The 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony featured Steve Perry’s first onstage appearance with Journey in 26 years (even though he didn’t actually sing), a Yes reunion with Rush’s Geddy Lee on bass, a moving tribute to Tupac Shakur and the first performance of Pearl Jam’s original lineup since early 1991. But it was David Letterman, a last-minute replacement for Neil Young and the only non-musician of the evening to speak, that summed up the feeling of the event best. “When I came here for rehearsals, I was reminded what a gift live music is,” he said while inducting Pearl Jam. “Never take live music for granted.”
The capacity crowd at Barclays Center shared that sentiment, especially the army of Pearl Jam fans who let out an enormous roar whenever the camera went anywhere near Eddie Vedder. The disproportionate presence of the Pearl Jam army was evident from the moment Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chairman Jann Wenner said nothing more than “and last…” while introducing the inductees. He then had to stand back while the crowd let out an orgasmic roar and a series of “Eddie! Eddie!” chants for a full minute. (What about the other four guys? No chant?) It was the beginning of a wild, raucous night of surprises, the complete antithesis of last year where the most memorable moment was Steve Miller’s industry-bashing tirade in the press room.
When the crowd finally got all their Eddies out, Wenner spoke about the recent death of Chuck Berry, the first person ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. “No one in this room would be here tonight but for this man,” he said. “He is called the father, or the inventor, of rock & roll. He was the first to hear it. He put the poetry of the common man to the beat and then he laid down the law with that revved-up, motorvatin’, double-string guitar attack for every rock & roll musician that came after.”
With that, the Electric Light Orchestra kicked off the night with their 1973 cover of Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” Jeff Lynne broke out a guitar solo that would have made Berry proud and sang with a pristine voice that showed remarkably few signs of age. The group then tore through “Evil Woman” and “Mr. Blue Sky,” though it remains a mystery why keyboardist Richard Tandy wasn’t in the house despite being a key part of ELO since the very beginning and current member of the touring lineup.
George Harrison’s son Dhani then delivered a speech that included a great memory of seeing his father play onstage for the first time at an ELO gig and concluded by saying he saw them again last November at the Hollywood Bowl, right after Donald Trump won the presidency. “Trust me when I tell you I was staring at their spaceship thinking, ‘Take me with you,'” he said. “I saw some kids there that could have been seven-and-a-half and more of them that were probably 77-and-a-half all wanting to get beamed up.”
Despite ELO’s many lineup changes over the years, only Lynne, Tandy, original drummer Bev Bevan and co-founder Roy Wood entered the Hall of Fame. And since Tandy didn’t show and Bevan couldn’t make it due to shows in Europe, that left only Wood and Lynne to accept the award. Wood gave one of the shortest Hall of Fame speeches in recent memory, which makes sense given his short tenure in the band. “I would really like to thank Jeff for his dedication to writing the songs,” he said, “otherwise we wouldn’t have been invited here tonight.” Lynne was a bit more verbose. “It’s such a pleasure to get one of these, because I’ve watched lots and lots and lots, hundreds, of people getting awards,” he said. “It’s like my dad said: everything comes to him who waits.”
Joan Baez was up next. After a speech by Jackson Browne that explained her key role in the folk revival and the civil rights struggle, she pointed out that she’s not exactly a rock icon. “While one cannot say I’m a rock & roll artist, one cannot overlook the folk music of the Sixties and the immense effect it had on popular music including rock & roll,” she said. “Nor can anyone overlook the roll that I played in that phenomenon.” She wrapped with an optimistic vision for the future. “Where empathy is failing and sharing has become usurped by greed and lust for power, let us double, triple and quadruple our own efforts to empathize and to give our resources and ourselves,” she said. “I want my granddaughter to know that I fought against an evil tide and had the masses by my side.”
Facing an arena full of rabid Pearl Jam and Journey fans armed with nothing more than acoustic guitar is a tough task, but Baez brought them to a hushed silence with her signature take on “‘Sweet Low Sweet Chariot” (altering the lyrics to note that even Donald Trump can be saved). She then previewed her upcoming Four Voices tour by bringing out Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Indigo Girls for Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” and the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The former was a clear response to Trump’s anti-immigrant stance, while the latter was an huge hit for her in 1971.
In a significant change of pace, Rush’s Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson came out afterwards to induct Yes. “As Yes played in my room, I played too,” said Lifeson, recalling his teenage days as a fanatic of the band. “I spent hours picking my way through songs like ‘Starship Trooper’ and ‘Yours Is No Disgrace.’ They made me want to be a better musician and that provided some of the determination to one day stand on this stage giving tribute to this amazing band.”
Yes have spent the past decade feuding and touring in competing camps, but they put that all aside for the evening and stood onstage as one band, though keyboardist Tony Kaye didn’t make it due to health problems. Everyone made lovely speeches, but it was hard to remember them after Rick Wakeman turned his moment at the mic into an hysterical standup comedy routine. “[Growing up] we generally were very, very poor,” he said. “My father was an Elvis impersonator. But there wasn’t much call for that in 1947.” Then came one about getting a prostate exam. “The doctor said to me, he said, ‘Mr. Wakeman, there’s no need to be embarrassed. It’s not unusual to get an erection with this kind of procedure.’ I said, ‘I haven’t got an erection.’ He said, ‘I know, but I have.'” (Quick googling shows that neither of these jokes were his original creations, but his delivery and timing were impeccable.)
Yes fans have spent years wondering what would happen when the group performed at the Hall of Fame given so many redundant members and years of bad blood. It turned out to be less complicated than one might think. Original drummer Bill Bruford refused to come out of retirement for the evening, though he did make it to the show. That meant Alan White was the sole drummer, and Kaye’s absence allowed Wakeman to handle all the keyboard parts. On “Roundabout,” Geddy Lee played bass, while Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin played guitar. For “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Howe gamely took over on bass despite not being in the group when it was recorded. It was a wonderful sight for long-suffering Yes fans that have spent years seeing partial lineups and hopefully paves the way for a reunion tour (though the death of bassist Chris Squire in 2015 makes any complete reformation impossible).
Snoop Dogg walked out after to induct his old friend Tupac Shakur, the first solo artist rapper to enter the Hall of Fame. He credited Tupac with giving him his first blunt back in 1993 (“I was a zig-zag man before that shit”) and told an hysterical story about parasailing with him in Mexico. “Does anybody know what parasailing is?” he asked. “Because we damn sure didn’t. Me and Pac were sitting on the edge of the boat with all this gear and shit on and all of sudden the boat pulls away and we start floating and slammed up into the water like boom. I don’t know what was in there. Sharks, or octopus or whatever. It was crazy.” Since Tupac has no children or living parents, Snoop accepted the award on his behalf and then participated in an incredible medley of the rapper’s songs – everything from “Dear Mama” and “Changes” to “Hail Mary” and “I Get Around” – with Alicia Keys, T.I., YG and Treach.
Train’s Pat Monahan followed it up by inducting Journey, who have been the subject of fierce speculation about the status of former singer Steve Perry in the past few months. He hasn’t performed with them since a one-off Bill Graham tribute show in 1991 and they haven’t even laid eyes on the guy since his surprise appearance at their Hollywood Walk of Fame induction in 2005. Reports were flying through the press that he was going to finally sing with them at the Hall of Fame, and even though both camps quickly shot it down there was still hope in the air that a miracle might take place.
Those hopes only grew when Perry walked onstage, hugged Neal Schon and then spoke very warmly about seeing the band for the first time. “Though their musicianship was absolutely par to none, there was one instrument that was flying about the entire city of Los Angeles,” he said. “That was the magic fingers of Neal Schon’s guitar!” He even mentioned Arnel Pineda, their current lead singer who was hired in 2008 solely for sounding just like Perry. “I must give a complete shoutout to someone who sings his heart out every night,” he said. “And it’s Arnel Pineda.”
What followed can only be described as unbearable tension. The band disappeared backstage and didn’t emerge for a couple of long minutes. Were they plotting the greatest surprise in Hall of Fame history? The tension grew greater when they finally came out and kicked into a long intro to “Separate Ways” without any vocalist onstage. The crowd was on their feet screaming for Steve. Was he really going to stand backstage and let someone else sing his music?
Turns out he was. Pineda came bounding out for the difficult task of singing Perry-era Journey to a crowd that just saw the man himself minutes earlier. The challenge seemed to fuel him, though, and he belted out “Separate Ways” and “Lights” (featuring original Journey keyboardist/singer Gregg Rolie and original drummer Aynsley Dunbar) with stunning power. They closed with an inevitable “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Maybe now Journey fans can stop believing that a Steve Perry reunion is ever going to happen. If this didn’t do it, nothing will.
Pharrell Williams came out next to present his “Get Lucky” collaborator Nile Rodgers with the Award For Musical Excellence. The Chic frontman has been vocal about his unhappiness at getting in without his group, but when he stepped up to the podium, he was nothing but gracious. “This award, which is amazing to me, is really because of all the people that have allowed me to come into their lives and just join their band,” he said. “Be it Mick Jagger, be it Madonna, be it Duran Duran, be it Daft Punk, be it Pharrell Williams, be it Diana Ross, be it Sister Sledge. It just goes on and on and on.”
Kudos to whoever set the In Memorial package to Leonard Cohen’s “Boogie Street” as opposed to the predictable choice of “Hallelujah.” Let this be the start of a “Hallelujah’ moratorium. It’s enough already. The man wrote many, many other great songs. The slideshow of rock deaths in the past year ended on Prince, which led directly into Lenny Kravitz’s takes on “When Doves Cry” and “The Cross,” which he performed with the Love Fellowship Choir. It was a radical reworking of the songs, though Prince was never one to do a straight cover either.
It was then finally time for Pearl Jam. Neil Young backed out of induction duties due to illness, but David Letterman was gracious enough to step in on short notice. He may not quite have the same personal connection with them as Young, but he still gave one hell of a speech that veered between hysterical jokes and moments of real poignancy. “In 1994, these young men risked their careers by going after those beady-eyed, blood-thirsty weasels [in Ticketmaster].” he said. “And because they did, because they stood up to the corporations I’m happy to say, ladies and gentleman, today every concert ticket in the United States of America is free.”
He wrapped by reading a note that Eddie Vedder gave to his young son Harry along with a small guitar when the Pearl Jam frontman played one of his final broadcasts in 2015. “I’ll make you a deal,” Vedder wrote. If you learn even one song on this guitar I’ll get you a nicer, bigger one for your birthday. Maybe an electric one. You let me know … Playing guitar is kind of like fishing. Fishing for songs. Good luck, Harry, in all things.”
Every member of Pearl Jam (including original drummer Dave Krusen) gave heartfelt speeches that referenced their families and their musical influences. “I want to thank the Red Hot Chili Peppers for taking us out with the band and to the many bands that inspired me,” said guitarist Mike McCready. “Cheap Trick, Queen, Bowie, Hendrix, the Stones, Beatles, UFO, Kraftwerk, the Ramones, Brandi Carlile, the Kills, Social Distortion, Muddy Waters, Sex Pistols, the Clash, and my new favorite band, Thunder Pussy.”
Eddie Vedder spoke last. “I listen to music every day of my life,” he says. “A lot of that was in small apartments, when I grew up, we lived in some tight spaces with my family, my mom and my brothers. My mom, she did really good parenting. She wouldn’t tell us to turn it down, she would just kind of end up being fans of the bands that we were playing really loudly.” He also thanked all their former drummers, including Dave Abbruzzese, who was extremely upset over his non-induction and has been estranged from the group since his 1994 firing.
They opened their set with a ferocious rendition of “Alive” with Dave Krusen on drums, marking his first live appearance with the band since he was fired right after the recording of Ten. Matt Cameron took over behind the kit for “Given to Fly” and an emotional “Better Man” that had the entire arena singing along. And even though Young didn’t show, they still wrapped up with “Rockin’ in the Free World” where they were joined by a stunning assortment of guests, including Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neal Schon, Trevor Rabin, Dhani Harrison, Jonathan Cain and Jack Irons, who shared the drum kit with Matt Cameron.
The union of Pearl Jam, Rush, Journey and Yes was a truly once-in-a-lifetime sight to behold. Nowhere else but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would such a thing even be imaginable. But if newly-eligible acts Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine make it into the Hall of Fame next year, we might get to see an even crazier jam. After this night, anything seems possible. Well, anything besides a Journey reunion with Steve Perry. Some things are beyond even the power of the Hall.