Walking into Cleveland, Ohio's Public Auditorium for the 27th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony last night, it was hard to not think of the Titanic striking an iceberg on the very same day 100 years ago. In recent days Axl Rose and Rod Stewart, two of the biggest stars entering the Hall of Fame this year, pulled out of the show, making complete reunion performances by the Faces and Guns N' Roses impossible. Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante opted not to come, and the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch stayed home as he continues to recover from cancer.
One might think that these absences would sink the induction ceremony somewhere deep into the Atlantic Ocean, but it turns out they didn't matter much at all. In fact, it was one of the best Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in recent memory, and should make for great TV when it's broadcast on HBO on May 5th. "I don't know that it matters who's here tonight, because it's about the music that these bands played," Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan said during his induction speech. Minutes after making that point, McKagan walked over across to the stage to play an explosive three-song set of Guns N' Roses songs with Slash, guitarist Gilby Clarke, Alter Bridge singer Myles Kennedy and drummers Matt Sorum and Steven Adler.
Fans were screaming out "Fuck Axl" through much of the night, but the moment the group launched into "Mr. Brownstone," Rose and Izzy Stradlin's decision to not attend the ceremony was completely forgotten, and this previously unassembled lineup of the band proved they could revive the spirit of GNR on their own. Adler was grinning from ear-to-ear during a note-perfect "Sweet Child O' Mine," and the finale of "Paradise City" had nearly every single person in the audience screaming at the top of their lungs. A powerful singer, Kennedy hit every Axl-patented banshee wail perfectly.
The Faces also soldiered on without their lead singer, recruiting Simply Red's Mick Hucknall to fill his slot. He's done a bunch of shows with the group over the past few years, and he sounds exactly like early 1970s-era Rod Stewart. "Ooh La La" was a lot of fun, but they absolutely destroyed with "Stay With Me." Ron Wood played guitar with fiery passion, almost like he was trying to prove to Mick and Keith that he's in fighting shape for a Rolling Stones tour. Ian McLagan demonstrated that he's still one of the greatest keyboardists in rock and roll, and drummer Kenny Jones still has the chops that got him Keith Moon's old job in the late 1970s. Here's hoping that one day Rod comes to his senses and agrees to a tour with these guys.
The Beastie Boys had no intention of performing without Adam Yauch, so the Roots were joined by Kid Rock and Travie McCoy of Gym Class Heroes for an incredible medley of Beastie classics, including "Sabotage" and "So What'cha Want." Rock, Black Thought and McCoy all wore matching green Adidas track suits, and they did a great job of channeling the energy and spirit of the groundbreaking trio.
The evening kicked off with a surprise performance by Green Day, who did a bombastic rendition of the American Idiot deep cut "Letterbomb." Few in the audience seemed to know the song, but Billie Joe Armstrong worked the large room like a pro and got everyone pumped for the long night of music and speeches ahead of them. Per tradition, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame co-founder Jann Wenner addressed the crowd early on. "I believe in the magic of rock and roll," he said. "That magic can set you free. Ladies and gentlemen, tonight you've entered a place where magic happens."
Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill of ZZ Top delivered the first induction speech of the evening, honoring the late blues guitarist Freddie King. King's daughter, Wanda, spoke warmly about her father. "He inspired so many young blues artists," she said. "I remember going to a show when I was 14 and meeting Stevie Ray Vaughan for the first time. He said to my dad, 'How can I play the blues like you?' My dad said, 'If you don't feel the blues, you'll never play the blues.'"
After a smoking blues guitar battle by Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa and Derek Trucks on King songs "Hideaway" and "Going Down," John Mellencamp came onstage to induct Donovan. "He was my inspiration," Mellencamp said. "I wouldn't just listen to Donovan. I would live Donovan, which means I was stealing all my shit from Donovan. Other artists – and you know who you guys are – called that being inspired." Donovan read a short poem, then played "Catch the Wind" and "Sunshine Superman" before duetting with Mellencamp on "Season of the Witch."
Bette Midler broke down into tears near the end of her speech about Laura Nyro, who died of ovarian cancer in 1997. "In a world full of imitators saying 'fake it till you make it,' she was a complete original," said Midler. "She was in a league all her own. When you put her records on, you'd think they were made yesterday. She embodies what we all want to be, if only we had the guts…She was an ornament on the Earth. Everyone is so gratified to see this day finally come around at last." Sara Bareilles then honored Nyro with a gorgeous take on "Stoney End" on the piano.
Many non-performers were honored during the ceremony. Carole King inducted Don Kirshner, who was her boss and mentor during her days as a Brill Building songwriter in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Darlene Love honored the late record executive with an extremely powerful version of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," which she sang with Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra. Later in the evening, Robbie Robertson presented the Award For Musical Excellence to Cosimo Matassa, Glyn Jones and Tom Dowd.
In the middle of the evening, the Hall of Fame made up for some past oversights by having Smokey Robinson induct the Blue Caps (who backed Gene Vincent), the Comets (Bill Haley), the Crickets (Buddy Holly), the Famous Flames (James Brown), the Midnighters (Hank Ballard) and the Miracles, who backed Robinson for the first two decades of his career. The surviving members of all six groups took the stage together, and it was very moving to see these largely overlooked musicians finally getting the credit they deserved for their huge role in rock history.
Public Enemy frontman Chuck D and LL Cool J teamed up to induct the Beastie Boys. "They still are one of the greatest live acts in music," said Chuck D. "They challenged the conventions in the music business and made up their own rules about what it means to be world class hip-hop cats…They always insisted (on) maturing as musicians and human beings." LL Cool J said that he owes his entire career to the Beasties. "I wouldn't be here today without them," he said. "The Beastie Boys actually played my demo for Rick Rubin in his NYU dorm room. A lot of people don't know that."
Adam Horowitz read the audience a letter from Yauch. "I'd like to dedicate this to my brothers Adam and Mike," he wrote. "They walked the globe with me. It's also for anyone who has ever been touched by our band. This induction is as much ours as it is yours."
Green Day initially seemed like a slightly odd choice to induct Guns N' Roses, but Billie Joe Armstong spoke extremely eloquently about group. "Appetite For Destruction is the greatest debut album of all time," he said. "Every song hits hard on all emotion levels and takes you on a journey through the seedy underworld of Los Angeles in brutal sequence…The thing that set them apart from everybody else was guts, heart and soul. Most important, they told the truth."
Not a single member of Guns N' Roses mentioned Axl Rose by name in their speech. Matt Sorum gently teased Steven Adler for somehow managing to get fired from Guns N' Roses for a drug addiction, and Adler gave a surprisingly brief speech that culminated with him quoting "We Are the Champions" by Queen. Slash admitted that all the drama building up to the ceremony almost caused him to bail, but his wife ultimately talked him into attending. Keyboardist Dizzy Reed and guitarist Izzy Stradlin opted not to come.
It was about 12:30 a.m. when Chris Rock stepped up to the podium to induct the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "A lot of people are upset that Axl didn't come tonight," he said. "But let's face it. Even if he was coming tonight, he wouldn't be here by now. Where the fuck is Axl?" He went on to explain that he first saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers when he tried to see Grandmaster Flash in Philadelphia, but walked into the wrong club. "My friends and I were like, 'What the fuck is this shit? There's a lot of white people in here,'" Rock said. "They came out and I couldn't understand a fucking word they said, and they had socks on their dicks! I had never been to a white show before, so I thought all white groups put socks on their dicks. Years later, they're one of the biggest groups in the world and getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have black ties on their dicks tonight."
John Frusciante may have stayed home, but former drummers Jack Irons and Cliff Martinez were in the house. At 1:00 a.m., the group (with three drummers) did a three-song set of "By the Way," "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie" and "Give It Away." "I haven't played with Cliff in 25 years!" Flea said to the crowd. "He's a beautiful man."
At the end of "Give It Away," Anthony Kiedis invited everyone back to the stage. Slash, Ron Wood, Billie Joe Armstrong, Kenny Jones and even audience member George Clinton crammed onstage for a euphoric finale of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." In typical Hall of Fame fashion, the jam was completely chaotic, but everyone in the house seemed to be having a great time. The five-and-a-half hour show wrapped up at 1:30 a.m., and as the crowd poured onto the Cleveland streets in search of their cars or an after party, not a single person was talking about Axl Rose. It turns out they didn't even need him.