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It took a while before the familiar howl of “Brruuuuuce” echoed throughout the room. Yet there he was: The Boss. Bruce Springsteen. New Jersey’s only hope — or “all we have,” as host Jon Stewart joked at the start of MusiCares Person of the Year gala dinner and tribute concert, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Seated alongside Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone and Us Weekly, and adjacent to Sting and wife Trudie Styler, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and Conan O’Brien and his missus, Liza Powel, Springsteen was joined at the head table by his wife of 21 years, Patti Scialfa, in what was looking more and more like date night for the music industry. (Worth noting: A couple of same-sex crushes were also in the house: Katy Perry made her entrance holding hands with songwriter Bonnie McKee, while Judd Apatow was accompanied by Cameron Crowe).
Indeed, even the array of Springsteen songs chosen — many released post-1982 — were of the slow-dance kind: acoustic and mellow, albeit with powerful messages.
The night’s musical portion started with Alabama Shakes’ cover of “Adam Raised a Cain,” which found singer Brittany Howard belting a soulful rendition of the deep cut from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. The Grammy-nominated band was followed by Patti Smith, who delivered her hit from the same year, “Because the Night” to rousing applause. Smith’s pipes, despite singing that very song “a million times,” she jousted, sounded stronger than ever. “I always think of the composer as well as the muse,” Smith explained.
Next up were Natalie Maines, sporting a new punked-out ‘do, and Ben Harper, who teamed with Charlie Musselwhite for “Atlantic City,” followed by Ken Casey of Dropkick Murphys (“American Land”), Zac Brown and Mavis Staples (“My City of Ruins”) and Mumford & Sons, whose moody, banjo-led take on “I’m on Fire” was by that point the highlight of the night until Tom Morello turned the volume to 11.
Jackson Browne made an apt choice with the political “41 Shots (American Skin),” while Emmylou Harris prefaced “My Hometown” by telling the 3,000-strong crowd, “I love this song so much.” Then it was Sir Elton John’s turn to melt hearts with a stirring rendition of “Streets of Philadelphia” — a song that no doubt bears a special significance for the dedicated AIDS activist.
Colombian star Juanes went bilingual with “Hungry Heart” (Springsteen’s mom sang along to the English portions) followed by a menacing “Ghost of Tom Joad” by Morello and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Sting sang “Lonesome Day,” accompanied by a 20-person choir, husband-and-wife team McGraw and Hill sang “Tougher Than the Rest” and John Legend turned “Dancing in the Dark” into a piano-led lullaby, after which the sleepy portion of the Springsteen tribute thankfully came to an end.
That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable. Clearly appreciative and humbled by the recognition from his peers, Springsteen stood after each performance, but The Boss is a rocker at heart and it took a Canadian singing “Born in the U.S.A.” to finally — and fully — lift the audience members from their seats with that familiar call: “Brruuuuce.” Neil Young was to thank.
The person of the year was the man of the night for obvious reasons, and he was the entertainment in many more ways than one. First, he kicked off the evening with a not-so-silent and certainly not subtle auction, helping volunteer auctioneer David Foster sell a guitar signed by the likes of Elton John, McGraw and Hill, Katy Perry and others to one lucky bidder. To sweeten the deal, Springsteen threw in a personal guitar lesson, eight passes to a show of the bidder’s choice and a backstage tour that he would conduct, plus the promise that his mother would cook the winner lasagna. “Dig in, you one percenters!” he chided. And with that, the price quickly jumped from $50,000 to $250,000.
“This terrified me so much, I had to run backstage to get a drink,” Springsteen cracked at the start of the evening. Clearly in good, er, sprits, he carried that joviality through to his speech, which came well past midnight. Praising MusiCares and its foundations for helping musicians in times of financial need, Springsteen said: “Thank you, MusiCares, for taking care of musicians. Because 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! We f— up many people’s lives while setting fire to our own while dancing down the street.”
The seven-minute address was nothing short of spectacular. Springsteen was reflective and funny, recounting how the song “Because the Night” came to be, throwing out Bruce-isms (like how we’re “born to be lost”) with unbridled abandon, and couldn’t have ended on a better note: With Springsteen snapping, “Now give me that damn guitar!”
What followed was a four-song encore that aptly opened with his latest call to arms, “We Take Care of Our Own,” after which Springsteen obliged with a true classic, “Born to Run.” Featuring the late Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake on saxophone, one can’t imagine the song sounding any better in an arena. To wrap up the night, as the clock was approaching 1 a.m., The Boss beckoned any and all musicians in the room to come up on stage. They followed in due haste: the Mumford boys, Emmylou Harris, Sting, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, who flanked drummer Max Weinberg, Tom Morello, Patti Smith and Jon Stewart. (Strangely missing from the festivities: Interscope head Jimmy Iovine, who engineered Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, and was out of town). The closer: another wholly appropriate pick, “Glory Days.”
Hats off to McGraw for attempting to sing the second verse. Even with help from the TelePrompTer, he never quite pulled it off, but it was a valiant effort. After all, it’s not exactly easy to mimic the intonation, rhythm or verse versatility that Springsteen and his fans wear as a badge of honor — especially sans rehearsal.
With that, the night came to a glorious end for the thousands who filed out into the cold L.A. night. Springsteen and posse, however, lingered until well after 2:30, toasting along with Sting, McGraw and friends at a makeshift bar set up for them backstage. No doubt somebody must have thought, “Because the night belongs to us.”
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