Inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concerts

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At 74, Jerry Lee Lewis is still trouble — the kind that has made this whole party possible. Shortly after 7:30 on October 29th, after a whiplash film montage of excerpts from the first 24 Hall of Fame induction ceremonies — moving thank-yous, immortal one-liners and tantalizing bites from live performances — and a hearty welcome from Tom Hanks, one of the concerts' executive producers, the stage lights fall on a pure primal riot: Lewis alone at a grand piano, singing his 1957 Sun Records smash "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and still making good on that warning, hammering the ivories with a solitary vengeance.

Crosby, Stills and Nash respond by formally opening the show with "Woodstock," as if to show Lewis he has no monopoly on seismic cultural revolt. The trio temporarily retired the song on their latest tour — "We had to play it a few times to make sure we remembered it," Crosby cracked at rehearsal. But he and Nash hold the long high notes in the "stardust and golden" chorus with gleaming, unhurried poise.

Each of the eight shows within the two big concerts is designed to highlight a seminal era and genre ("They used the word 'pods' in the proposal," says Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich), starting with the introductory films that kicked off each segment — whirling capsule histories with classic images and interview excerpts, dedicated to each featured artist's roots and branches. CSN's tale is an honest seesaw from the Utopian determination of the late Sixties (the 1969-70 trinity of "Woodstock," "Marrakesh Express" and "Almost Cut My Hair") into the wounded idealism and retreat to introspection of Raitt's and Browne's songs. The finale is "Teach Your Children," a song about hard lessons and responsibility, sung by the whole troupe with undaunted optimism. "Once that joyous, warm power hits you," Crosby says that day after sound-check, "bad thoughts? You don't think about 'em."

Morello is in the house for much of the first night, taking in the music before he has to play with Springsteen. Asked later about high points of the first night, he immediately replies, "Simon and Garfunkel — breathtaking. The haunting beauty of what they did was jaw-dropping. When they came out with 'The Sounds of Silence,' the room just stopped dead."

Art Garfunkel remembers that entrance — after Paul Simon's set with his band, Dion's cameo and an authentic shot of Brooklyn street-corner a cappella by 2009 inductees Little Anthony and the Imperials — a little differently. "I heard a balance of vocals that wasn't quite right," he says after the show. "'The Sounds of Silence' has my voice in the lead, and it sounded much softer than Paul's lower harmony. I had to sing raucously loud to balance it. I thought, 'We just have to do it bold and big. That's a lesser choice, but it's all I'm left with.' Then came the second song" — "Mrs. Robinson" with a chunk of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" in the middle — "and everything started falling into place."

Garfunkel says his five songs with Simon, which included "The Boxer" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water," felt good and natural. They had toured the Far East last summer, "so we're in gear. We're comfortable with these tunes. Could have done the first verse better," he admits of "Bridge," ever the perfectionist. "Naturally, there's another thing called 'How do they like it in the audience?' It went down great. I gave 'Bridge' a big finish. But only I know how good that can be — that's all."

Unfortunately, Stevie Wonder commences his trip through the Sixties and Seventies American revolutions in black pop with the real sound of silence. His mixing console fries before Wonder and his massive band — including brass, four backup singers, two additional keyboard players — hit a note, leaving him with a dead mike in his hand. There are several false starts before Wonder gets power to one mike and his electric piano, enough for him to upend his set list ("We'll start it a little differently, until we get it together") and begin with a rough, poignant take on Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."

Wonder's 1966 soul-church cover was a Top 10 hit, but this is a true congregation moment: He calls on the audience for the chorus, to help him raise the rafters. "That was an act of genius," says Fogerty, who was part of that Garden chorale. "I told my wife, 'That's not what he's supposed to be doing. He took it out of the air.'"

At one point, during a jubilant cover of Michael Jackson's 1987 Number One single "The Way You Make Me Feel," Wonder clenches his fists to his face in despair, as if he's about to cry. But he fights off the tears and comes back to the Jackson song in defiantly youthful voice, adding shout-outs to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. "I didn't know I was going to play that," says singer John Legend, who is at Wonder's grand piano for that number. Legend came straight from Yankee Stadium — where he sang the national anthem for the second game of the World Series — to carry the Marvin Gaye tribute in Wonder's set. But after Legend does "Mercy Mercy Me," Wonder asks him to sit beside him and play on the Jackson song. "That was impromptu," Legend says, "but I'm used to it. Whenever he brings me out at a show, I end up staying longer than expected."

Despite the stress and distress, by the end rush of thumping funk — "Higher Ground" with Sting on bass and a detour into the Police's "Roxanne" and "Superstition," with Beck reprising his session-guitar role on the 1972 Talking Book recording — Wonder is in exuberant control. As Smokey Robinson, another of his guest vocalists, puts it after the show, "I can tell you that Stevie is blind, but he has never been handicapped."

When Springsteen finally gets onstage, it is nearly midnight. He only drops two numbers from his running order — "No Surrender" and "Hungry Heart" — and after bringing the audience to its feet with "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," Springsteen gets right to the rock & roll high school: his duets with Moore and Love. "These are not household names," Van Zandt says earlier. "And it's a shame. As far as I'm concerned, Darlene Love should be as well known to fifth-graders as George Washington."

Backed by an enhanced E Street Band — with a horn section and the extra backup vocalists from their current tour — Springsteen and Moore duet on "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Comin'," with Bruce growling the late Dave Prater's parts.

Then Springsteen introduces Love and mentions that she's a Hall of Fame nominee, adding, "So get those votes in." Love sings a magnificent "Da Doo Ron Ron," finding something deeper in its vintage teenage glee. Then Fogerty drags the E Street Band into the bayou for "Fortunate Son" and "Proud Mary," and sings close harmonies on a passionate "Oh, Pretty Woman" with Springsteen — in tribute to their mutual hero Roy Orbison, the two men each finding unexpected purity in their rough voices.

Morello and Springsteen, meanwhile, catch the audience off-guard with a fierce hard-rock version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad," with Morello's guitar solo turning into an epic, unearthly squall. "If we had cut that tune for Darkness on the Edge of Town," Springsteen says of the 1978 LP, "that's the version we would have done." Morello, Springsteen and the band later launch into the Clash's "London Calling" and Springsteen's own "Badlands," from Darkness — partly because of their similar march tempos, but also because, Springsteen says, "in 1977 and '78, I went out to all the little record stores and bought all of the new English punk records that came in. All of the early Clash singles found their way into the subtext of Darkness."

Springsteen brings on his final guest, Billy Joel, by claiming that Long Island and New Jersey were once "joined in one continuous land mass — that explains the similarities amongst the populace." During rehearsals, they agreed on two upt-empo songs, "Only the Good Die Young" and "You May Be Right." When Springsteen suggested "New York State of Mind," from Joel's 1976 album Turnstiles, Joel was skeptical, but Springsteen was insistent: "I said, 'No, it's going to drag things down,'" Joel recalls. "He said, 'No, you gotta do that. It's the World Series, it's the Yankees, it's New York.'"

The evening concludes with a blast of gospel joy: Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," with all of Springsteen's guests back — plus Jackson Browne and Peter Wolf, who clambered onstage from the audience at Van Zandt's urging. "All the way home," says Fogerty, "that song was in my head."

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