Longtime Elvis Presley impersonator StingRay probably never dreamed he’d open up a show for Neil Young and Jackson Browne, but that’s the position he found himself at the first annual Ocean Elders benefit dinner at New York’s City Winery last night. The Ocean Elders are a collective of politicians, philanthropists, environmentalists and artists dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans from pollution, over-fishing and other ecological threats. That’s a big task, but it’s attracted big names like James Cameron, Ted Turner, Prince Albert, Queen Noor, Jackson Browne and Neil Young, who were all at the event.
StingRay started out the evening with a 25-minute set of Elvis songs. The man is an absolute pro, and he came equipped with a blue jumpsuit (“to match the color of the ocean”) complete with a cape and rhinestones. He resembled Blue Hawaii-era Elvis and had all the moves down: the lip curl, the karate kick, the hip shake and even the between song banter like, “Thank you mama, thank you very much.”
This was a pretty ritzy crowd that paid a sizable sum for the dinner, and they didn’t seem to be huge Elvis fans. About 97 percent of them stayed far in the back during the set, drinking wine, nibbling on cheese and crackers and not paying StingRay even the slightest bit of attention. He was undeterred, and did a passionate set for the six or seven people (this reporter included) near the stage. He didn’t even stick solely to the obvious hits, dragging out deeper cuts like “A Mess of Blues,” “The Impossible Dream” as well as cover songs like “Runaway” and “Johnny B. Goode” that Elvis made his own.
“It’s a privilege to be here,” StingRay said when he got offstage. “I’m opening for music icons like Jackson Browne and Neil Young. It doesn’t get any better than that. Words cannot explain how excited I am. I feel blessed . . . My favorite Neil Young song is ‘Pocahontas’ and my favorite Jackson Browne song is ‘Somebody’s Baby.'”
Had Elvis lived, he very well might have covered “Somebody’s Baby” in the 1980s, but it’s hard to imagine him doing “Pocahontas. “I wish I was a trapper / I would give a thousand pelts / To sleep with Pocahontas / And find out how she felt” just wouldn’t sound right coming out of Presley’s mouth.
It turns out the real reason they booked StingRay was to perform “A Little Less Conversation” before Richard Branson’s opening marks. The basic theme of the night was that it’s time for action on our environmental problems, and not just conversation. Speaker after speaker argued that the world is near a tipping point, and irreparable harm will be done if we keep overfishing the ocean and filling it with toxic chemicals. It’s throwing off the delicate balance of life in the ocean, devastating all forms of life in there from sharks down to micro-bacteria.
Former Costa Rican president José María Figueres delivered a very moving address about the problem, but the man who introduced him made the error or stating that Costa Rica was probably the one country in the world without an army. This is not something you say to an audience that includes Prince Albert, and someone near the prince belted out that that Monaco also doesn’t have an army.
After about an hour of speeches and a series of videos highlighting efforts the efforts of the Ocean Elders, Queen Noor took the stage. “The next two performers have been part of my life for the longest time, almost fifty years,” she said. “They are voices of passion and humanity, voices of peace and the health of the planet. The first performer needs no introduction, Jackson Browne.”
Browne than walked onstage and sat behind a piano. “I want to sing a song that was inspired by a trip I took to the Galapagos Islands,” he said. “It begins as a song about surfing, and then it sort of veers off into the area pollution and then quickly turns into a rock song about empire. It’s another one of my rock essays.”
Not many people were familiar with his new tune “If I Could Be Anywhere,” but it almost seemed like it was written for the occasion, even explaining how plastic bags devastate fish populations. He followed it up “Standing in the Breach,” an even newer tune he debuted on his 2012 tour. It’s also about the environment, and Browne sang it was incredible passion.
StingRay had changed out of jumpsuit by this point, and sat down right next to this reporter in his street clothes. In a very un-Elvis like move, he ate only half his beet salad, opted for the vegetable lasagna over the chicken breast and even declined the flourless chocolate cake. Elvis would have had the chicken and the lasagna, and asked for seconds on the cake. (By the way, the cake was supposedly topped with Mascarpone Gelato, but it tasted suspiciously like vanilla ice cream. It was still quite excellent though.)
James Cameron walked out after Jackson Browne finished his two-song set. “I’m thrilled to be part of the club,” he said. “It’s certainly an auspicious group. I’ll do my best to pull my own weight. I think we all share the same passion and commitment. My gig here is probably the easiest thing in the world to do. It’s to introduce a man that needs absolutely no introduction. I’m happy to say that he’s not only a fellow Canadian, but a fellow Ontarian. Ladies and gentlemen, Neil Young.”
Young walked onstage wearing a red plaid shirt with a harmonica rack around his neck. He hit a few notes on the piano, and without saying a word launched into “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the acoustic guitar. He paced the tiny stage the whole time, as countless people (including Jesse Malin) dug out their phones and moved towards the stage to take photos. When it wrapped, he paused and told someone offstage that he was going to do a different song than what he originally planned. He opted for “Changes” by Phil Ochs. This is a long and wordy tune, and until Farm Aid on Saturday he’d never performed it publicly, but he nailed each and every word. It was spellbinding. When it wrapped, he walked offstage without uttering a syllable, and was nowhere to be seen during the post-dinner cocktail party.
It was bizarre to eat flourless chocolate cake and watch Neil Young do a two-song acoustic set from about 30 feet away, and sitting next to an Elvis impersonator made it even weirder. “Wow,” StingRay said after Young’s set. “He sounds just like he did thirty years ago . . . I hope they have us back here next year.”