On this day in 2010, I was in Los Angeles to attend and cover the Grammy Awards, along with all the other sideshows that take place during the week. The biggest of them is the annual MusiCares Tribute Concert and gala banquet. That year the honouree was Neil Young, so naturally I was supposed to cover that as well. I asked the Grammy publicists if I would be able to see the show, and the assured me that while I couldn’t be in the room, I could watch a closed-circuit feed elsewhere in the building.
Naturally, when I got there, that turned out to be a total lie. So I did what any good reporter would do: I snuck in. After noticing that the lanyard on my press pass was the same colour as those on the guest passes, I turned my pass around, waited until a crowd was going in, got in the middle and breezed past security. I tried to blend in by hanging around the back, where I suddenly found myself next to Beck. We exchanged pleasantries, and then I moved over to the other side of the room near the soundboard, watched the show, then dashed back to my hotel room and wrote the review below.
All in all, a pretty good night in L.A. But not the only one — come back later this week for another L.A. story that involves Phil Everly, Gary Busey, Studio A in the Capitol Records Building and the spirit of Buddy Holly.
(Note: Aside from the collage at the top of the page — which is part of the DVD cover — all the pictures in this piece are just stock artist photos. I didn’t take any pictures at the even because I was at the back. And honestly, even if I had been close enough to snap a shot with my cruddy Blackberry, I wouldn’t have risked it for fear of being tossed out.)
LOS ANGELES — Neil Young went on a journey through his past last night. The Canadian folk-rock legend — named the 2010 MusiCares Person of the Year for his charitable and philanthropic work with the Bridge School and FarmAid — was the man of the hour at a tribute concert and gala held in conjunction with Grammy Week.
The guest list included a who’s who of musicians and actors. Here are just a few of the folks who breezed by me on the red carpet on their way into the Los Angeles Convention Center: Tony Bennett; Brian Wilson and Al Jardine (who had an impromptu reunion in front of reporters); Jimmy Jam; Colbie Caillat; Dwight Yoakam; John C. Reilly; and Nicole Kidman — who caused a mini-riot by skirting the red carpet with hubby Keith Urban, sending dozens of entertainment reporters scurrying after them. Young and his wife Pegi caused almost as much excitement when they breezed down the red carpet. Sadly, they totally ignored my sign that read “I’M FROM WINNIPEG!” and didn’t stop for a chat.
Inside, there was a swanky dinner and a fundraising auction for items like a French chateau vacation and a chance to sing backup vocals on Brian Wilson’s next album (Elton John paid $12,000 for that — seriously). Then the 2,000-plus attendees who shelled out between $1,250 and $7,500 apiece for tickets were treated to a marathon tribute hosted by Jack Black. The comic claimed they were going to honour Neil the same way he made music: “Unforgettably, awesomely, life-changingly.
“You’re gonna hear the songs that make you cry, the songs that make you smile and the songs that make you want to punch the government in the freaking balls,” cracked Black, who earned his keep auctioning off his clothes for charity (his shoes netted $600, which he was soon willing to pay to get them back), pumping Neil for the secret to his artistic genius and filling time between the remarkably fast-moving slate of 20 performances.
Along with the quantity, there was no shortage of quality. Perhaps encouraged by a sign Neil sent backstage that read, “Just do what you wanna do. Don’t listen to anyone else,” a roster of A-list performers, including John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Wilco and, of course, Crosby, Stills and Nash spent a little over two hours putting their own spin on gems from the Toronto-born, Winnipeg-raised performer’s 45-year career. When it was all sung and done, even Young found his back catalogue a little intimidating.
“I forgot how many songs I’ve written,” he quipped in his closing speech. “I’m worn out … Some of those songs, I listen to them and I go, ‘Oh my God! What am I gonna do now? Who was that guy?’ ”
Whoever he was, long may he run. Here’s a rundown of all the performances:
John Mellencamp & T-Bone Burnett | Down by the River
Young’s FarmAid colleague opens the show with a slow-burning version of a classic from Everyone Knows This is Nowhere. His band consists of superstar producer T-Bone Burnett on guitar, Kenny Aronoff on drums and musical director Don Was on bass. (The latter two will serve as a house rhythm section for most of the evening.)
Ozomatli | Mr. Soul
These Angeleno rockers add some heavy Latin grooves to this Buffalo Springfield oldie — without sacrificing the fuzzy, Satisfaction-style riff-rock at its heart.
Jackson Browne | Don’t Let it Bring You Down
Backed by Aronoff and Was, the troubadour turns in a rich acoustic-guitar version of this powerful cut from After the Gold Rush.
Stephen Stills & Sheryl Crow | Long May You Run
Crow dons a squeezebox and trades verses with Stills on a mellow incarnation of this cut by the Stills-Young Band in ’76. Black needles Young for using such a boring band name, and makes up for it by christening the Stills-Crow ensemble Rocketnuggetthunderclaw.
Lady Antebellum | Only Love Can Break Your Heart
The rising country-pop stars told me they were more excited about playing this event than about their Grammy noms. They play this country waltz fairly straight, but their three-part harmonies add some layers to the melody.
Norah Jones | Tell Me Why
Another cut from Gold Rush, this time picked by Jones and a bandmate on acoustic guitars. It’s wonderfully simple. And simply wonderful.
Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin & Lucinda Williams | Comes a Time
The three roots queens join forces — along with some steel guitar and accordion — in this folksy chestnut. I wonder why Lucinda is wearing glasses. Then I notice the giant teleprompter behind me.
Wilco | Broken Arrow
If you can think of anyone more capable of handling all the intricate twists and turns of this shape-shifting epic from Buffalo Springfield Again, you let me know. Then again, don’t bother. You’re wrong.
Josh Groban | Harvest Moon
The popera sensation takes a seat at the piano for this tender ballad, which he gussies up a little too much with all his technique and talent. Neil needs to be a bit ragged, you know?
Everest | Revolution Blues
Who? Well, put it this way: These L.A. roots-rockers are signed to Young’s Vapor Records. Hey, throw Neil a bone: It’s his big night. Besides, they crank out a smoking version of Revolution Blues. It’s the heaviest performance so far.
Dierks Bentley & Booker T. Jones | Cinnamon Girl
Backed by sometime Young sideman Booker T. and his instantly identifiable organ, Bentley and his gruff pipes transform this immortal tune into twangy country-rock — and lose a bit of the song’s edge in the process.
Ben Harper | Ohio
The musical centrepiece of the show. Armed with his slide guitar and accompanied only by three female backup singers, Harper recasts Young’s Vietnam-era protest into stirring gospel-blues. Quite simply one of the finest, most moving versions of this song I’ve ever heard. It deservedly brings some attendees to their feet.
Keith Urban, John Fogerty & Booker T. Jones | Rockin’ in the Free World
Another winner. Urban and Fogerty crank up the amps and blow the roof off the dump, trading solos and belting out Young’s slamming rocker. Urban is playing harder — and grinning wider — than I’ve ever seen. And Fogerty still hasn’t lost a step. Afterward, Black quite rightly tells the swells, “I know it’s expensive — but I think you’re getting your money’s worth. This is insane! Can you appreciate how insane this is?” I can.
Elvis Costello | The Losing End
The roll continues: An acoustic-guitar toting Costello takes this lesser-known number from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and turns it into a country weeper that could have come straight from ole Hank’s pen.
Jason Mraz & Shawn Colvin | Lotta Love
A horn section and organ add soulful backing to Mraz and Colvin’s duet. Still, it’s not one of the evening’s more memorable moments. Then again, they did have to follow Elvis.
Dave Matthews | Needle and the Damage Done
On the plus side: The singer-guitarist totally nails Neil’s anti-drug ballad, right down to the mournful falsetto vocal. On the downside: He delivers a rambling introduction that ruins the effect.
Red Hot Chili Peppers | A Man Needs a Maid
Not surprisingly, the Peppers — making their first public appearance with new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer — lace Young’s Harvest track with their heavy, slogging funk. But that’s not nearly as alarming as Anthony Kiedis’s Latino porn-star moustache.
James Taylor | Heart of Gold
I respect JT as much as the next guy — but does the world need an easy-listening version of Heart of Gold? The good news: Matthews, Harris, Costello and Mraz sing backup.
Elton John, Leon Russell, Neko Case, Sheryl Crow & T-Bone Burnett | Helpless
The stage is getting a little crowded — but the song belongs to Elton, who converts it into a work of classic country-pop vaguely reminiscent of his own Burn Down the Mission. Neko, Sheryl and Leon each get a turn at the mic.
Crosby, Stills and Nash | Human Highway
“We made some of the best music of our lives with you,” says David Crosby before the legendary trio close the show by putting their gorgeous harmonies to work on this ’70s gem. Neil’s reaction? “Now I gotta go write some more songs.”