Following a couple years of punk and New Wave inductees, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been creeping closer and closer to the MTV generation. Last night, high octane performances by Prince and ZZ Top, two acts that made their audio/visual marks in the Eighties, were among the most lively, and showy, in Rock Hall history, as the flamboyance indicative of that decade began to find its home in Cleveland.
Prince bookended last night’s festivities at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. He jazzed up the proceedings from the outset, beginning the night with “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Sign O’ the Times” and “Kiss.” His purple reign ran through the night, closing the evening’s entertainment, as he capped an all-star tribute to George Harrison — along with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and others — with a blistering solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
The first artist to take the stage, Prince was also the first inducted. OutKast and Alicia Keys did the honors. “He’s so super bad,” Keys said, “that he makes you feel super good.” For the most part, Prince let the music do the talking for him, thanking Jehovah and, oddly enough Warner Bros. (the label he battled for years), offering a bit of career advice to up-and-coming artists and closing, “I wish all of you the best on this long, weird journey. It ain’t over yet.”
Steve Winwood finally made his way into the Rock Hall with the induction of Traffic, who took the stage without guitarist Dave Mason for a run through “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Traffic’s performance was followed by the induction of Rolling Stone founder, editor and publisher, Jann S. Wenner, who launched the magazine thirty-seven years ago. “He embodies what we call fearless journalism,” said Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. “Then and now.” Ertegun was joined by Mick Jagger, who said, “Jann almost single-handedly pioneered the idea of rock & roll as a vibrant art form. [He] elevated our music to a place where it enjoys the status of other musical forms.” In his acceptance speech, Wenner said, “I wanted to tell the world about rock & roll. I believe it can soothe, heal and uplift.”
In contrast to some of the evening’s flash, Jackson Browne, the Dells and Bob Seger offered up three different styles of understatement. Of Browne’s work, Bruce Springsteen said, “Every song was like a diamond. My first thought: ‘Damn, he’s good.’ Second thought: ‘I need less words.'” Springsteen also expressed envy at Browne’s ability to captivate female fans (“Jackson drew more women than an Indigo Girls show”).
But amid the jest about Browne’s good looks, Springsteen honored his skill as a songwriter who was “quintessentially California. The Beach Boys gave us California as Paradise,” Springsteen continued. “Jackson Browne gave us Paradise Lost.” With the plainspoken approach that has served him for more than three decades, Browne then offered up “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty.”
The Dells were inducted by filmmaker/comedian Robert Townshend, who based his 1991 film The Five Heartbeats on the group. “Fifty years,” marveled Dells member Charles Barksdale. “It seems like fifty years too!” Barksdale also spoke out for future Rock Hall inclusion of some Dells disciples like the O’Jays and the Manhattans.
Kid Rock showered fellow Detroit rocker Bob Seger with a speech of superlatives that put some fire behind Seger’s soft-spoken manner, calling him “the most underrated singer-songwriter of our time . . . He taught me to be proud of where you come from. He had the voice of the working man and was living proof of the American Dream.” Seger best spoke for himself by singing. Despite being under the weather, he offered impassioned takes on “Turn the Page” and “Old Time Rock and Roll” with his long-running Silver Bullet Band.
The evening’s subtlety ended when Keith Richards’ brought out ZZ Top, the thirty-five-year-old Texas boogie band that offered up “La Grange” and “Tush,” following AC/DC’s lead from last year in reminding all in attendance that sex, cars and sex will always be rock & roll staples.
The evening’s final inductee was the late George Harrison, a man famous for being quiet but also capable of being heard, be it through his massive three-record debut, 1970’s All Things Must Pass, or his charity work organizing 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh. “He really filled a room,” Tom Petty said of Harrison. “He led by example. Years before Live Aid, George invented the idea of rock & roll giving back to the people.”
Harrison’s widow Olivia and son Dhani accepted for him, the latter admitting that years ago he accidentally broke the Rock Hall statuette Harrison received for being a member of the Beatles. “To everyone who’s ever liked his music,” Dhani said, “good on you. Cheers.” Dhani then joined Harrison’s fellow Traveling Wilburys Petty and Lynne in a performance of “Handle With Care.”
Rather than dust off a Fifties gem for a verse-swapping all-star finale, the evening’s performers made their last stand with the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” among Harrison’s flashier songs. Winwood played keys, Petty took lead vocals and Prince brought the night to a close with an electrifying guitar solo.