MusiCares Gala: Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Steven Tyler Pay Tribute to Carole King

Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga
 Associated Press

Note to Carole King: We’re pretty sure they still love you tomorrow, the day after a MusiCares salute at the L.A. Convention Center that had stars as wide-ranging as Lady Gaga, Steven Tyler, Alicia Keys, Miguel, Zac Brown, and longtime compatriot James Taylor all vying to be the top musical soulmate of pop’s preeminent friend.

One fears to imagine the bloodshed that went into determining which of the nearly two dozen guest performers got to sing the signature song to end all signature songs, “You’ve Got a Friend.” Or, more likely, Gaga probably just automatically gets the first-round draft pick nowadays. In any case, she didn’t abuse the privilege, knocking “Friend” out of the park early in the two-and-a-half-hour performance part of the benefit dinner. Dressed in all-white at a white piano on a revolving white central platform, Gaga was dressed as heaven’s platinum-blonde emissary but really seemed determined to play the part of fangirl. 

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“When I was in grade school, high school,” Gaga told the crowd, “I would sometimes have really rough notes, where I’d get so nervous and up all night and didn’t want to go to school and face the world. And I used to close all the doors to Dad’s man-room and I would crank, crank this song so hard. And I really believed so much, Carole, that you were my friend… Thank you for inspiring us female songwriters every day.”

Host Jimmy Kimmel had gotten the proceedings off to a slightly less reverent start, referring to her longevity in show business and wondering, “Fifty years -- that cat from the Tapestry album has to be dead, right?” The late-night comic harked back to her days as a Brill Building songwriter for the likes of Ben E. King and the Shirelles, saying, “Back then there was an unfortunate tradition of black artists stealing white artists’ music.” As for the importance of the evening: “For her incredible list of accomplishments, Carole has already received the Grammy Legend award; she’s been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame of fame; last year President Obama honored her at the White House with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song... I guess what I’m trying to say is, tonight’s award is completely redundant.”

Honorifics aside, the MusiCares event wasn’t superfluous as a fundraiser. As attendees at the nearly 700 tables dug into their dinners, it was announced that the evening had already raised $5.5 million for the Recording Academy’s mission to aid musicians in need of emergency assistance. That was before Zac Brown bid $70,000 to win a new car, or an unidentified audience member bid $120,000 to win a bound set of Tapestry lyrics King had handwritten just for the occasion.

The performance lineup offered a few odd couples, starting right off with Tyler and LeAnn Rimes dueting on one of the evening’s more obscure tunes, a ridiculously raucous cover of the King/Goffin co-penned “Hi-De-Ho,” a top 20 hit for Blood Sweat & Tears in 1970. With Tom Scott and Trombone Shorty standing in for the original recording’s horn section, the Aerosmith frontman and country star were in surprisingly soulful R&B synch, even if, as Kimmel noted, “Here’s a fun fact: When LeAnn Rimes was born, Steven Tyler was the same age he is today.”

It would have been hard to imagine Rimes could have much competition for the most powerhouse vocals of the night, but that was before Pink did a piano-accompanied “So Far Away,” or Alicia was the one inevitably handed the keys to “Natural Woman.” And even these stars had to take a soul-power backseat to a quartet of woman recently seen in the documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom -- Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill -- whose slow-gospel reading of the Tapestry cut “Way Over Yonder” set the standard for how any other performance should be unfairly judged.

Only a couple of dodgier contributions slowed the momentum. Train was afforded the privilege of performing King’s funkiest number, “I Feel the Earth Move,” and after Pat Monahan announced “I need some help on this one,” he walked down to King’s spot in the audience -- but unfortunately used the honoree mostly as a dancing prop, hardly letting King near his microphone. Even more curiously, will.i.am brought a very young female protégé out to sing “Where is the Love,” and if there was a good reason why there was a Black Eyed Peas song being trotted out as the only non-King number of the evening, no one was sharing that rationale with the baffled audience.

The oddest of the odd couplings had a Best New Artist Grammy nominee, country’s Kacey Musgraves, dueting with R&B’s Miguel on “Crying in the Rain,” a 1962 Everly Brothers classic co-written by King. On paper, it seemed like a terrible idea, but the Miguel/Musgraves harmonies were so picture-perfect that it left you thinking these two ought to take their Everlys tribute act out on the road.

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A group-sing involving Sara Bareilles, Zac Brown, Jason Mraz, and Raining Jane, on the other hand, probably sounded better on paper than it came off, with Bareilles in particular -- arguably the most real heir to the King tradition on hand — being a bit wasted in what amounted to a backup singer role. A country femme medley had Miranda Lambert’s winsome “It Might as Well Rain Until September” slightly overshadowing contributions by fellow Nashvillians Jennifer Nettles, Martina McBride, and Amy Grant. In the most rock & roll segment of the night, King’s daughter, Louise Goffin, teamed with Jakob Dylan for a subtly but sublimely jangly “I’m Goin’ Back,” as recorded in ’67 by the Byrds.

After this parade of serious earthmoving equipment, it was difficult to imagine how King herself might cap off the evening, beyond her inevitable duet with Troubadour partner JT on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”

But she had a surprise in store: After telling how she learned about Indian music from a student who was assigned as her guide while she picked up an award at Berklee, she brought that young man out for an internationalized version of “Home Again” that was part adult-contemporary standard, part raga. “If I were 27 instead of 72, we could take this out on the road!” she crowed. King could have gone through the motions for her own closing segment, but this lovely cross-cultural twist was heartwarming proof that she, too, cares.

Twitter: @chriswillman

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