MusiCares 2015: Heavy-Hitters Perform Dylan’s Best

by Steve Spohn
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DylanMusicares2015 SongMango.comThe 2015 MusiCares “Person of the Year” is the legendary Bob Dylan – a larger-than-life artistic genius who gave voice to an entire generation of Americans in the 1960s, ’70s and beyond. As for his longevity and stamina, Dylan just announced a rigorous 19-stop spring tour – at the age of 73, more than 50 years into his illustrious career.

The 25th anniversary celebration of the Grammy’s premier charitable foundation, MusiCares, featured a red-carpet parade of heavy-hitters – like Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Jack White, Sheryl Crow, Aaron Neville, Norah Jones and Crosby, Stills & Nash – who came out to pay their respects to America’s preeminent Rock poet and to play some of his most influential songs. A tuxedo-clad Jimmy Carter, the former president and Dylan super-fan, made the official presentation of the award, saying Bob’s “words on peace and human rights are much more incisive, much more powerful and much more permanent than those of any President of the United States.”

Cheryl Crowe performed

Sheryl Crow

As for background, MusiCares raises money for musicians – a way for the Grammy’s National Academy of Arts and Sciences to take care of their own. The idea for the charity sprung from the sad story of famed bandleader Woody Herman, who died destitute and nearly homeless in the late-’80s – after devoting his life to entertaining and enlightning the masses with his music.

MusiCares, established in 1989, is the Academy’s answer to protecting musicians so that they will never have to suffer through what Herman did. It’s powerful stuff – a highly worthwhile foundation that makes a real impact on musicians’ lives and helps those in need (including drug rehabilitation).

Held at the LA Convention Center on February 6th, this is the fourth MusiCares event I’ve attended, and this one stood tall among the rest. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to be on floor for the MusiCares events honoring Neil Young (2010), Paul McCartney (2012), Bruce Springsteen (2013) and now Bob Dylan (2015). Reportedly, tickets for this year’s event were $1,500 all the way up to $100,000 (hey, it’s for charity).

Portrait by Zhenya Gershman [photo Yanina Gotsulsky]

Portrait by Zhenya Gershman [photo Yanina Gotsulsky]

Before the event there was an enormous silent auction of incredible Rock memorabilia, including original photographs and artwork. Renowned figurative artist Zhenya Gershman, who was asked to create for the MusiCares gala, painted a spectacular portrait of Bob that completely captures the American Rock icon. The dramatic painting (29″ x 49 1/2″) caught many eyes in the “big ticket” area.

The auction also featured items like a guitar signed by all this year’s MusiCares performers (click image below to enlarge). The last bid I heard for the one-of-a-kind guitar was $34,900. A little rich for my blood so I headed for the bar.

Of course, there were celebrities inside with deep pockets – Richard Lewis, Ric Ocasek, Pat O’Brien, Robert Kraft, Judd Apatow, Lesley Mann, Les Moonves, Brian Grazier, Ray Romano, Jeff Bridges and Ba Ba Booey (if you consider him of star status) among many others. I ran into Aaron Neville and his wife in the lobby as she was taking a selfie of the two of them. I had to say a quick hello.

To help set the scene, here’s some red-carpet talk about Dylan’s influence from Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette:

The LA Convention Center at night

The LA Convention Center at night

There was a big fancy dinner after the silent auction with somewhere around 350 round tables that sat 10 people each. While people ate, video montages rolled featuring the great work this organization does and has done over the years. A live auction followed. Money was raised – my guess is a lot – and now it was time for some music.

I should note that Dylan hand selected the performers and the songs they would sing, something I don’t believe has happened before. This made for night of a few widely known hits mixed in with some relatively obscure songs (not unlike Bob’s live performances of late). It worked for the most part, but an override here and there might have been a good idea. And, of course, leave it to Bob Dylan to completely take over the night without ever playing a note. Here’s the blow by blow.

Beck – Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat: Opening the show, Beck brought out Jenny Lewis (who formerly fronted Indie-Rock band, Rilo Kiley) to sing with him as he kicked off the show with this rocking tribute to Jackie O.

Aaron Neville – Shooting Star: Aaron dedicated this to a guy he met out in the lobby earlier. Not really. This was a gorgeous rendition – as most anything he sings is – the big sky, moon and stars set behind him made for a fantastic vibe and ambiance.

Alanis Morissette – Subterranean Homesick Blues: A fairly straight forward rendition of a very hard song to sing. She did a great job, playing some harmonica and getting all the words right. This one was a lot of fun. Although this isn’t from the tightly restricted MusiCares event, here’s Alanis performing the song:

Los Lobos – On A Night Like This: They sang both in English and Spanish, and this tune fits this band perfectly. They cooked it, playing accordion and laying down some skilled guitar work. If you don’t know Los Lobos or only know their cover of La Bamba, check out their album Kiko.

Willie Nelson – Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power): Willie had monitor problems, he couldn’t read the words. They vamped for a good 3 minutes in the groove, finally settling into the song. A nice choice for him to sing. Willie’s vibrato in his voice and guitar makes the song resonate. It’s a great old person outlaw song for him to sing. In a different setting maybe a second take of the song and he really would have nailed it. Here’s Willie doing the studio cover:

Jackson Browne – Blind Willie McTell: They set up a small stage in the middle of the room where Jackson played this Infidels outtake, which was finally released in 1991. I love this song, and Jackson did it proud. Word was that Bruce Springsteen wanted to play this one but it had already been slated for Jackson.

John Mellencamp – Highway 61 Revisited: He offered up a stripped down two-man, piano Blues version of this song that was one of the most creative interpretations of the night. This was definitely a highlight – simply excellent.

Jack White – One More Cup Of Coffee: This one of my favorite Dylan songs, and Jack and his backup singers did not disappoint. Jack played a raunchy guitar, pumping up the song’s original tempo. I would have liked him to stretch out his guitar play a little more. It felt the slightest bit stinted, but a very solid performance as a whole. Here’s Jack covering the song:

Tom Jones – What Good Am I?: Haunting version song of this obscure Dylan tune from Oh Mercy!. Jones sounded vibrant and full-throated – a truly legendary voice. This was an example of a song that few people in the room recognized, but it just didn’t matter.

Norah Jones – I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight: This song is well-suited for Norah and her four-piece band (though a pedal steel would have been a nice addition). Her voice draped this one in warmth and sweetness.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi – Million Miles: At first I was surprised (and maybe a little disappointed) to hear them play a song that few people in the audience seemed to know. “Million Miles” is off the 1997 album Time Out Of Mind – certainly not one of Dylan’s better known tunes. Trucks imbued the song with an Allman-like feel and the entire audience got into it and they showed their appreciation. I loved this one. Susan Tedeschi sounded fabulous both instrumentally and vocally, and husband Derek Trucks laid down some of his signature slide work.

John Doe – Pressing On: The lead singer for LA Punk band X sang a stirring and powerful version of this song, almost losing the audience at the start but winning everyone over by the end. The female backup singers really shone on this rendition, and that stellar delivery lasted all night long.

Crosby, Stills & Nash – Girl From The North County: You could hear a pin drop in the room. Not unexpectedly, the legendary threesome delivered spectacular harmonies (though Steven’s voice seemed strained at times). A beautiful cover that I’m sure made Dylan smile. Here’s CSN performing the song at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010:

Bonnie Raitt – Standing In The Doorway: She laid down a very solid performance. She’s a brilliant artist and a true professional. Having said that, I wasn’t a huge fan of the song choice itself. I thought there were a few too many obscure songs stacking up (as Bob’s been known to do). Bonnie played it well, so maybe it was a case of poor placement. I would have liked to hear her do something more in her wheelhouse, like a song that would showcase her slide work or vocal range a little more. “Tombstone Blues”? “Ballad Of A Thin Man”? Perhaps a wasted opportunity.

Sheryl Crow – Boots Of Spanish Leather: She played this ballad off Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’ from the small stage in the middle of the room. Unfortunately, the break between Bonnie and Sheryl was way too long, and all the oxygen was seeping out of the venue. Sheryl, who has always been easy on the eyes, did a sweet soulful version of the song, but people were getting antsy. They wanted a shot of gasoline. And then in comes Bruce.

Bruce Springsteen – Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: As he’s been known to do, Bruce stole the show, at least the musical part of it. The Boss paired up with Tom Morello, and together they deliver a truly riveting rendition of this widely covered Dylan classic. Springsteen and Morello push the musical envelope, ripping the song into a genuine guitar frenzy, and then bringing it back down to the somberness the number deserves. I’ve heard more than 30 bands perform this cover, but this one felt like I was finally hearing the version (outside of Dylan’s and Jerry Garcia’s) that I think really brings out the true meaning and feel of the song. It was explosive, lighting up the room and bringing everyone to their feet.

Former President Jimmy Carter – Presentation of Person of the Year Award: Seeing a real live President raised the credibility of the event and the work MusiCares does. Carter spoke about meeting Bob in Georgia in the ’70s and talking late into the night about religion. He is obviously a big fan of Dylan’s music, recounting how much it influenced him and shaped his world view. He spoke about Bob’s work for human rights in glowing terms and how is words have held more weight and meaning than those of any United States President. It was an excellent introduction.

DylanMusiCares SongMango.comBob Dylan – Acceptance Speech: I’m still stunned and amazed by this speech, nearly a week after the fact. First of all it was 30-plus minutes – unheard of from Dylan in a public forum. He first thanked President Carter and Musicares, then proceeded to pull out what looked like a ream of paper. It quickly became apparent we were witnessing the most epic Rock-N-Roll acceptance speech ever. As a Dylan freak, I’d dreamed of the day that I’d hear him speak so candidly, much like reading his amazing autobiography Chronicles (2005). This speech was like part two of that book. He spoke about his critics – in a less than favorable light – like it was yesterday. He peppered in humor, too, wondering why those damn music critics didn’t hammer Tom Waits for croaking like a frog just like they had hammered Bob for his super-unique voice. Dylan’s delivery was almost like he was talking to you in a bar or in your living room, simply reminiscing on his career over a cold beer. It was a speech for the ages, I highly recommend reading the entire transcript of it here. Somewhat rambling yet totally riveting.

Neil Young – Blowin’ In The Wind: A fitting and dramatic way to end the show. Neil played it as perfectly as you would expect. Here’s Neil performing the cover at Farm Aid:

It was another magnficent MusiCares night. What will next year bring?

Check out our Dylan merch here – albums, t-shirts, posters, phone cases and more.

Steve Spohn is a former Saturday Night Live and Nickelodeon Television executive. Growing up near Princeton, NJ, led to a musical addiction, with WMMR in Philly and WNEW in NYC providing the daily dose. When not attending or planning to attend Bruce Springsteen concerts, he's plugging away as a screenwriter in Beverly Hills. Reach Steve at SSpohn@SongMango.com.

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