“Rock & roll goes on,” Tom Petty declared Friday night at the MusiCares “Person of the Year” dinner in Los Angeles. Four decades after the release of his first album with the Heartbreakers, Petty accepted the trophy and praised of the next-generation acts that performed during the full night of music, including Gary Clark Jr., Cage the Elephant and the Head and the Heart. “They’re going to carry this forward.”
During an 11-minute acceptance speech, Petty examined the inspirational history of rock, once seen by authorities as “a conspiracy to get black music on white popular radio,” he said. Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army, and Chuck Berry put in jail, he noted, but it was too late to prevent the sound from eventually reaching Petty as a kid in Gainesville, Florida.
“The music became popular and it empowered the youth of America … In 1964, the Beatles came, I had my eyes opened like so many others, and I joined the conspiracy to put black music on white popular radio,” he said to cheers.
The annual MusiCares tribute is one of the big events of Grammy week, honoring a major artist while raising money to aid musicians and their families with urgent health needs. Friday’s tribute raised $8.5 million during a night that included performances by Don Henley, Foo Fighters, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, George Strait, the Lumineers, Taj Mahal, and Chris Hillman of the Byrds.
During his comments late in the two-and-a-half-hour show, he examined his own history, calling his Heartbreakers “one of the two or three best bands there is.” One of their shared experiences was recording with the late Johnny Cash on his Unchained, which won the Grammy for Best Country Album in 1998. “This morning I was looking through a box and a card fell out. It was from John on my 50th birthday. It said, ‘Happy birthday. You’re a good man to ride the river with.’ That’s all I want to be … and I’m going to keep riding the river.”
The night began with Randy Newman alone at a piano at the center of the huge ballroom at the L.A. Convention Center, spinning slowly as he performed “Refugee,” slowing the urgent melody into something melancholy, dramatic and like something Newman could have written for himself.
The depth of Petty’s songwriting meant the songs were elastic enough for reinterpretation, and played out best on Friday when stretched in new ways. On the main stage, Henley sang “Free Fallin'” to a five-piece brass section. Cage the Elephant took on Petty’s “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” bouncing to a Crazy Horse beat, as singer Matt Shultz in red jacket and leather pants blew a harp, then danced like a snake during big guitar flourishes from the band. The Bowling Green, Kentucky rock act kept the song true to the original while adding its own frenzied energy.
Dave Grohl led his Foo Fighters through a hard-rock “Honey Bee,” then were joined by blues-guitar phenom Gary Clark Jr. on a smoldering “Breakdown,” erupting in a four-guitar attack. Clark returned later in a long gray coat for a molten meditation on the lowdown blues song “Good Enough,” stretching out on a closing solo that would have marked a star-making performance if he wasn’t one already.
The house band gathered by musical director T Bone Burnett was packed with musical talent, including Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone, Booker T. Jones (of the legendary MGs), and gifted sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell from the duo Larkin Poe on guitars and mandolin.
Several of the acts (Norah Jones, Jakob Dylan, Cage the Elephant, Dhani Harrison, the Shelters) had also appeared at last year’s Petty Fest in Hollywood, but the MusiCares event was presented on a grander epic scale. It’s not easy rocking a room filled with sitting guests in formal wear scattered around dinner tables with flower arrangements, but the music carried the night.
Regina Spektor sang a vulnerable, hurting “I Forgive It All,” a song by Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch, reunited since 2007. She was joined by Heartbreakers Benmont Tench on organ and Mike Campbell on gentle acoustic guitar, as Spektor performed like someone who knows Petty’s music well. She first met the rocker through his daughter, music video director Adria Petty, a close friend and frequent collaborator.
“He is profound and he knows how to distill experience,” Spektor told Rolling Stone of Petty’s songwriting, as she was entering the hall. “He’s got sarcasm and he’s got melancholy and he’s got humor. All the great writers and composers that I love have it all in it.”
Norah Jones sounded a Dylanesque tone for her take on “Time to Move On,” followed by “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” hands over her heart, tapping a black cowboy boot to the beat. George Strait’s “You Wreck Me” was both countrified and faithful to the original, with jangly acoustic guitar, and a fiery electric lead.
For the Heartbreakers’ closing set, Petty and the band reclaimed their songs, and told the crowd: “If you want to come down to the stage and dance, it’s okay,” and fans immediately crowded up front.
During their closing set, the Heartbreakers ripped into the blazing psychedelic folk rock of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and forceful “Running Down a Dream.”
They also brought some extra star power. On backing vocals were the Bangles, an inspired choice who remained the entire set as Petty brought out various singing partners. ELO’s Jeff Lynne took lead vocals on “I Won’t Back Down,” the hit he co-wrote with Petty for his 1989 solo album, Full Moon Fever. On acoustic guitar was Dhani Harrison, son of close Petty friend, George Harrison.
Stevie Nicks emerged for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” her 1981 duet with Petty, facing each other to playfully act out the song’s romantic frustrations. Nicks banged a tambourine with long gypsy tassels, then stayed for “Insider,” another song written for her by Petty, this one more vulnerable, as he strummed acoustic.
Before exiting the stage, Nicks said, “He is as sweet as he is talented.”