The fourth annual benefit for the Silverlake Conservatory of Music ended with a countdown, and a man named Flea standing patiently in a tent filled with art. As the final numbers ticked away, the Chili Peppers bassist happily scribbled the winning bid for a painting by Richard Prince. This would require a very large check, but the sum was just a fraction of the money raised for the community music school Flea founded 13 years ago.
"I just want to teach music to as many kids as I can and supply arts education," he told Rolling Stone, noting that the funds will be used for a new building that will double the student capacity to well over 1,000. About 200 kids currently attend for free. "Arts are as important as athletics and academics. It's the three A's."
Flea's co-host for the night was Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis, who has supported his sideman's mission from the beginning. "I remember talking to Flea about him wanting to do a school 15 or 16 years ago in Australia, and I couldn't tell if he was serious or if he was having a moment," Kiedis said. "But he was feeling the beauty of kids studying music. We came back to L.A., and he actually got the ball rolling."
The Saturday night of music and celebration was the first not to include a performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (though all four were present), but Bruno Mars and Rufus Wainwright ably filled the void. "I did go to music school," the latter told the crowd. "I actually dropped out, but I think it's important to have a music school to drop out of."
Wainwright performed an eight-song set at a grand piano located beneath a tall oak tree, beginning with "The Art Teacher" and a musical interpretation of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 20," singing in quietly desperate and romantic tones. He played Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and dedicated "Foolish Love" to the hugely influential former Warner Bros. Records exec Mo Ostin, who was sitting among a crowd that also included Alison Mosshart of the Kills, Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz, Travis Barker of Blink-182 and Danger Mouse.
Aside from the live music, the adjacent auction tent included original art from Ed Ruscha, Shepard Fairey, Raymond Pettibon, Kim Gordon, Gus Van Sant and many others.
"Everyone that shows up – musicians and from all walks of life – it means a lot. They believe in doing something for the kids, which is a selfless act," said Flea of the support. "I always aspired for it to be a school that long outlived us. So with tonight's help it looks like we're going to be able to secure a building to have the school in it, that we'll own and will ensure the longevity of the school."
Flea's ongoing commitment to the school, and its evolution into something larger is no surprise to Kiedis. "If you knew the story of Flea's life, it's what gave him purpose at a very young age, when he was pretty disenfranchised because his parents were divorced," Kiedis said. "He had a music teacher in junior high school that basically took him from being an unseen kid to a kid that everyone is going, 'Hello, this is Michael the trumpet player.' I think he really loved that and finding his path. It's really true to his heart."
Following Wainwright, Mars brought his eight-man band to the temporary stage outside a mansion built by silent film star Harold Lloyd (now owned by billionaire and Democratic fundraiser Ron Burkle). Most of the group stood in line with the singer for a wide-ranging set that not only included hits "Locked Out of Heaven" and "Treasure" but also a high-energy medley that sampled pop and rock music from the last few decades.
"We're going to wedding band-out right now," Mars said, smiling at his sidemen, then dove into the warm reggae of Musical Youth's "Pass the Dutchie," the Outfield's "Your Love" and Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It," which somehow led to Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and a molten guitar solo from Mars himself, followed by Michael Jackson's "Rock With You."
Near the end of his set, Mars told of the lasting impact of seeing the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform a frantic cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" at Woodstock '99. Right away, he'd decided he wanted to share his discovery by showing the heavy chord changes to his fellow students.
It didn't quite work out, he said with a grin. "My teacher kicked me out of my Polynesian music class."