Earlier this month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its 32nd class: Joan Baez, Tupac Shakur, Electric Light Orchestra, Pearl Jam, Journey and Yes. The ceremony at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center – which airs Saturday on HBO – featured some of the funniest speeches in years and an impressively diverse performance lineup, with Baez’s folk, a multi-part Tupac medley and Lenny Kravitz’s gospel serving as a counterbalance to all the searing, arena-friendly rock. Here, we look back at the night’s most unforgettable moments.
Letterman shined as a last minute substitute for Neil Young, who was originally supposed to induct Pearl Jam into the Rock Hall. The former Late Show host earned guffaws as he gently ribbed, well, pretty much everyone. He started with himself (“I can’t even begin to tell you what an honor and a privilege it is to be out of the house”) and then moved on to Young (“The poor guy just can’t stay up this late. … Either that, or he swallowed a harmonica”), Ticketmaster (“… beady-eyed, blood-thirsty weasels!”) and Pearl Jam’s rotating cast of percussionists (“Tonight the entire balcony is full of former Pearl Jam drummers”).
But under cover of all the jokes, Letterman displayed a keen appreciation for live performance – “Never take the opportunity for live music for granted,” he told the crowd – and above all else, a sincere admiration for Pearl Jam. “These guys in Pearl Jam were something more than a band,” he remembered feeling when they debuted in 1991. “They’re true living cultural organisms.”
After a glowing speech in which he praised Yes for helping him tune “into a wider world of possibilities … where music seemed to have no limitations,” Rush’s Geddy Lee strapped on his bass and joined his heroes to perform “Roundabout,” the first track on Yes’ 1971 album Fragile. Steve Howe began the tune with light, exploratory lines on guitar, but the song roared to life when the rhythm section arrived, buoyed by Lee’s bulldozing bass notes. His fandom and talent translated into a jolt of energy for the whole band, which helped “Roundabout” hit with the same wallop as the stadium-killer “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
“Roundabout” also made plenty of room for Rick Wakeman’s ornate, detailed keyboard work, but that was just icing on the cake at this point: Wakeman had already brought the house down with an acceptance speech that contained a hilarious stream of dirty jokes. “I remember [my father] sat me down once; he said, ‘Son … don’t go to any of those really cheap, dirty, nasty, sleazy strip clubs because if you do, you’ll see something you shouldn’t,’ Wakeman quipped. “So, of course I went. And I saw my dad.”
The crowd clapped long and hard when Steve Perry took the stage to be honored by the Rock Hall – he had not performed with his former bandmates in Journey since 1991. Perry returned the audience’s salute in kind. “You’re the ones who put us here!” he declared. “We would not be here had it not been for you and your tireless love and consistent devotion. … I have been gone a long time, I understand that. But I want you to know, you’ve never not been in my heart.”
Perry was also effusive about the abilities of his bandmates – “I thank you so much for all the music we’ve written and recorded together” – and he graciously praised his replacement, Arnel Pineda, “who sings his heart out every night.”
Pineda did just that when Journey performed three classics: “Separate Ways,” “Lights” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” He was the spark plug at the center of the action, staggering around the stage, dipping backward after delivering lines as if the effort of singing left him too weak to continue, but then leaping and kicking his feet in the air moments later.
Pharrell was faced with a formidable task: attempting to encapsulate the career of an artist who has changed the course of rock, disco, hip-hop, soul, house, mainstream EDM and more. But he proved more than up to the task, contributing some of the evening’s most vivid descriptions. He described his first encounter with the demo for Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as “an adrenaline shot for whoever wanted to leave this Earth and travel to a different universe and dimension.”
Later in the speech, Pharrell led the audience through a rousing tour of Rodgers’ back catalog. “I read that the total value of his music has come to about $2 billion,” Pharrell noted. “But I bet even greater than that is the number of people who have danced around the world to a Nile Rodgers song; who won contests at a club while ‘Le Freak’ was playing; who hugged a family member while ‘We Are Family’ was blasting in the background; who discovered hip-hop through a ‘Good Times’ sample; who jumped around in their bedroom to ‘Like a Virgin,’ or ‘Let’s Dance’ or ‘Notorious.'” It was a rhetorical tour de force.
No one would have stood on the Rock Hall stage – this or any other year – without the innovations of Chuck Berry, but ELO’s Jeff Lynne was particularly well-suited for a tribute performance: ELO’s cover of Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” gave the band one of its earliest hits and allowed them to crack the Hot 100 in the U.S. for the first time when it climbed to Number 42 in 1973.
Lynne did not disappoint: He, members of his touring band – Jeff Lynne’s ELO – and a small string section careened through one of Berry’s most iconic tracks. Two cellos and a violin added light orchestral flourishes – and playful interpolations of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – in between tight, guitar-heavy verses.
The stars came out to remember the remarkable career of Tupac. After a funny and moving tribute from Snoop Dogg – “Understand all of Pac’s sides,” Snoop urged the crowd, “he was much more than you probably think” – Alicia Keys led a crack band through Tupac’s discography, demonstrating the rapper’s ability to craft an indelible melody and pick a perfect sample. Keys turned “Ambitionz az a Ridah” and “I Get Around” into snapping, bluesy vamps and then pivoted into “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” and “Dear Mama,” which she belted as big-room ballads. The band behind her laid low for much of the medley, letting her voice fill the Barclays Center, but the drummer came to life during “Changes,” whacking his kit with enough heft to help Keys end her short segment at an energetic peak.
Baez used her induction speech as a chance to reiterate her lifelong commitment to political activism. “What has given my life deep meaning and unending pleasure has been to use my voice in the battle against injustice,” she said. And Baez was quick to remind listeners that this battle is ongoing. “Where empathy is failing and sharing has been usurped by greed and the lust for power, let us double, triple and quadruple our own efforts to empathize and to give of our resources and our selves,” she continued. “Let us together repeal and replace brutality, and make compassion a priority. We the people must speak truth to power, and be ready to make sacrifices.”
Kravitz had a secret weapon for his Prince tribute: Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Choir, who imbued the songs with uncontainable fervor. During “When Doves Cry,” Kravitz was surprisingly restrained, singing and keeping time with a tambourine. But he pulled out his guitar and rose to the choir’s implicit challenge during “The Cross,” a rumination on human suffering and the afterlife from 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times. The song started with languid keyboards, but the calm didn’t last for long: Soon Kravitz was playing at full volume and his drummer beat out a merciless stomp. This in turn pushed the choir into its highest gear, which helped “The Cross” land with the avalanche force of gospel.
Pearl Jam bristled with intensity during their Rock Hall performance. The band opened with “Alive,” which gave Dave Krusen, the drummer from the group’s debut album, Ten, a chance to sit in behind the kit. Eddie Vedder rumbled and rasped through the song’s life-affirming chorus, but Mike McCready got the final word, hurtling through a head-turning solo and unfurling long streams of notes at remarkable speed as Krusen bashed away behind him.
Pearl Jam’s current drummer, Matt Cameron, returned for the next two songs, “Given to Fly” and “Better Man.” Both selections allowed the band to open at a stately pace before blasting off. The crowd began to sing along, unprompted, as soon as Pearl Jam started playing “Better Man,” and the group ended their set at full tilt, with Vedder and the audience trading lines and McCready carving out space for another impressive solo.
The absence of Neil Young at the Rock Hall Induction ceremony didn’t bother Pearl Jam, Yes’ Trevor Rabin, Rush’s Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson and Journey’s Neal Schon as they tore through a cover of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” The ensemble onstage included enough guitars to equip a small army, but the group smartly kept solos to a minimum, focusing mostly on the central riff that gives Young’s track its rugged power. As all the guitarists slammed through the chugging progression again and again, “Rockin’ in the Free World” took on the sludgy charm of primal garage rock. Even with all the firepower on stage, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder remained the focal point – an electrifying, indefatigable frontman.