Six decades of six-string greats gathered for the American Music Masters Tribute Concert honoring Les Paul at Cleveland’s State Theater on Saturday. The sold-out show was the climax of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s week-long tribute to one of the top guitar performers and innovators. Even Guitar Hero poster-boy Slash was wide-eyed and humble like a freshman glad to be at a seniors’ party.
Backstage before the show, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye neatly summarized Paul’s contributions: “Before Les, guitars were only amplified. Les made them truly electric.” Born in 1915, Paul had a string of hit singles from the 1940s through the ’60s. As an engineer, player and technician, he pioneered solid-body guitar construction, the lead guitar position, multitrack recording and effects from delay to phasing. He designed a family of heavy guitars for Gibson, the most famous of which might be the 1988 Les Paul standard from Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child” video. Said Paul during his acceptance speech, “Everybody thought I was a guitar until I played here tonight.”
The concert was chummy gathering of peers, many with a similar story about seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, buying a fake Les Paul replica, getting a real one, achieving fame, meeting Paul, and finding him to be a funny, likeable guy who’s still hard to keep up with onstage.
Paul capped the three-and-a-half hour tribute by accepting an American Music Masters award statue and playing a set with the Les Paul Trio, which backed him for a tear-jerking rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The marathon concert kicked off with renditions of Paul’s material, including a lighter-than-air “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” by Jennifer Batten (Michael Jackson, Jeff Beck) and a deft take on “Vaya Con Dios” by Alannah Myles and Kaye.
The show transitioned with songs from the new Les Paul and Friends: Tribute to a Legend album, with highlights like Slash’s airy “Vocalise” and Richie Sambora’s “Great Hall of Fame,” a tribute to bar-band lifers. The diamond-selling artists kept the crowd happy with tunes they said Paul made possible. Sambora sang Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and the night ended with an all-star jam.
Backstage before the show, Slash said, “Les Paul guitars have a certain tonal characteristic that is really meaningful to me. It’s a big rock & roll sound.” ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons said Paul didn’t so much hotwire the guitar as weaponize it. “He had the rather unusual idea to bring out this war club and electrify it — something [that seemed] unnecessary or frivolous, but turned out to be a cornerstone of popular culture.”