All-star events like this anniversary blowout often strive to offer a little something for everyone, only to serve up a buffet that doesn’t quite satiate anyone. Not so at this five-hour perf, which threw together three generations of artists with just the right blend of rehearsal and spontaneity as well as reverence and devil-may-care attitude.
Conceptually divided into segments designed to spotlight multiple eras and the Rock Hall inductees they represent, the show exuded a palpable sense of history — but not one that overwhelmed the in-the-moment vibe. Jerry Lee Lewis, looking surprisingly spry for a septuagenarian, opened the evening with a sparkling solo version of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On.” After that, the program built slowly in intensity — with a very sweet top note added by Crosby, Stills and Nash (sans non-invitee Neil Young), who recalled the Summer of Love with aplomb in a mini-set that featured a stirring “Woodstock.”
Paul Simon summed up the spirit of the show beautifully during his time onstage, waxing lyrical about legendary disc jockey Alan Freed — who coined the term “rock and roll” when working in Cleveland, home of the Hall; working his way through his own catalog with the aid of longtime foil Art Garfunkel; and nodding to the late George Harrison on a subdued version of “Here Comes the Sun.”
Stevie Wonder delivered what might’ve been the most emotional set of the evening thanks to his teary-eyed rendition of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” — a performance that transcended some serious sound problems that practically derailed a version of “Superstition” that boasted some sharp guitar work by Jeff Beck.
But despite the egalitarian nature of the program, the show clearly belonged to Bruce Springsteen, who took to the stage around the time the Garden’s curfew usually kicks in to churn out a set every bit as fiery as his normal arena show.
Kicking things off with “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” Springsteen went on a trek — as he often does — through the territories that inspired him in the first place, bringing on Sam Moore to take the lead on a simmering “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” beaming as Darlene Love keyed a girl-group medley and trading riffs with both John Fogerty (on a steely version of “Fortunate Son”) and Tom Morello (on a slashing rendition of the Clash’s “London Calling”).
Selections from the show, as well as Friday’s perf, will be boiled down into an evening-long special to be aired on HBO on Nov. 29. The producers would be wise to market full-length DVDs at some point in the future.