If there was a single word that summed up the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert Thursday night, it was “legacy.” Backstage, artist after artist spoke of the importance of musical heritage, emphasizing the icons who influenced them as they delivered awe-struck commentary on the show’s spectacular moments.
The parade of praise wouldn’t have been so remarkable if the artists in question were up and comers, but the backstage guests included David Crosby, Smokey Robinson and James Taylor. The accolades started early, when Tom Hanks, whose company is producing the HBO version of the shows, dropped a coy reference to the contraband Rolling Stones film Cocksucker Blues and added, “We grew up listening to these songs in the front room with the Hi-Fi on. This is the music of our generation. This is the soundtrack of our lives.”
He wasn’t kidding. Over the course of the night, the backstage area played out like a rock history book come to life, with every generation of pop music well represented. “The hallways are happening, I tell ya,” gushed Bonnie Raitt. “Darlene Love and I are sharing a bathroom — it doesnâ€™t get any better than this!”
Read our full report from the first Rock Hall concert.“There’s too much to actually remember what’s going on,” agreed Jackson Browne. “I was watching a guy backstage sitting next to Stevie Wonder when I realized, ‘Oh my God, it’s Smokey Robinson.’ ” Browne and Raitt had just shared the stage with Crosby Stills and Nash, as had James Taylor, who said, “I remember I was in a band downtown in the West Village in 1966 when their album came out. When we heard that band we said, ‘Man that’s it. Those guys have got it.’ “
Other performers were more reserved. “I truthfully don’t take awards very seriously,” said David Crosby. “My dad won an Oscar — he was a cinematographer — and he used to use it for a doorstop. It gave me a healthy sort of cynicism about all of this. But there is something else involved here: when people whose music I’ve played 1,000 times are up there singing or playing, I can’t help but be moved by being in their company — these are my heroes.”
John Legend was equally humbled by his company. He shared the stage with Stevie Wonder, first covering Marvin Gaye’s timeless “Mercy, Mercy Me,” then joining Wonder in a tribute to Michael Jackson on “The Way You Make Me Feel.” “It was very powerful to see someone who came up the same time as Michael, experienced the same ups and downs as Michael, to see him mourn his passing onstage in front of thousands of people,” said Legend, recalling the first time the two had paid tribute to Jackson at a concert in Milwaukee at the beginning of the summer. “His emotion for Michael was very heartfelt, and I was just happy to be there with him and celebrate Michael’s legacy.” Legend was in the middle of a full night — just a few hours earlier, he’d performed the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium before the second game of the World Series. “I feel like the luckiest kid in the world to be able to do both the Yankee game and to be here with these amazing artists,” he said.
Thursday also saw another noteworthy collaboration — the reunion of Simon and Garfunkel. The two had recently performed a string of international shows together, but have yet to schedule any additional dates stateside. When asked about the prospects for a continuation of the reunion, Garfunkel was cautions. “[The idea is] always sort of floating around — and these days it’s floating around — but we have no such plans yet. Actually, forget I said the word ‘yet.’ “
And while musical concerns reigned supreme, many artists spoke of a higher political purpose for their work. “Rebellion is lifelong, man,” said Jackson Browne. “Defiance is a lifelong thing.” Tom Morello added, ‘”When music pushes the boundaries and gets under people’s skin is when it’s important. â€¦ I’ve been a fan of Bruce Springsteen’s music for decades, but the social commentary and the commitment to the working man and to the average person that is both in his work and in his life, is something that I admire very much as an artist, so it’s an honor to be able to play with him.”
Despite the roster of all-star Hall of Fame talent, the night wasn’t all about looking back. When, at the start of the night, Hanks was asked for his favorite song of the year, he thought for a moment and then giddily started singing: “Da-da-da-da ring on it, da-da-da-da ring on it” — offering perhaps a preview of a collaboration that might occur should Beyoncé be inducted in 2024.
Rolling Stone will be back on the scene tonight for the second epic Rock Hall concert. Get our latest updates direct from Madison Square Garden on Twitter (keep an eye out for #rockhall25):