Travie McCoy, Black Thought and Kid Rock pay tribute to the Beastie Boys. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
Among the enticing possibilities upon receiving my invite to last Saturday's 27th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction: Seeing Axl Rose lead the original Guns N' Roses lineup through "Welcome to the Jungle"; hearing MCA's gravelly counterpoint to the squeak and squawk of fellow Beastie Boys Mike D and Ad-Rock; seeing Rod Stewart lead The Faces through "Ooh La La."
None of that happened because none of those guys showed up — MCA and Stewart for health reasons, Rose presumably because the Hall refused to induct his current ragtag GNR lineup — but there was still plenty of noteworthy spectacle Saturday, even if much of it was less than spectacular. It was also incredibly long, five-plus hours of nostalgia, eulogizing and the occasional flash of brilliance at Cleveland's Public Hall.
Things got started with Green Day, who are not yet eligible for induction and who did not play in tribute to anybody in particular, performing their own "Letterbomb." This seemed like a curious choice. Then came a few minutes of official business from Rock Hall president Terry Stewart and a rundown of the night's inductees from "Rolling Stone" founder and Rock Hall co-founder Jann Wenner. A video of previous induction nights ensued, which served to remind us of this night's relatively low-wattage star power.
Things really got underway when ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill showed up to induct the late Freddie King. They praised King, a fellow Texan, for taking them on the road early in their career and helping them learn how to rock. King's daughter Wanda accepted the award on his behalf with anecdotes about her father's advice to a 14-year-old Stevie Ray Vaughn and how she destroyed her dad's Goldtop Les Paul while running around the house as a child. (Woops.) Things got real bluesy real fast as ZZ Top played a King tribute with guests Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa, including a vibrant run through King's "Going Down."
John Mellencamp appeared next to induct Donovan, rhapsodizing for almost 20 minutes about his childhood obsession with the British folk-rocker ("I wasn't just listening to Donovan, I was living Donovan") before finally welcoming the man himself on stage to accept the statuette. Mellencamp's apparently drunking rambling went on too long, but it was a lot more entertaining than the godawful poem Donovan read as his acceptance speech. At least the man known in some quarters as Mellow Yellow took the stage to perform "Catch the Wind" acoustically and full-band versions of "Sunshine Superman" and "Season of the Witch." His creepy old-man dancing barely diminished how great this all sounded.
Bette Midler appeared next to ramble effusively about the late Laura Nyro. ("She was the very essence of New York City... I get verklempt just thinking about it.") Nyro's son accepted the honor in her stead, then Sara Bareilles (no, seriously, Sara Bareilles) performed in tribute. I'm sure there will be a fervent campaign to get Bareilles inducted in 2029.
Carole King was next on stage to honor producer, manager and TV host Don Kirshner, who broke Bobby Darin, invented The Monkees and helped evolve the concept of televised live music with programs like "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" among other accomplishments. This was one of the great accomplishments. The late Kirshner's wife Sheila accepted the award, and Darlene Love performed The Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" in Kirshner's honor.
Ledisi took the stage next to perform Etta James' "At Last" against a montage of music industry figures who died in the last year. Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston and James herself were among those included.
Stevie Van Zandt stepped up next to induct The Small Faces and The Faces. His most memorable comments were about appearance: First, "Unlike those other bands, The Small Faces were actually good looking"; then, "When Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood joined, the band changed their name from The Small Faces to The Proudly Large Noses." The musicians were pretty lighthearted about how long they've been waiting for induction: "We'd like to thank our fans — if they're still aiive." After accepting their awards, a composite of the two bands performed "All Or Nothing," "Ooh La La" and "Stay With Me," Simply Red's Mick Hucknall doing an admirable job playing the parts of the late Steve Marriot and Ronnie Lane and flu-stricken Rod Stewart.
Smokey Robinson turned out to induct his former cohorts The Miracles and several other backing groups including The Crickets, The Midnighters, The Comets, The Blue Caps and The Famous Flames. Although a medley of hits would have been a lot of fun, I'm glad they skipped the performance element for this segment because the show was already starting to become absurdly long.
I'll betray my generational bias here: Things got real interesting real fast when Chuck D and LL Cool J showed up to induct the Beastie Boys. Chuck spoke about how much the Beasties influenced early Public Enemy records; LL credited the group for getting him his big break by playing his demo tape for Rick Rubin in an NYU dorm room. With Adam "MCA" Yauch at home dealing with cancer treatments, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz merely accepted their awards in lieu of performing. Instead, The Roots (along with guests Kid Rock and Gym Class Heroes' Travie McCoy... you read that right) were called in to burn through a Beasties medley that culminated with a genuinely astonishing version of "Sabotage" led by a super-intense Captain Kirk Douglas. I have to wonder what the Beasties thought about Kid Rock and McCoy filling in for them, but the MCs — each decked out in a green Adidas jumpsuit — were undoubtedly a product of their influence.
Then came the Guns part. Green Day returned to induct GNR, Billie Joe Armstrong rattling off band members then baiting the crowd with a "Who am I missing?" that drew rampant boos for Rose. Though Izzy Stradlin and Dizzy Reed were also absent, the classic-era members who were present — Slash, McKagan, Steven Adler, Matt Sorum and Gilby Clarke — accepted the honor. (McKagan: "I don't think it matters who's here tonight because it's about the music that that band made.") Then they bashed through "Mr. Brownstone," "Sweet Child of Mine" and "Paradise City." Unfortunately, Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge and Slash's latest solo project handled lead vocals in Axl's stead, which further tarnished an already questionable endeavor. It was a lot of fun, but also pretty damn sad. At least I got to hear Slash play the solo from "Sweet Child of Mine."
Just when I thought things would wrap up with the Chili Peppers, Robbie Robertson appeared to induct a trio of recording engineers: Cosimo Matassa, Tom Dowd and Glyn Johns. These guys laid some of the greatest music of all time to tape — seriously, please check out their resumes — but with 1 a.m. approaching, I was definitely wishing this would wrap up as quickly as possible. Speech, speech, speech, speech.
At long last Chris Rock came on stage to induct Red Hot Chili Peppers. He got in some good cracks, joking that if Axl Rose was coming tonight, he wouldn't have shown up by now anyway, before detailing his first experience with the Chili Peppers decades ago in Brooklyn. (He and his friends meant to see Grandmaster Flash that night, but they accidentally showed up at the Chili Peppers concert instead; "I'd never been to a white show before, so I thought all white bands wore socks on their dicks.") Rock then sang the Chili Peppers' praise: "If Brian Wilson and George Clinton had a kid, he'd be ugly as f---. But also, he'd sound like the Chili Peppers." A procession of speeches by various Peppers ensued, including some former members Jack Irons and Cliff Martinez, the brother of late guitarist Hillel Slovak, Chad Smith (looking like Will Ferrell as always), Flea and Anthony Kiedis. Notably absent: Guitarist John Frusciante, who two terms with the band resulted in some of their most beloved work. Flea and Kiedis paid tribute to Frusciante as well as their fallen comrade Slovak. Then they hit the stage for "By the Way," "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie," "Give It Away" and an all-star "Higher Ground" jam featuring George Clinton, Ronnie Wood, Slash and Billie Joe Armstrong. For the first time all night, it felt like the stars had truly aligned.