HOLLYWOOD — Leave it to Jack Black and his prestigious rock pals to dump a barrel of laughs — and a barrel of cash — onto an otherwise grim situation.
Slipping into his mock persona as half of facetious Satan-worshipping folk duo Tenacious D, Black invited Dave Grohl, Fiona Apple, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, and comedians David Cross and Sarah Silverman onstage at the Wiltern LG Thursday night for a Gulf Coast disaster benefit that was equal parts hilarity, intimacy and goodwill.
The three-hour, sold-out show started with a somber three-song set by Apple. With Extraordinary Machine producer Jon Brion plucking away on guitar at her side, the motionless Apple delivered tempered but assured vocals, pleasing to no end her fans in the balcony going nuts over the singer’s long-awaited return.
But while the bleak-but-affecting tone of Apple’s opening set seemed in step with the benefit event’s main thrust, it proved to be anything but representational of what the rest of the night had in store.
Following Apple was Silverman, an L.A. comedy veteran who stretches racy humor to its breaking point. Smiling earnestly and standing well below five and a half feet, Jimmy Kimmel’s not-so-innocent sweetheart slandered ethnic groups, deceased elderly relatives, political parties (her Nazi references were probably the tamest) … pretty much anything she could to make the predominantly older-male crowd blush.
Cross, recognizable for his role as Tobias Fünke on “Arrested Development,” the HBO series “Mr. Show” and countless big-screen appearances, also slugged the crowd with coarse comments, albeit with a sharper political edge. He found room to slam Bush, Republicans, FEMA, religion and even Toys “R” Us over the course of his 20-minute segment, which was rounded out by a surprise appearance from his “Mr. Show” partner-in-profanity, Bob Odenkirk, as God.
Stand-up-comic relief aside, it was music that proved to be the most moving factor of the night. Josh Homme and Jesse Hughes — on-again, off-again partners in the Eagles of Death Metal — opened their triple-song set with a solemn cover of Johnny Cash’s “Dark as a Dungeon,” a macabre tune Homme, who played guitar and sang, said felt appropriate for the occasion. After that, with Homme behind the drums and Hughes strutting his stuff, they dug into two Eagles tunes, “I Only Want You” and “Kiss the Devil.” Always leaping at the chance to praise the Prince of Darkness, Black sprinted around the stage for the latter song, singing and pulling off a somersault/handspring trick that he would revisit to exhaustion throughout the night.
In a concert with many highlights, Grohl’s performance managed to stand out. Even though the Foo Fighters foreman is plenty prone to acoustic stuff these days — half of his band’s new album, In Your Honor, is in that form, after all — each of the off-the-cuff songs he played were uniquely intimate.
He started off with “Skin and Bones,” a tune he said he wrote two weeks ago while on tour — and which he dedicated, red plastic cup in hand, to a “bootlegger” standing up front who recognized it. The tune was about losing weight on the road due to stress — a trend only Meat Loaf and Tenacious D seem unfamiliar with, he said.
On the topic of on-the-road travels, Grohl added that the Foos had witnessed what he called the worst devastation he’d ever seen while driving from Mississippi to Texas post-Hurricane Katrina. With that, he launched into the first-ever acoustic performance of “Best of You,” the only radio hit performed all night, bringing the crowd to its chorus-chanting potential.
Saying benefit gigs give him the chance to be spontaneous, Grohl chose a cut even hard-core fans never would’ve expected: “Friend of a Friend,” an obscure song he wrote 15 years ago after meeting “two really weird dudes” and rooming with one of them in an apartment littered with corndog sticks and piles of cigarette ash. “He plays an old guitar/ With a coin found by the phone … He’s never been in love/ But he knows just what love is … But when he tells his best two friends, ‘I think I drink too much’/ No one speaks,” he sang, in obvious reference to Kurt Cobain.
For his last number, Grohl called on backup in the form of Homme and Hughes. Homme — who enlisted Grohl to play drums on Queens of the Stone Age’s 2003 album, Songs for the Deaf — reversed roles and took to the kit behind the guitar-wielding Grohl. “Do you know how to play drums?” he teased Homme, who has gotten well-acquainted with them through the Eagles of Death Metal. With that they dove into a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou,” made all the more potent by Grohl’s shaggy-haired likeness to John Fogerty and the lyrics “Wishin’ I were a fast freight train/ Just a chooglin’ on down to New Orleans.”
A rousing set by the D followed, during which Black and partner Kyle Gass previewed numerous songs from their upcoming “Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny” flick/soundtrack, including “Kickapoo” (the Missouri small town Black supposedly escaped from), “The Government Totally Sucks” (with the chant “Bring back the U.S.A.!”), “Man, I Totally Miss You” (Black’s paean to K.G.) and “Master Exploder,” a goofy guitar-god song Black hysterically lip-synched. That one drew the most applause of all the new songs, which were balanced out by fan favorites “Wonderboy,” “Tribute,” “Dio” and “F— Her Gently.”
In a show of unity and friendship, all the evening’s performers — save Apple — came out for an encore improv jam. David Cross clunked the cowbell Will Ferrell so expertly used for a D-hosted tsunami tribute at the same venue last year (see “Will Ferrell Rocks Cowbell At Star-Studded Tsunami Benefit” ), and Black, seemingly overcome by the accumulated talent surrounding him, instructed the crowd to harmonize along, ran around a few more times, pulled off a few more somersault/handspring flips, and called it a night. All for a good cause.
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