Musicians Serenade Brian Wilson at MusiCares Gala

Chilis, Neil Young, Backstreet Boys lead MusiCares tribute

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It was smiles all around as the 2005 MusiCares Person of the Year celebration came to an end: Brian Wilson, the night's honoree, beaming at center stage, surrounded by a large cast of grinning musicians, many of whom had performed the former Beach Boy's music earlier in the evening. At the very end, Wilson's guitarist flipped over his instrument to reveal "SMILE" in large letters on the back.

More than 2500 people crowded into Hollywood's Palladium on Friday for the fiftieth annual MusiCares celebration. Money raised by the event goes to assist musicians in need. A tent on the parking lot was the setting for cocktails and a silent auction, including a bass signed by Sting, a private sax lesson from Dave Koz and an iPod loaded with the Top 50 Country and Christian albums, preceding the sit-down dinner in the main room.

The guests, clad in everything from embroidered blue jeans to tuxes (under the "black tie optional" instructions on the invitations), dined on sweet Maine lobster salad and braised beef shortribs from Wolfgang Puck Catering and drank Zinfandel, Syrah and more from Brassfield Estates Vineyard, a boutique winery in Northern California. Wilson's table, which he shared with family and friends, was front and center, just a few feet from the elevated stage where the entertainment took place.

In a video segment preceding the live show, Elton John voiced the reason for MusiCares: "There are people out there that need your help!" That was followed by news that this year's silent auction was the most successful yet. And one item was held back for live auction: all the lyrics to Pet Sounds in a leather-bound book, hand-written by Wilson. Bidding began at $5000, quickly jumped to $30,000, generated cheers at $80,000 and stopped at $105,000.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers got the musical tributes started. "God only knows how much we love Brian Wilson," shouted Anthony Kiedis, launching into an effervescent rendition of "I Get Around." Like virtually all the acts to follow, the Chilis kept it short and sweet -- one song, little banter and off.

Tight harmonies distinguished the Backstreet Boys' performance of "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)," while Shelby Lynne went solo on "the first song Brian Wilson ever recorded, 'Surfer Girl.'" Earth, Wind and Fire added some sweet soul to "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)," while Billy Preston and Michael McDonald played dueling keyboards on their rendition of "Don't Worry Baby."

McDonald introduced the next performer: "One of rock & roll's most infamous guitar slingers, Mr. Richie Sambora!" Shirt unbuttoned to his naval, the Bon Jovi axeman fit the description. "Brian, we all love you," he said, before performing the Wilson solo song "City Blues."

"Brian changed my life," said longtime collaborator Van Dyke Parks, echoing the sentiment of many in the crowd. "I can't help but think about back in the Sixties. He changed our ideas about popular music."

"Sail On, Sailor," delivered from the piano by Jamie Cullum, was arguably the night's greatest performance, earning the young Brit a standing ovation. The next one went to guitar hero Jeff Beck, who delivered an instrumental version of "Surfin' USA" highlighted by a blazing, down and dirty wah-wah solo.

"This is a song for you, for Carl, for Dennis," said Neil Young, dedicating "In My Room" not only to Wilson but also to his deceased brothers, singing in a tremulous voice well-suited to the tune.

Wilson himself finally took the stage. "I am so honored to be here," he said, before he and his band ran through "Heroes and Villains," "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations." Many of the evening's performers would join in for "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Love and Mercy." "All these great performances blew my mind. I want to thank everyone the best way I know how -- by playing a few songs just to make you smile."

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