Six songs into Tuesday night’s all-star charity tribute show, The Music of the Rolling Stones Hot Rocks 1961-1971, Marianne Faithfull took the Carnegie Hall stage to perform her breakthrough single, “As Tears Go By.” When the song first hit the airwaves in the summer of 1964, Faithfull was a 17-year-old ingenue with a voice that won her the adoration of every man in England. She’s lived about a hundred lifetimes since then, and her singing is now weathered and significantly deeper.
“This is the first song that Mick and Keith wrote,” explained Faithfull, who is now 65. “And they wrote it for me, so I was very happy.” It’s a song of extreme loneliness and despair, and in many ways it carries more weight today than when it first came out. Her riveting performance earned one of the evening’s many standing ovations.
New York concert promoter Michael Dorf has been organizing these tribute shows, which raise money for a variety of music-education programs, since 2004. Past shows have paid homage to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Who, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen and Elton John. Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. both stunned audiences when they appeared at their respective shows, but no member of the Rolling Stones made the trip to Carnegie Hall, despite persistent rumors in the audience that Keith Richards would be there. But with a bill that included everyone from Jackson Browne to Peaches and Glen Hansard, few people left the two-and-a-half hour show disappointed.
Previous tributes have let the performers pick any song from the featured artist’s back catalog, but this year they were confined to the Stones’ 1971 hit compilation, Hot Rocks 1964-1971. It would have been nice if they’d had the option to choose later hits like “Memory Motel” or “Beast of Burden” (let alone deep cuts like “Out of Control” or “Rain Fell Down”), but those first seven years were an amazing period of growth and innovation for the band. In that time, they went from “Time Is On My Side” to “Sympathy For The Devil.” (And in the past eighteen years, they’ve released a measly two albums.)
The show featured Hot Rocks almost entirely in sequence, but Italian singer Jovanotti (playing with members of TV On The Radio) opted to perform “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with a youth choir. The kids have bedtimes, so they went on first. They earned huge applause from the moment they sang the opening lines, “I saw her today at the reception.” If you closed your eyes, you would have thought you were listening to the album. They nailed the high harmonies and had everyone in the concert hall singing along.
Most of the earlier acts stuck closely to the Stones’ original arrangements. The Black Crowe’s Rich Robinson did a slightly jammed-out rendition of “Play With Fire,” David Johansen looked more like Mick Jagger than ever as he strutted around the stage and belted out “Get Off My Cloud,” and Ronnie Spector drew equally from Irma Thomas and the Rolling Stones for her cover of “Time Is On My Side.”
Juliette Lewis had the difficult job of tackling “Satisfaction.” She approached it with tremendous confidence, running onstage in a glittery white jacket, short shorts and white heels. It was a sultry version with lots of pomp and attitude, weakened only when she completely forgot the lyrics to the third verse. For a few horrible seconds it felt like group night on American Idol, but she bounced back like a pro and ended strong.
Steve Earle looked absolutely thrilled to have the chance to play “Mother’s Little Helper,” telling the crowd, “Marianne just sang the first song I ever sang in front of people. This is the first song I ever learned on guitar, which is why I’m so pumped.” Earle played a country-tinged version of the tune, and it was a clear high point of the evening.
One of the wild card slots went to Art Garfunkel, who hasn’t sung in public (to our knowledge) since he was sidelined by vocal paresis in the summer of 2010. The 70-year-old emerged midway through the night to play a stripped down “Ruby Tuesday.” In a rare turn, he opted to leave his wig at home. “No hair tonight!” he joked. Garfunkel sounded somewhat throaty and fragile, but really not at all different than he has during the last decade. It was just one song, but hopefully Garfunkel’s vocal troubles are behind him and Simon and Garfunkel can finally play their postponed concert dates.
As the night went on, the arrangements became more daring. The Mountain Goats delivered a jazzy, piano-based “Paint It Black” that brought the song’s dark pessimism to the surface. Glen Hansard encouraged the audience to snap their fingers along to a moody, slow “Under My Thumb” that used a stand-up bass as the main instrument. Rickie Lee Jones deconstructed “Sympathy For The Devil” and played it solo acoustic, growling out the words as many in the audience provided the “woo-woo” refrain.
Taj Mahal received one of the longest standing ovations for his bluesy take on “Honky Tonk Woman,” performed with his daughter. “One of the good things about the Stones is that you can deconstruct their songs back to the blues and country thing they came from,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do tonight.”
He was followed by Rosanne Cash, who showed off her powerful pipes on “Gimme Shelter.” The main set ended with Marc Cohn doing an acoustic “Wild Horses” with Jackson Browne, who played a stripped down version of “Let’s Spend The Night Together” earlier in the set.
The Hot Rocks compilation ends with “Wild Horses,” but after Cohn and Browne’s performance, Faithfull returned to sing “Sister Morphine,” a song she co-wrote with the Stones in 1969. Faithfull would learn the dangers of hard drugs all too well in the years following that collaboration, and she now sings about the “scream of the ambulance” and “sweet cousin cocaine” as someone who knows exactly what she’s talking about. It was spellbinding.
The night wrapped up when every performer not named Art Garfunkel returned to the stage for a loose rendition of “Tumbling Dice.” It’s the biggest hit from Exile On Main Street, which was released less than a year after Hot Rocks. There are enough great songs on Exile, let alone the band’s output in the last 40 years, to make for a great tribute show. If Dorf ever runs out of great catalogs to honor with concerts, he should definitely consider The Rolling Stones 1972-2005.