Who wants lasagna?
What if it’s made by Bruce Springsteen’s 87-year-old mother, Adele, and comes with one hour of guitar lessons from the Boss himself, plus that guitar to keep, plus eight tickets to a Springsteen concert of your choice, with a personalized backstage tour?
One lucky, mildly freaked out lady won that prize on Friday night in Los Angeles — plus a smooch from Bruce (“two kisses!!” she exclaimed rapturously later in the bathroom line) — when she placed the winning bid of $250,000 at the MusiCares benefit auction, whose proceeds provide critical assistance and support to members of the music community in need.
She wasn’t the only superfan in the house last night. As host and fellow New Jersey native Jon Stewart told a capacity crowd of some 3,000 industry veterans and celebrities (Katy Perry, looking like a ’40s pinup; Conan O’Brien, looking tall; Sean Penn, looking like a honey-baked ham), he agreed to MC the event because his home-state hero “is awesome and I love him.”
Stewart recalled his younger days working in a bar above a liquor store called the Bottom Half (“which referred to both its location and its clientele”) and driving home every night in his “off-brown Gremlin, because I never, ever wanted to get laid” and listening to Springsteen and imagining “that I am not a loser. I am a character in an epic poem… about losers.”
What followed was indeed epic, if largely full of music’s (and life’s) big winners: three-plus hours of performances from some of the industry’s most critically and commercially lauded stars.
Alabama Shakes, up for a Best New Artist award at this Sunday’s Grammys ceremony, opened the show with a bar-band bloozy rendition of “Adam Raised a Cain,” followed by a beaming Patti Smith, who delivered her and Bruce’s classic 1978 collaboration “Because the Night” in a voice still resonantly powerful, dedicating the song both to Springsteen (“Because the night… belongs to BRUCE!” she ad libbed with a grin at one point) and her late husband, the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith.
“”When I sing [this song], and I’ve sung it a million times,” she said by way of introduction, “I always think about the composer as well as the muse.” (Bruce later returned the favor, singling out the song, and Patti’s performance of it, in his acceptance speech.)
The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines followed with Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite on “Atlantic City,” the Dropkick Murphys turned “American Land” into a full-on Gangs of New York-style Irish wake, and Zac Brown and a sequined Mavis Staples went holy rolling, awesomely, on a church-ready “My City of Ruins.”
Mumford and Sons earned some of the biggest anticipatory applause of the night for “I’m on Fire,” though their hushed, harmonized take on the song was more “I’m actually very warm” than “Baby, I’m burning.”
Jackson Browne, with the assistance of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, turned Springsteen’s elegiac ode to Amadou Diallo, “American Skin (41 Shots)” into a lovely, if very Jackson-ian lament (I half expected the chorus to slip into “Running On Empty”). Emmylou Harris brought a faithfully evocative beauty — and some pretty fantastic bedazzled mariachi pants — to “My Hometown;” and Kenny Chesney stripped “One Step Up” to its bones with a seated acoustic rendition.
One small misstep? Elton John’s heart was certainly in the right place on “Streets of Philadelphia,” but his powerful voice didn’t quite suit the heartbreaking intimacy of Springsteen’s Oscar-winning original; it boomed when it should have beckoned. Latin superstar Juanes brought a more successful twist to “Hungry Heart” by adding his own Spanish-language intro and refrain, his corazon on his sleeve and an “Oh wow, I’m doing this!” grin on his face.
Tim McGraw and Faith Hill took on “Tougher Than the Rest” together, followed by Tom Morello (that guy again!) and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, resplendent in fully Biblical hair and beard, ripping into a kick-out-the-jams-and-then-jam-some-more version of “Ghost of Tom Joad” that ended with Morello shredding like it was “Bulls on Parade” all over again.
The crowd seemed more smitten with John Legend’s admittedly hard to fault take on “Dancing In the Dark” than I was; maybe it was just a little too piano-bar smooth? Either way, Neil Young provided a suitable counterpoint with his shambling, electric “Born in the U.S.A.,” as defiantly ragged and Young-y as ever. (The evening’s invitation said black tie; Neil said, “Clearly, you mean flannel.”)
Finally, it was time for the man of honor to take the stage, and he delivered exactly the kind of rambling, passionate, free-verse-style speech you’d hope for, praising the night’s performers — “John Legend made me sound like Gershwin; Neil Young made me sound like the Sex Pistols” — and offering up paeans to the power of music: “Do you believe in magic? No faith is required, because it’s all right there in front of you.”
And then: “The Taliban will never win, not now or ever, by banning music and dancing…. The minute you do that, you label yourself a tyrant, and your cruel days are numbered.”
He also reiterated the need for the services MusiCares provides:
“[Musicians] are bad people. We f— up so many people’s lives while setting fire to our own, dancing down the street…We are bad with our money. We spend it too freely and on too many stupid things. We drink it away, we do drugs, we love too many, and the wrong, people. We are the wrong people!”
“Thanks for taking care of my songs tonight,” he concluded. “You made me feel like the person of the year. Now give me that damn guitar!”
Did an uber jam follow? Readers, it did. After exhorting the audience to get up from their tables and bumrush the stage, he powered through “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Death to My Hometown,” and “Born to Run,” with assists from his E Street crew.
On the set’s closer, he called up some 80% of the night’s performers, who joined in to varying degrees; some, like Marcus Mumford, just stood there smiling; Tim McGraw stumbled bashfully over the second verse of “Glory Days”; the seemingly indefatigable Tom Morello kept on power-chording.
As the clock crept towards 1am, the crowd, from director Judd Apatow — grinning like an 8-year-old kid who just got a shiny new bicycle — to the twentysomething waitress quietly mouthing the words to “Glory Days” while she cleared the last of the dessert plates, still pumped their fists, even as they started to droop a little.
But nobody seemed happier than the Boss. He looked like he could have stayed all night — and would have, even as the house lights came on and guests filed out into the night.