It was well past 1:00 a.m. when the first night of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary celebration began winding down. For six hours, a capacity crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden had been dancing in the aisles to a superstar lineup only the Hall of Fame could produce: Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Dion, Sting, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, John Fogerty, Jackson Browne and many others. It seemed like Springsteen and surprise guest Billy Joel swapping verses on “Born to Run” was the finale, but then many of the night’s acts took the stage with the E Street Band and kicked into Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher.” Nobody seemed to want the party to end, curfews be damned.
The evening began with a speech by Tom Hanks, whose production company is turning the two concerts into a four-hour HBO special that airs November 29th. “When we were confused, rock & roll gave us purpose,” he said. “Hail, hail rock & roll.” Jerry Lee Lewis then kicked into his 1957 hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” — a track he played at the first Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1986. After a five-minute film highlighting American bands of the 1960s, Crosby, Stills and Nash began their set with “Woodstock,” which featured incredible guitar work by Stephen Stills. Other highlights of their 10-song set were “Almost Cut My Hair,” and the Buffalo Springfield classic “Rock and Roll Woman.”
CSN’s first guest was their longtime friend Bonnie Raitt, who Crosby called “my favorite singer in the whole world.” She did an acoustic version of “Love Has No Pride” and joined with CSN on an excellent cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” hugging the trio between songs and looking magnanimous. Next up was Jackson Browne on “The Pretender,” and then James Taylor for “Mexico.” The entire California crew joined together at the end of CSN’s set for a sing-along “Teach Your Children.”
A revolving stage kept the show flowing remarkably smoothly, and minutes after CSN ended Paul Simon and and his amazing touring band kicked into a one-two-three punch of “Diamonds on the Soles Of Her Shoes,” “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” and “You Can Call Me Al.” Paul selected two of his New York musical heroes to come out for one song each: Dion DiMucci did his signature tune “The Wanderer” and “Little Anthony & The Imperials” delivered a stunning a cappella rendition of “Two People In The World,” with a beaming Simon on background vocals.
After a short break, Simon and Garfunkel walked onstage together to a rapturous standing ovation, which only got louder when Simon began playing the opening notes to “The Sounds Of Silence.” The duo added a big chunk of “Not Fade Away” to the middle of “Mrs. Robinson” and swapped verses on a powerful “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — which got one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night. The set ended with a jubilant “Cecelia” that had everybody in the Garden singing along. Simon and Garfunkel just finished up a tour of Asia and Australia that Paul strongly implied would be their last, so it may well be the last time they ever perform together.
A video montage of Motown greats was supposed to kick right into Stevie Wonder’s set, but technical problems delayed the start while a crew frantically tried to sort things out. Wonder improvised by rejiggering his set list, opening with a soulful cover of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which was a hit for him in 1966. With his daughter Aisha on background vocals and a huge band, Wonder delivered stunning renditions of his biggest hits: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “Living For The City” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” which climaxed with Wonder dropping to his knees as he played a sick harmonica solo.
John Legend, who rushed over to MSG after singing at the World Series at Yankee Stadium, joined Stevie for a tender take on Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me,” and then sat with Wonder at the piano for a cover Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” that had the whole arena chanting “long live Michael Jackson.” The set continued with blues legend B.B. King guesting on “The Thrill Is Gone” and Smokey Robinson reviving his 1965 classic “Tracks Of My Tears.” A bearded Sting came out for an awesome mash-up of “Higher Ground” and “Roxanne,” but it was Jeff Beck who delivered the knock-out punch. The Yardbirds guitarist walked on for the finale of “Superstition” (he played on the original) and effortlessly delivered the first jaw-dropping guitar solo of the night.
By the time the stage was set for Springsteen and the E Street Band it was 11:45, well over two hours behind schedule. The usually tight MSG curfew was clearly the furthest thing from Bruce’s mind as he brought the exhausted audience to their feet with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and the Sam & Dave party classics “Hold On I’m Comin’ ” and “Soul Man,” with guest Sam Moore. Longtime Springsteen friend John Fogerty (“The Hank Williams of his generation,” said Bruce) sprinted out for a rollicking renditions of “Fortunate Son” and “Proud Mary.” Darlene Love — who is on this year’s ballot for the Hall of Fame — joined the group for the Phil Spector classics “A Fine, Fine Boy” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” It was Tom Morello, though, who really set the place on fire, delivering one of his finest guitar solos on “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” and dueting with Springsteen on the Clash’s “London Calling.”
After “Badlands” much of the drained audience began leaving and then rushed back to their seats when Billy Joel sat down at the piano and launched into “You May Be Right,” “Only The Good Die Young” and “New York State Of Mind.” (The pair were uniting the kindred spirits of New Jersey and Long Island, Springsteen explained.) “Higher and Higher” wrapped up the night. The official set list had the show ending at 11:36:55 (yes, they thought they had it down to the exact second), but the final notes rang out at 1:31 a.m. Six straight hours of music, and that was just the first of two nights.
Madison Square Garden has seen its fair share of historic gigs (the Concert for Bangladesh, the Bob Dylan tribute in 1992, the Concert For New York City, No Nukes), but there’s little doubt that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary concerts is joining that list of legendary events.
Rolling Stone will be back on the scene at MSG tonight for the second Rock Hall show: get our latest updates live on Twitter (keep an eye out for #rockhall25):