This post has been updated. See below for details.
Surprisingly, the cries of “Bruce! Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!” that echoed through the Los Angeles Convention Center on Friday night at the annual MusiCares Person of the Year gala came much later than expected.
The deep-voiced call, familiar to most fans of honoree Bruce Springsteen, normally arrives the moment he enters a venue. Friday night it didn't begin until well into the evening’s many tributes to the Boss, and was uttered by a wild-eyed singer/guitarist Neil Young during his and Crazy Horse's distortion-drenched performance of “Born in the U.S.A.”
But symbolically, we’d been repeating Bruce’s name all night long. The black-tie event, with a ticket price that started at $1,500, supports a foundation whose mission is to aid musicians struggling to pay medical bills.
As artists including the Alabama Shakes, Mumford & Sons, Patti Smith, Mavis Staples, Sting, Natalie Maines, Elton John, Zac Brown, Kenny Chesney, Juanes, Emmylou Harris and others showered the room with Springsteen’s trademark melodies and earnest lyrics that plumb the depths of the American experience, it quickly became obvious that few songwriters speak to such personal battles more eloquently than the Boss.
The evening’s host, comedian and “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, captured the evening’s essence in two simple sentences directed at Springsteen, sitting with his family at a table in the audience: “Pat yourself on the back. Your songbook is amazing.”
It’s an easy enough thing to say, especially coming from a fellow New Jersey native. But when Brittany Howard, the lead singer of the Grammy-nominated Alabama Shakes, poured through lines to “Adam Raised a Cain,” Springsteen’s 1978 father/son drama, that truth became self-evident. “We were prisoners of love, / a love in chains,” sang Howard, “He was standing by the door / I was standing in the rain / With the same hot blood / Burning in our veins / Adam raised a Cain.” Not all songwriters are created equal.
Where Young and the Shakes pushed volume and voluminous intensity, others showed more restraint. Mumford & Sons, the young British folk-rock band whose recent album, "Babel," is nominated for the album of the year Grammy, interpreted the simmering “I’m On Fire” softly, four men in a semicircle playing guitars, banjo and accordion embodying with quiet conviction the song’s lust and desire.
Emmylou Harris drifted through “My Hometown,” Springsteen’s lyrical glimpse at the power of roots and birthright, gently playing an acoustic guitar while offering the song’s bittersweet lines. John Legend turned Springsteen’s early 1980s upbeat pop song, “Dancin’ in the Dark” into a solo piano ballad; the Boss later said that “it made me sound like Gershwin.” Zac Brown and Mavis Staples collaborated for a gospel-filled take on “My City of Ruins.” My Morning Jacket's Jim James tore through "The Ghost of Tom Joad" with guitarist Tom Morello. (Find a copy of this performance online; it was the most powerful rendition of the night.)
The evening’s nonmusical highlight came early, during an auction of a Fender guitar signed by Springsteen. As auctioneer David Foster walked the room looking for bids (starting at $50,000), other musicians -- Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris among them -- signed the guitar. Then Springsteen grabbed the microphone and offered more incentive. He’d give the winning bidder an hour-long guitar lesson. The crowd cheered, and the bids went higher. He added a ride in the sidecar of his Harley Davidson, concert tickets, and the bidding hit $100,000. Then, pointing to his mother sitting at his table, the Boss capped it: “And lasagna made by my mother!” The winning bid was $250,000.
Just after midnight, Springsteen took to the podium to thank the attendees. He described the evening as “kind of a freaky experience” before speaking in eloquent, emotional detail about the power of music. “The Taliban will never win, not now or not ever, not here, not in Timbuktu, by banning music and dancing. When you do that, you label yourself a tyrant, and your cruel days are numbered.”
He then humorously explained the necessity of a foundation dedicated to supporting musicians: “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 [mess up] many peoples’ lives while setting fire to our own, dancing down the street.”
Then Springsteen and band launched into a five-song set, two new, three classics: “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Death to My Hometown,” both from his recent “Wrecking Ball” album; and "Thunder Road," “Born to Run,” and an all-musicians-onstage rendition of “Glory Days.”
It turns out that host Stewart was right. This guy’s got a pretty good songbook, and on Friday Springsteen got his pat on the back. Freaky or not, the experience was a truly memorable.
Updated Feb 9, 2:16 p.m. The original version of this post neglected to mention a song that Bruce Springsteen performed during his closing set. In addition to the four mentioned, he also played "Thunder Road." The post has been updated to reflect this.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit