“This is the Italian wedding Patti [Scialfa] and I never had,” Bruce Springsteen joked in a charming, self-deprecating and passionate speech as he accepted the MusiCare’s 2013 Person of the Year honors last night at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Earlier in the evening, the New Jersey rock legend had in fact offered up a serving of his mother’s lasagna; It was part of a bounty – including a ride in the sidecar of Springsteen’s Harley Davidson, a face-to-face guitar lesson, eight concert tickets, a personal backstage tour and one of Springsteen’s iconic Fender Telecasters autographed by Sting, Elton John, Neil Young, and, erm, Katy Perry – being auctioned off to benefit the MusiCares charity, a wing of the Grammy Awards’ governing body, the Recording Academy, that provides emergency financial and healthcare support for the music community.
Springsteen’s presence indicates the level of prestige held by the MusiCares award, which celebrates a performer’s extraordinary artistic achievements and philanthropic efforts. (Previous honorees have included the likes of Paul McCartney and Bono.) A key event during Grammy week, the annual Music Awards black-tie gala has become, since its inception in 1989, one of the premier music-industry gatherings for stars and suits alike. Indeed, Springsteen was clearly aware of the crowd’s baller status: “Dig in, one-percenters!” he goaded the more than 3,000 attendees during the auction, eventually netting a winning bid of $250,000 for the Telecaster package alone.
The event’s true draw, however, proved the elite talent assembled onstage to commemorate Springsteen’s legacy in what host Jon Stewart called “a 2 1/2 hour tribute to his music – for Bruce, that’s just tuning up.” The stage featured esteemed musicians from various generations of music history ranging through Springsteen’s repertoire, with frequently sublime results. The bill kicked off spectacularly with the Alabama Shakes’ loping, gritty take on “Adam Raised A Cain,” nearly surpassing the original’s raspy grandeur. Next up was Patti Smith, who gave the evening’s most cathartic moment with an intense performance of her smash Springsteen collaboration, “Because The Night.” Mumford & Sons’ turned “I’m On Fire” into an impressively stirring, banjo-driven Americana anthem, while Jackson Browne’s voice rang out like a liberty bell on a profoundly moving “American Skin (41 Shots).” Bruce himself was caught on camera mouthing “Beautiful!” during Emmylou Harris’ gossamer rendering of “Your Hometown”; Kenny Chesney, meanwhile, provided one of the night’s best, most unexpected performances with his heartbreaking acoustic adaptation of “One Step Up.” “Tougher Than The Rest” got a wonderfully tender new-country makeover via Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, while Sting proved surprisingly ebullient on a Gospel-driven “Lonesome Day.”
Not every cover attempt proved successful. In their duet on “Atlantic City,” Ben Harper and Natalie Maines ultimately missed the song’s essence, substituting overwrought sanctimony for the original’s profane decrepitude. Zac Brown, meanwhile, distinguished himself admirably on “My City of Ruins” over a rootsy, organ-driven groove reminiscent of the Band. No one should let Mavis Staples follow on the mic, however, if they don’t want to be left in the dust. Unpredictably, the night’s biggest standing ovation followed Jim James and Tom Morello joining forces for an astonishingly spectral, heavy-rock twist on “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” James looked like David Crosby and sounded like the cosmos, while Tom Morello’s epic soloing evoked the ghost of David Gilmour before spiraling into his trademark guitar-turntablism acrobatics. The crowd’s reaction was only dwarfed by Springsteen himself exclaiming “Now gimme that damn guitar!” Springsteen got the entire crowd on its feet for an exuberant five-song set, ripping through “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Death To My Hometown,” and an extended, especially triumphant “Born to Run.” Throughout this mini-journey through his history, Springsteen effortlessly demonstrated his ability to make the offhand seem operatic, and vice versa. This was nowhere more evident than on “Glory Days,” which featured various E Street Band compadres and nearly every previous superstar guest crammed onstage, making for a wonderfully shambling, heartfelt climax.
The most vivid lesson from the evening, however, was how elastic Springsteen’s catalog proved when essayed by performers from varied genres, ages, and eras. At times, his songs proved a kind of lingua franca, effortlessly transforming into anthems of ethnic identity. Colombian singer Juanes started “Hungry Heart” in Spanish, then shifted into an appealing, piano-driven doo-wop glow; Ken Casey of Dropkick Murphys, meanwhile, turned Springsteen deep cut “American Land” into an infectious Gaelic punk stomp. It was also wonderful to see artists really revisiting the songs in their own image. Elton John took “Streets of Philadelphia” to a place simultaneously reverent and irreverent – appropriately solemn, yet rollicking in his unique manner. Likewise, John Legend turned “Dancing In The Dark” into a jazzy piano ballad evoking his hit “Ordinary People,” adding sparkling Bill Evans-style runs and playful yet invested emotion. Neil Young, meanwhile, imbued “Born in the U.S.A.” with his distinctively swinging, defiant howl, making sure Republicans weren’t likely to bogart this version. After witnessing Young’s raggedly glorious deconstruction, Springsteen himself summed up the event’s musical impact best: “John Legend made me sound like Gershwin, and Neil Young made me sound like the Sex Pistols. Oh, what a night!”