"I feel like I just went to Beatles camp," Jackson Browne, who had just finished performing at the Theater Within 30th Annual John Lennon tribute concert Friday night, told Rolling Stone. He was sitting in his sixth-floor dressing room after having played a faithful, laid-back "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "Revolution," and having duetted a very unlikely "A Day in the Life" with Cyndi Lauper.
"These songs still sounds so contemporary," Browne said. "No ones even come close. I can't believe the Beatles made all those records in their twenties."
Covering Lennon is one of rock n' roll's hardest tasks. Last night, the dozen-plus performers — including Patti Smith, Cyndi Lauper, Aimee Mann, Keb Mo, Joan Osborne, Martin Sexton, Shelby Lynne and Taj Mahal — rarely tried to match the original arrangements. Alejandro Escovedo, backed by house band The Sugarcane Cups, gave "Help!" a brooding Leonard Cohen workout, with a church organ and female backup singers. Taj Mahal and South African singer Vusi Mahlasela traded verses on a joyous "Watching the Wheels," Mahal belting Buddy Guy-style; he later gave "Come Together" a full-on soul R&B treatment. Sexton performed a straightforward acoustic "Working Class Hero."
There were stranger moments, like Chris Bliss, who rose to fame in 2006 on Youtube for juggling to the Abbey Road finale — he juggled what looked like lemons to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."
The true highlights came after intermission. Smith read a Kerouac passage from 1960, which includes the line, "We're Not Here, There or Anywhere." She moved into a stripped version "Strawberry Fields Forever," enunciating each word and unveiling the creepiness in the psychedelic song, making those fields sound a little less sunny, where there might be something to get hung about.
Smith told the crowd about the night John Lennon died, and she and husband Fred Smith mourned, and said she looked to Yoko Ono for inspiration when Fred Smith died in 1994. "She taught me how to carry on as a widow," Smith said. "This song is for you, Yoko!" She kicked into a joyous acoustic singalong of Imagine's "Oh Yoko."
Browne performed a laid-back take on "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "Revolution." "I prefer to sing in the melody," he said. "I like hearing those notes." Brown performed "Imagine" with the Playing for Change Band, a group of musicians from around the world including India, Argentina and the United States.
The final performer was Lauper, who looked slightly dazed. She emerged wearing a leather outfit and massive round earrings, adding experimental noise to "Across the Universe," full of crashing cymbals and heavy orchestra. She invited Browne out for "A Day in the Life," belting the verses for until the swirling orchestra breakdown, Browne singing Paul's part. She wrote in the evening's program that Lennon had helped her in her childhood. "I chanted to myself on a daily basis when just getting through anything was too tough," she told the audience.
"That McCartney part — you take it for granted because it's a place-keeper," Browne said. "There are all these doors that open up, all this shit happens, and then there's those two little stanzas. You have to imagine it would have been a longer song if you had said, 'Go home, Paul, and finish this song.'"
For the finale, the performers took the stage for "Give Peace a Chance," trading off the tongue-twisting verses. Lauper gave up entirely on her verse, instead shouting "blah, blah, blah." The performers left the stage singing the song a cappella. Smith stayed behind, staring at a giant photo of Lennon smiling, and finally waved goodbye.
After the show, Browne reminisced to Rolling Stone about his hero, discussing everything from sharing Lennon's October 9 birthday ("I've been celebrating John Lennon's for my whole life. He would be 70 right now —can you believe that?"), Lennon's talent for double-tracking vocals ("If I do that, my voice sounds like putting it through a choruser") and Dylan's influence ("That psychedelic, cascading imagery lasted Lennon's entire career").
"You forget he had half a life," said Browne. "He was so productive. The ingenuity, the bed-in, resolutely speaking out about the war, putting it all in human terms. 'Come together, over me.' That's what the Beatles always did. They were always on the forefront of everything we were discovering."