Old friends took a look at Neil Young's life on Friday night, and by the time the dinner concert honoring him as the MusiCares 2010 Person of the Year was over, there wasn't merely a lot of love for the 64-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, but a lot of cash raised for the Recording Academy's charity.
The well-heeled Grammy-weekend crowd in the West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center was treated to gripping performances of Young classics by the likes of Elton John, Wilco, Norah Jones, Dave Matthews and Ben Harper; a heartrending finale by Shakey's old bandmates Crosby, Stills & Nash; and enough genuflecting to make fans think flannel is the new formalwear.
Maybe owing to the occasion, most of the performances found their warm-and-fuzzies in the folkier pages of Young's catalog, with few taking on the feral intensity of his rock work. Still, the parade of hits dazzled even the honoree.
"I'd forgotten how many songs I've written," Young said. "I listen to some of those songs and I think, 'What am I gonna do now?' ... 'Who was that guy?'"
Well, he's a guy who wrote "Sugar Mountain" on his 19th birthday and "Rockin' in the Free World" when he was in his mid-forties. And on this day he was the guy who, besides allowing that he was already at work on a follow-up to 2009's Fork in the Road, left a sign in the performers' area that read:
just do what you want to do
don't listen to anyone else
Good advice when you have Neil Young's chops.
Friday night's crisply choreographed show (masterminded by producer Don Was) took a village. Emcee Jack Black - who auctioned off his shoes, his tie and almost his trousers (at one point he dropped 'em) for charity - praised Young for writing "songs that make you cry, songs that make you rock, and songs that make you want to punch the government in the balls."
Wilco's brilliant rendition of Buffalo Springfield's "Broken Arrow" simply made you want to shake their hand; it revealed a band in complete control of its capabilities as they tackled a song with multiple personalities.
The other highlights traded in melancholy: Norah Jones' candy-coated "Tell Me Why," Harper's bluesy take on "Ohio," and Matthews' rapt version of "The Needle and Damage Done" sent chills through the hall, foreshadowing the all-star lineup assembled to perform "Helpless." That number featured Elton John and Leon Russell on dueling pianos, Sheryl Crow and Neko Case lending their vocals and T Bone Burnett on guitar.
After Crosby, Stills & Nash paid their respects and harmonized on "Human Highway," Young took a moment to acknowledge his friend and filmmaking collaborator Larry "L.A." Johnson, who died suddenly last week.
"It's a shame he couldn't be here," Young said. "But I'm gonna keep on going, and I hope you do too."
John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett, "Down by the River"?
Ozomatli, "Mr. Soul"?
Jackson Browne, "Don't Let It Bring You Down"?
Stephen Stills and Sheryl Crow, "Long May You Run"
Lady Antebellum, "Only Love Can Break Your Heart"?
Norah Jones, "Tell Me Why"?
Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin, "Comes a Time"?
Wilco, "Broken Arrow"?
Josh Groban, "Harvest Moon"
Everest, "Revolution Blues"?
Dierks Bentley and Booker T. Jones, "Cinnamon Girl"?
Ben Harper, "Ohio"?
Keith Urban, John Fogerty and Booker T. Jones, "Rockin' in the Free World"?
Elvis Costello, "The Losing End"?
Jason Mraz, Shawn Colvin and the Grooveline Horns, "Lotta Love"?
Dave Matthews, "The Needle and the Damage Done"?
Red Hot Chili Peppers, "A Man Needs a Maid"?
James Taylor, "Heart of Gold"?
Elton John, Leon Russell, Neko Case, Sheryl Crow and T Bone Burnett, "Helpless"?
Crosby, Stills & Nash, "Human Highway"