Despite the obvious wishes of the impressively vocal and fervent Rush fans who packed the 28th Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre last night, the show was not entirely about the long-delayed induction of Toronto trio – and for all of Public Enemy sidekick Flavor Flav’s constant, oft-amusing attempts at attention-hogging, it definitely wasn’t all about him either.
But even by the once-in-a-lifetime standards of these annual ceremonies, it was an endlessly entertaining, surreally star-packed (Oprah!) night of many wonders and curiosities: Jackson Browne, Tom Petty and John Fogerty formed a very temporary band with inductee Randy Newman; a strutting Jennifer Hudson channeled Donna Summer; Harry Belafonte solemnly intoned the lyrics of Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype”; Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins covered Rush while wearing the band’s infamous Seventies kimonos; and Rush themselves led a joyous, all-time great closing jam that saw Chuck D and guest DMC rhyming over the beats of Neil Peart. (The show will air May 18th on HBO.)
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After an introduction by Hall of Fame Chairman Jann Wenner – whose mere mention of the words “from Toronto” won a two-minute-long standing ovation for Rush – the evening began with California guys Browne, Petty, Fogerty and Newman (yes, Petty is originally from Florida) playing a punchy, guitar-dominated version of the inductee’s “I Love L.A.,” helping to commemorate the ceremony’s return to Los Angeles for the first time since 1993. Their shouts of “we love it” made the song sound less ironic than ever, and as they passed verses back and forth and harmonized on the song’s “Twist and Shout”-style “ahs,” it started to seem like they were a Wilburys-style supergroup in the making.
Don Henley inducted Newman, lamenting the long delay in his inclusion in the hall of fame, and citing a Newman performance he just saw in Texas: “When you can get 2,000 people to applaud a song like ‘Rednecks’ in a state that’s elected Rick Perry three times, you are a hell of an artist!”
“It’s hard for me to express a genuine emotion,” Newman said, “as you can tell from my writing. But I’m very happy to receive this award. And I hope the fact that I rushed my own song a little earlier doesn’t mean I get kicked out on my first night in.”
Cheech and Chong, in full stand-up mode, inducted the producer and promoter Lou Adler, positively killing with a bit that included mimed snorting of a certain substance off his desk. After bringing tears to the eyes of audience member Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas as he described her band’s audition for him, Adler got his own laughs, recalling being asked: “How does it feel after all the hits . . . to be known as the guy with the beard who sits next to Jack Nicholson at Lakers games?”
John Mayer gave an impressively musical induction speech for blues guitarist Albert King, tracing his influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan and demonstrating on one of King’s trademark Flying Vs the aggressive style he brought to the genre: “Albert is the reason guitarists break high ‘E’ strings.” Then he and Gary Clark Jr. played two King classics, trading off the master’s licks on “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
An ebullient Kelly Rowland – who was hit on by Flavor Flav from the crowd – inducted Donna Summer:. “I’m pretty sure me and a lot of people here were made to that record,” she said of “Love to Love You Baby.” Jennifer Hudson, in a glittery gray dress, then elicited the most movement ever out of a hall of fame crowd with “Bad Girls” and “Last Dance” – even Tom Morello could be seen boogying up front, and onetime disco foe Geddy Lee clapped along.
The biggest rock star at the ceremony was arguably Oprah Winfrey, judging by the outsize roar that greeted her surprise appearance to induct Quincy Jones, who cast her in The Color Purple. She praised his ability to support talent: “When you work with Quincy Jones, you feel loved and are loved,” she said. “I want to be like you when I grow up, I really do.” Jones gave a long, heartfelt speech full of praise for the jazz greats he collaborated with, including Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. “The first rock & roll bands for me were Louis Jordan and Lionel Hampton,” he said.
Introduced by Spike Lee, Belafonte showed up to a standing ovation and praised Public Enemy for their fearlessness and radicalism. They took the stage, complete with their S1W security guys, and Flavor Flav filibustered endlessly, despite Chuck D tapping the clock he wears on his chest. Chuck’s speech was much shorter and far more essential: “There’s some people thinking even at this moment, there goes the musical neighborhood,” he said. “Let us not forget: We all come from the damn blues.” He pointed out that “Tom Sawyer” was an oft-used DJ track in early hip-hop, and said that even Albert King could be rhymed over – and then DJ Terminator X proved it in P.E.’s performance, scratching up all of the night’s inductees.
Chris Cornell inducted Heart, praising Ann Wilson’s ageless voice and their contribution to Seattle rock. “Somehow it never occurred to us that Ann and Nancy Wilson were women,” he said.
“We came from an era when women normally did not rock,” Nancy Wilson said. “And as working moms who also seen a few parent teacher conferences, I’m even more sure we deserve this honor.” They played “Barracuda” beefed up by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell – and Ann Wilson absolutely nailed the kind of high notes that male hard rock singers of her generation tend to avoid even trying any more.
Finally, it was time for the band that the audience had been shouting for all night long, and no one was as excited as Grohl and Hawkins. Grohl grew red-faced shouting his praise. “Rock & roll has forever been ensconced in mystery,” he said. “But there’s one mystery that surely eclipses them all: When the fuck did Rush become cool? . . . Their legacy is that of a band that stayed true to themselves no matter how uncool they seemed to anyone. Rush have always been cool! Consider this mystery solved and it’s our honor to finally induct Rush into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
“We’ve been saying for a long time, for years, that this isn’t a big deal,” Peart said. “Turns out it kind of is.”
Hawkins and Grohl then emerged from the darkness in their Rush kimonos, and slammed through a segment of “2112,” gradually joined by Rush themselves. The trio played triumphant versions of “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio,” and it became hard to remember why it was ever a question whether these guys belonged in the Hall. “Thank you so very much,” said Geddy Lee.
The closing jam, on Cream’s version of “Crossroads,” began with a moving cross-genre moment, with Chuck D and DMC rhyming “the blues gave birth to rock n’ roll” as Lee and Peart played their version of a breakbeat. The guitar jam itself was up to the greatest Hall of Fame closers ever, moving from Morello’s interstellar scratching, to Gary Clark’s raw rootsiness, to Lifeson’s full-on Eric Clapton tribute. By the end, Chuck D and the members of Rush were exchanging hugs.