grammy Award-winning “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” and a duet on “Chain of Fools” with Annie Lennox.
Taking the hard rock spot when Led Zeppelin declined to reform, Metallica, the youngest inductees, kick off Disc 2. They honor their elders by playing as a back-up band into between two of their own songs. Lou Reed sings “Sweet Jane,” Ozzy Osbourne does a Black Sabbath medley of “Iron Man/Paranoid,” and Ray Davies rocks “All Day and All of the Night.”
U2 on their own perform recent hits heard on the radio. As nice as they are, they make you anticipate the guest performers, and that’s where their set really comes to life. Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith come out for “Because the Night” with E Street member Roy Bittan on piano. The Boss stays for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” U2 is at its most rocking when they deliver a powerful rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Helping out on vocals are Mick Jagger and Fergie. To be honest, I was immediately dismissive when I saw her inclusion, but she absolutely nails the vocal. I can’t understand why she’s not doing more rock. Jagger sticks around for “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” a song he had recorded background vocals for, but they didn’t make the final cut.
Jeff Beck stepped in for an ill Eric Clapton and brought plenty of friends. Sting takes Rod Stewart’s place and delivers a soulful “People Get Ready” by The Impressions. Next out are two guitar slingers to trade licks: Buddy Guy on Willie Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby” and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady.” Beck’s instrumental take on The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” is an impressive display of technique.
Springsteen and the E Street Band close out the disc and they invite a few people to the party. Sam Moore sings a medley of “Hold On! I’m Coming/Soul Man” with Springsteen filling in for the late Dave Prater. On the original recording, Sam adlibs, “Play it, Steve” to Steve Cropper but here he addresses Little Steven with it. Tom Morello might give my favorite individual performance with his blistering guitar solos on “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Darlene Love sings about “A Fine Fine Boy.” John Fogerty and Billy Joel each get two numbers that finds them sharing vocals with Springsteen. With the former, the audience gets his “Fortunate Son” and Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” while Long Island meets New Jersey on “New York State of Mind” and “Born to Run.” All the guests come out for an uplifting rendition of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” as the credits roll.
The Bonus DVD runs a little over an hour and offers a selection of performances by all the headliners, individually and with guests, except for Aretha’s set. There are also full-length versions not seen on HBO of Ozzy and Metallica’s “Iron Man/Paranoid” and the star-studded “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Crosby, Stills & Nash assist James Taylor on his “Mexico” and then bring all three singers to join them on “Teach Your Children.”
The highlights on this disc are the tributes. Stevie Wonder duets with John Legend on Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. Simon & Garfunkel slip a portion of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” into “Mrs. Robinson.” Springsteen and Morello tip their hat to The Clash on “London Calling”. Metallica plays “Turn the Page” and after all the guest stars, it’s too bad Bob Seger didn’t join them.
The one track that deserved to be cut was The Black Eyed Peas/U2 mash up of “Where Is the Love/One.” Too many other musicians past and present were more deserving of that spot. This would have been my bathroom song and I am guessing I would have found long lines there and at the beer servers.
The audio is available in 2.0 Stereo and the recommended option of Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, which expands the sound and gives the music breathing room. The liner notes contain a very informative article from Rolling Stone covering not just the concerts but the planning and rehearsals. They tease you with performances that didn’t make the DVD, such as Stevie Wonder’s impromptu cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and with artists who were asked that didn’t take part for one reason or another, like Neil Young.
The 25th Anniversary Concerts was an impressive undertaking and planners did as good a job honoring the history of rock ‘n’ roll as could be expected over the course of two evenings. With this set, Time Life provides a time machine to experience it, or for those lucky few, to relive it. If you love rock ‘n’ roll, you’ll love this set.
U2 ft. Mick Jagger, Fergie & Will.i.am – “Gimme Shelter”