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“We love L.A.,” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame co-founder Jann Wenner assured the Nokia Theatre crowd during his opening remarks at Thursday night’s induction ceremony. It was a little hard to take the Rolling Stone publisher completely seriously on that point, as he’d just noted the show had not taken place on the West Coast in 20 years, a long hiatus among lovers. Of all the people we never expect to see “rolling down the Imperial Highway,” with or without a big nasty redhead at his side, it’s the New York-centric Wenner.
But thanks to the shift west, inductee Randy Newman — and his backup singers/guitarists Jackson Browne, Tom Petty and John Fogerty (pictured below) — could open the show with “I Love L.A.” with only the usual amount of intended irony, instead of an extra bicoastal dose. The show’s SoCal focus pretty much started and ended there, though. If anything, downtown Los Angeles became Little Toronto for the night, thanks to the paying audience’s single-minded focus on a certain Canadian act.
Wenner had merely to say the words “From Toronto …” at the outset of the show for the crowd to erupt in a noisy, lengthy standing ovation. You might have mistook the Nokia as hosting a Rush fan convention, to which Newman, Heart, Public Enemy, Lou Adler and Quincy Jones had been invited as incongruous guests. Fortunately, after some initial booing and shouting at Wenner and a growing chorus of catcalls from the balcony when Flavor Flav overstayed his welcome on stage by about a month, the crowd mostly managed to be patient while waiting more than four hours for their Canuck heroes to cap the event.
The theme of the night? Overdue-ness. After Wenner allowed that it had been “way too f—ing long” since the ceremony was held in L.A., most of the presenters that followed seemed to want to implicitly blame Wenner and his board for taking way too f–ing long to vote in the evening’s winners. Don Henley said Newman’s honor was “shamefully overdue” from “this peculiar, perplexing organization.” Donna Summer’s widower, Bruce Sudano, made the most polite of allusions to the idea that it would have been nice if she’d been elected before she died in May, “but we decided as a family that we would lean on the sweet side of the occasion.” Jones, 80, cracked repeatedly that he “didn’t want to get inducted too early” after presenter Oprah Winfrey pointedly remarked on “a career that has spanned SEVEN DECADES.” Foo Fighter Dave Grohl made a crack at the expense of allegedly prog-rock-dissing Rolling Stone magazine before saying “it is our honor to FINALLY induct Rush into the Hall of Fame.”
As the clock neared 12:30 a.m., it was an honor to finally leave, too. But it’s hard to argue that the show could have been much tighter, given that the honorees are allowed a shot at talking as long as they want, and if Quincy isn’t going to be afforded the chance to ramble a little here, where will he be? Certainly not the Grammys.
Ironically, perhaps, Flavor Flav was the least inclined of anybody to watch the clock, much to the visible chagrin of everyone else from Public Enemy. But watching him spend about a third of his nearly 10-minute speech complaining about how Chuck D had admonished him to not hog the spotlight was a kind of entertainment you won’t get at any other kudocast. (And, naturally, the vast majority of this will be cut out when HBO airs a severe edit May 18.)
The only real ill effect of the relaxed speechifying is making the actual performances seem even briefer than they are. But short and sweet worked for Usher, singing Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” that had to suffice as the evening’s Jones tribute, and Jennifer Hudson, knocking Summer’s “Last Dance” out of the park, even if she seemed a bit tentative on the snippet of “Bad Girls” that preceded it.
The Rock Hall of Fame is usually good for an awkward moment between bandmembers who haven’t darkened each other’s doorsteps in decades. This year, that slot belonged to Heart, with the original star lineup reuniting for the first time in 34 years. Seventies-era guitarist Roger Fisher, who was booted from the band some time after his romance with Nancy Wilson came to an end, had blogged about the tension surrounding their one-song reunion. While he was clearly the most excited and animated to be onstage again, you couldn’t notice that the Wilson sisters seemed to want to keep a respectful distance.
It’s too bad Heart couldn’t have stretched the reunion out for at least one additional number after they opened with a galvanizing “Crazy on You.” But the Wilsons’ magnanimity ended at that point and they brought out their current band for “Barracuda,” along with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, “without whom none of this would have been possible — emotionally,” even though the sisters’ macho Seattle grunge ancestors didn’t really add that much to the sharkfest.
Of course there’s a certain amount of stunt casting involved in the star collaborations, and having Petty, Fogerty and Browne show up to trade verses on Newman’s most famous song was all about the name and face value, too. Hearing Newman sing the mournful “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” by himself with an eight-piece string section was the strictly musical highlight of the night. But as star team-ups go, pairing Newman with Henley for a duet of “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” proved particularly rewarding, especially as Henley had just pointed out that this satirical anthem about rockers growing old gracelessly was “perfect for this occasion.”
Public Enemy didn’t invite any outsiders on stage for their part of the show, but, between “Fight the Power” and “Don’t Believe the Hype,” they did take time out for a DJ/mixmaster moment that incorporated samples of Donna, Quincy and… Geddy Lee.
Rush was inducted via a riotously funny speech by Grohl and Taylor Hawkins. The latter Foo Fighter in particular saluted Neal Peart for “bringing the drums where they should be — to the f—in’ forefront of every song … Who let the drummer write the lyrics? Rush did, baby.” After the trio accepted their award, the performance segment began with a band that looked and sounded suspiciously like Rush; the ringers quickly were revealed to be Foo Fighters in wigs, white kimonos and fine form.
Once the real Rush took over, the crowd grew suitably orgasmic, and maybe even the suits at the tables in front thought that maybe not such a terrible mistake had been made assenting to let these time-shifting workhorses in at last, whether due to massive public pressure, actual merit or both. As Peart had said minutes earlier, “It is fitting we receive this honor as a working band, in the middle of a tour, in our 39th year” — and sounded it.
The elaborate production design for Rush’s mini-set, all amusing steampunk (complete with a brain on a spit and a popcorn popper), was presumably brought in from said tour. It was left up when most of the evening’s cast reconvened for the traditional closing jam, on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.” Flav was missing, even though he’d been cheering and gesticulating wildly from the lip of the stage when Rush powered through “Tom Sawyer.” But we did get to see Chuck D and Lee shoulder to shoulder — a great a reason as any to love the Hall of Fame, in or out of L.A.
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