NEW YORK — During his introduction at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night (October 29), Tom Hanks brought up a good question: “Does rock and roll need a hall of fame?” He immediately arrived at his answer. “Yes. After 50 years of rock and roll, yes.” The next five hours were spent backing up Hanks’ statement, with performances by Crosby, Stills and Nash, Stevie Wonder, Simon & Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen (plus a bevy of special guests), all saluting the now-storied history of rock and roll.
Ostensibly, the theme of the night was to bring together seminal rock acts and their influences for a series of greatest hits and all-star jams (Paul Simon brought out old-school bopper Dion for a trip through “Runaround Sue,” while Springsteen welcomed legendary singer and bandleader Sam Moore), but the most inspired moments from the show came when artists decided to look to the future (or at least the present) rather than salute the past. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello joined Springsteen for a loud, thumping electric version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (complete with Morello’s signature guitar scratching), while Wonder brought out John Legend for a trip through Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and an extended tribute to Michael Jackson on “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
Following Hanks’ introduction (his production company, Playtone, was producing the show for HBO, which will air the concert on November 29), the curtain rose on Jerry Lee Lewis, the 74-year-old rock legend who sat behind a piano to pound out “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” He was followed by the first of many montages of moments in rock history (Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar, Elvis Presley on “The Ed Sullivan Show”) mashed up with signature moments from the 20th century (Martin Luther King, Vietnam).
Crosby, Stills and Nash ran through a workmanlike set of their own hits and covers, bringing on contemporaries Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor for a few collaborations (including a blistering run through the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider” and an all-hands-on-deck jam through “Teach Your Children”). Paul Simon’s set was more straightforward: He kicked it off with “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and didn’t stray far from his jukebox full of hits for the next 45 minutes. Longtime collaborator Art Garfunkel harmonized with Simon on classics like “The Sound of Silence” and “The Boxer,” and while their individual voices sounded weathered by age, the harmonies remained as sweet and haunting as ever.
Stevie Wonder overcame technical difficulties at the beginning of his set (nobody could seem to provide him with a microphone that worked) to deliver a hit-filled, star-studded performance that stole the evening. In addition to his team-up with Legend, Wonder also brought on Smokey Robinson (whose sweet croon infused “The Tracks of My Tears” with a stunning grace) and B.B. King (whose run through “The Thrill Is Gone” proved that his voice still has that perfect combination of gravel and honey, even at 84 years old). Perhaps the evening’s most surreal moment came when Wonder introduced Sting, who played bass and sang with the R&B legend on an inspired mash-up of Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and the Police’s “Roxanne.”
The night closed with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s typically epic set. Following a sweaty “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Springsteen just kept hitting peaks: Duets with John Fogerty and Darlene Love, a cover of the Clash’s “London Calling,” a surprise appearance by Billy Joel (who jammed on three songs) and a final, everybody-and-their-mother grand finale “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” It was well after 1 a.m. by the time Springsteen bid the crowd goodnight, but the case had been made long before that: Yes, rock and roll does need a hall of fame, and the evening’s performers proved that they were the reason why.