NEW YORK — MusiCares is one of the music business’ foremost charities, providing medical and emergency assistance to thousands of musicians and related people, and its statistics — it’s distributed $48 million since it was founded in 1989 and $10 million over the past 10 years to nearly 3,000 substance-abuse clients — are indisputably powerful. But before Monday night’s benefit honoring longtime MusiCares booster Adam Clayton of U2, those statistics came to life when some of the evening’s performers were asked whether they’ve ever received assistance from the organization.
“We got robbed in L.A. early in our touring career and MusiCares came to our rescue,” said cellist Neyla Pekarek of the Lumineers, who are opening for U2 on the band’s current “Joshua Tree 2017” tour. “My cello was stolen, we lost some guitars, a bunch of personal items — and MusiCares [provided financial aid]. It really would have put us out if we hadn’t had help.”
Michael Franti, whose former group opened for U2 on its “Zooropa” tour some 25 years ago, shared a testimonial as well. “One of my bandmembers was living with addiction, and had reached the point where we had to do something about it,” he recalled. “We were [initially] told it would take several months before he could get into a [rehab] program, but our manager called MusiCares and they got him in right away — and it literally saved his life.”
Monday’s event, held at the PlayStation Theater in New York’s Times Square, was a fundraiser for the organization’s substance-abuse specific MAP Fund, hosted by British TV presented Cat Delley and attended by several hundred executives and fans that featured performances from the above artists as well as Macy Gray, Jack Garratt, and a three-song closing set from U2 themselves (see video below). Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. were in the house for the entire event to support their four-decade-plus bandmate, who has been historically quite open about his struggles with substance abuse 20 years ago and is an active member of music’s recovery community.
Neil Portnow, president/CEO of the Recording Academy and MusiCares, told Variety, “People always ask me, ‘Is it hard to get artists to [get involved with events like Monday’s]? Surprisingly, it’s not — when an artist is aware of what we do, they’re totally in. We’re on track this year to service 7,500 clients.” Asked whether the organization is girding for a big expansion as the Republican Congress seeks to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, Portnow said “It’s certainly possible, and that’s why these fundraisers” — he noted that Monday’s was a “record-breaking” benefit for the organization — “are so important.”
And so it went for the entire evening. Franti opened the show with a solo performance of “Television: The Drug of the Nation,” the song by his early ‘90s group Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy that first brought him to Clayton’s and then the band’s attention (and an opening spot on their “Zooropa” tour). The version he played Monday featured lyrics updated to include references to fake news, “a 3 a.m. Twitter rant from the 45th president of the United States,” global warming and more.
Next up were two songs from reggae act Chronixx — whom we later learned were introduced to Clayton by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell — then the Lumineers playing a cover of U2’s “One,” which they said they’d played in New York City clubs when they were starting out a decade ago; it was followed by their own thematically appropriate “Stubborn Love” with its “keep your head up” chorus.
Next up was British one-man-band Jack Garratt, who roared through two of his own songs (alternating between keyboards, drums and shredding on guitar, all while singing) before being joined by the dozen-piece house band for an almost big-band version of U2’s “The Sweetest Thing.”
Franti then came back onstage and performed his song “11:59” with the house band before beginning “Sunday Bloody Sunday” acoustically.
Indeed, the U2 covers by the evening’s featured artists — particularly a mind-blowing string-bass duet by two unnamed bassists — bore refreshingly little resemblance to the originals. By all visible evidence Bono, clad all in black and wearing his now-trademark round shades, absolutely loved it: He, Edge and Mullen sat at the same table a few rows back from the stage — Clayton was at the next table over — but Bono was the ideal audience member, smiling, rocking band and forth, clapping, pumping his fist and whistling at key moments.
Macy Gray then took the stage in an eye-popping multicolored dress that had giant, clownlike ruffles around the neck and bottom. She played a jazzy version of “My Way” that segued directly into a long version of her 1999 hit “I Try.” She also had the night’s funniest monologue: “Y’all are awful quiet for a buncha sexy people in New York City,” she said, listing the evening’s entertainers before finishing with “Ya even got U2 in the house. What does it take to get you outta your seats? Maybe if Jesus came down?”
He didn’t, but that line did the trick.
She then led the band through a slow, bluesy take on U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” that featured a long, stinging solo from lead guitarist Marc Ribot, a veteran of Tom Waits bands.
In a brief introduction, Island Records cofounder Chris Blackwell — who signed the band in the late 1970s — spoke about how Clayton’s image and swagger have changed over the years: “His charisma has come in many different packages, from a mad, blond, afro- sporting, skirt-wearing young man to an earth-scorching young rock star to a gifted artist with an artful eye and bucketloads of soul.”
Clayton then took the podium and spoke of his struggles with substance abuse and subsequent recovery. “I didn’t think you could be in a band and not drink,” he said. “I thought my life would be over, but two heroes of mine were there for me. After two particularly destructive benders, Eric Clapton was there on the end of the phone — he didn’t sugar-coat it, he told me that I needed to change my life and that I wouldn’t regret it, and he gave me the name of a treatment center. And while there, Pete Townshend visited me and put steel in my back.
“I was lucky because I had three friends who could see what was going on and loved me enough to take up the slack of my failings,” he continued, naming Bono, Edge and Mullen. “I am unreservedly grateful for their friendship, understanding and support.”
U2 then took the stage, with Edge unexpectedly going behind the piano for “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” then he picked up a Telecaster for a rousing “Vertigo.” The house lights came up and it seemed to be over — Bono’s mic had gone dead, but he simply grabbed Edge’s and jokingly mimed throwing his offstage in a fury. Then Edge’s roadie handed him the Gibson Explorer that he’s played since the band’s early days and they launched into “I Will Follow,” and the place erupted; Bono and Edge sang into the same mic on the chorus. The only downside was that Bono sang flat through much of the performance, but no one seemed to care as they reveled in the rare occasion of seeing the world’s biggest rock band performing for several hundred people instead of dozens of thousands.
“Adam, thank you for a great life,” Bono said as the band left the stage to hugs and cheers.