In what was a staggering display of star power and rock & roll might, dozens of music luminaries gathered on Friday night to celebrate Neil Young as MusiCares Person of the Year. The pre-Grammy dinner and tribute concert, which starts at $1,250 per plate with proceeds going to musicians in need, boasted the best attendance yet since the annual fete had its first seating in 1989 (honoring Young’s longtime friend and bandmate, David Crosby, appropriately enough), and featured 20 performances by heavyweights such as Wilco, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Dave Matthews, Elvis Costello, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, James Taylor, Sheryl Crow and several supergroup combos, most notably, an all-star jam of Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s “Helpless” comprised of Sir Elton John, Leon Russell, T Bone Burnett, Neko Case and Sheryl Crow that was, in a word, inspiring.
Host Jack Black kicked things off with a fawning introduction of the man who, not only inspired his own musical endeavor, Tenacious D, but “the best rockers out there for over 40 years.” Black riffed: “You guys ever heard of the Nineties? Neil Young influenced that entire decade — even Ace of Base.”
Indeed, when it came to a sludgy onslaught of guitars, the evening boasted some of the best that modern day artistry can offer. Mellencamp, backed by a stellar house band consisting of Burnett, musical director Don Was, and longtime drummer Kenny Aronoff, kicked things off with a gritty version of “Down By the River,” Silver Lake indie rockers Everest, who are signed to Young’s Vapor Records, delivered “Revolution Blues” by request, while Wilco’s gloriously brash rendition of “Broken Arrow” prompted Elton John to give a standing ovation, which he proudly pointed out to the band backstage following the performance. Earlier in the night, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy told RS,”We rehearsed this song for two days. The guys in our crew said it was the first time they’d ever seen us rehearse in three years.” He added that they’d chosen “Broken Arrow” because it’s “really episodic and strange and when you hear it, it’s pretty obvious that Wilco has taken a lot from this one song.”
Contemporaries and disciples alike, that sentiment was echoed throughout the evening. Crow, who joined Stephen Stills on accordion to perform “Long May You Run” then returned for the “Helpless” super-jam towards the show’s end, noted that watching Young perform early in her career was a life-changing experience. “The first time I saw him sitting in a circle with his guitars and his harmonium behind him was a solidifying moment for me,” said Crow. “There’s something so soulful about that man. It’s when I knew, ‘That’s what I want to do some day — sit with my guitars and play songs.’ “
Others, like Dave Matthews, Ben Harper and Elvis Costello, opted for a stripped-down approach, showcasing the simplicity and beauty of a Young song in its most basic form. Matthews played “The Needle & the Damage Done” on acoustic guitar, Costello preceded with “The Losing End (When You’re On)” and Harper presented a stirring version of the CSN classic “Ohio” on slide guitar joined by three female background vocalists. Likewise, Norah Jones’ breathy “Tell Me Why” offered a softer sojourn while the threesome of Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin was the perfect counter balance to all the male energy.
And the talent only grew exponentially as the program went along. Harper was followed by a true power trio, Keith Urban, John Fogerty and Booker T., for a rousing rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” while a little later, James Taylor offered a true-to-the-original “Heart of Gold” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in their first gig with new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, impressed with “A Man Needs a Maid.” Frontman Anthony Kiedis, sporting a Dennis Hopper circa Easy Rider look, complete with full ‘stache, sunglasses and hat, delivered a gentle and nuanced performance that was the perfect preamble to Jimmy Fallon’s now infamous Young-inspired spoof of “Pants on the Ground,” which was shown on video and welcomed with cackles of laughter.
And while the jokes kept coming (“Rust never sleeps,” said Black, “and neither does Neil, unless it’s nighttime… or nap time… but all other times he’s wide awake and making the free world a better place to rock in!”), there were also moments of emotional reflection: a mention of Young’s near-fatal brain aneurysm, his annual Bridge School Benefit concert which has raised millions for children with disabilities, and his sons who both suffer from cerebral palsy.
To that end, Crosby, Stills and Nash’s serenade of “Human Highway” couldn’t have been a more fitting closer. “We’ve done that song with Neil probably 200 to 300 times so it has special significance that he’ll know and we know,” said Crosby, who called his friend of five decades “the real deal.” “There’s been too much focus in recent years on surface rather than substance,” he said. “But Neil can really write a song that you’ll remember 20 years from now. I’ve played some of the best music of my whole life on stage with that man, there were many moments that were pure magic, and I love him.”
Crosby was not alone. Backstage, throngs of awestruck celebrities mingled while singing Young’s praises. Crow and Costello kibitzed in the middle of all the action, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban held hands while catching up with Burnett, Matthew McConaughey and wife Camila Alves chatted with Beck and Tweedy while John, Burnett and a wheel-chaired Leon Russell, who are all currently in the studio together, posed for a photo nearby, and Rick Rubin and Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith discussed the band’s recent rehearsals (vibe: good!).
And as the man of the hour came up for his final bow, his bandmates watched on from side-stage and took in every word. “I forgot how many songs I’ve written,” Young cracked. “But I want you to know I’m working on a new album and I’ve already written four or five songs and I hope I’ll be able to continue for a long time.” Young noted the awkwardness in seeing his life played out in song and video. “You know how uncomfortable it is to see pictures of yourself 30 or 40 years ago,” he said, “It’s a funny feeling. I listen to some of those songs and go how, ‘How can I ever? What am I gonna do now? Who was that guy?’ Bob Dylan once said of â€˜Blowin’ in the Wind:’ ‘I don’t even know who that person is.’ It’s true, it’s hard to go back.”
Early in the night, Young declared to reporters that he was going to sit this one out. “I’m watchingâ€¦ so I don’t have to remember the words,” he joked on the red carpet. On the opposite tip was Jack Black, who had to keep things moving even if the show went nearly an hour past its allotted time. How did he rate his own performance? “I was pretty nervous and started off shaky, but I eased into it,” Black told RS. “It was just a remarkable night of musicianship. You don’t see a bill like that very often. Everyone was so incredible, and it’s a testament to Neil’s influence and awesomeness that so many people wanted to be part of this show.”