At Elton John’s 30th annual viewing party to benefit his AIDS Foundation, there was little danger of the crowd not sticking around after the Oscars were over, with Brandi Carlile and her full band doing an hour-long set to cap off the night. “It ain’t a mini-set,” Carlile said on the red carpet. “We’re going all the way. There will be headbanging.” And there was, with the singer-songwriter introducing a surprisingly hard-rocking, hair-tossing version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” into her performance, along with inviting singer Jake Wesley Rogers onto her stage for a duet of the absentee host’s “Rocket Man.”
“It’s been a long night, but nobody has punched anybody up on stage,” said Carlile, in one of many quips made about the Will Smith slap that had had the ballroom abuzz for the previous two hours. Later she joked that playing inside the giant pink tent constructed for the gala in West Hollywood Park was like “performing inside a giant vagina.”
On the red carpet, Carlile reminded Variety that, in her 2021 memoir, she wrote about how, as a kid, she learned of Elton as an AIDS activist first and musician second. “You’ve read ‘Broken Horses,’ so you know what this means to me. It’s insane. I came to Elton John via this foundation before I ever heard him sing a note. And that’s not altruistic idealism — that’s a real thing — and it was a turning point in my life. But this isn’t about me, this is about 30 years of this foundation, and it’s unspeakably cool and surreal.”
On stage, Carlile elaborated for those who haven’t read the autobiography: “I had never heard Elton John’s music before. I was really only allowed to listen to country-and-western music. I lived, and still live, in a conservative town. And I did a book report, I think it was in about 6th grade, on a young man who had passed away called Ryan White… who died of AIDs in the early ‘90s, and it was my first education about anything like HIV or AIDs. It was a huge deal that shaped my worldview. At the end of this book, this young boy befriended a man named Elton John, whose music I’d never heard, and this Elton John guy played a song at Ryan’s funeral called ‘Skyline Pigeon.’ I went home and said to my parents that I had learned about HIV and AIDs and told them about the stigma and all the pain that people were facing. And I asked them if they would take me to the King County Library (in Washington state) to check out a CD that I could check out and borrow and hear Elton sing for the first time.
“So to be 40 years old and be standing here all these years later, being given the truly solemn and unspeakably beautiful opportunity to support the Elton John AIDS Foundation, is something that I can’t really describe to you, because it shaped the way I walk through the world as an artist … I just want you to know that I don’t take standing here lightly.”
John could not attend the party, as the rescheduled date for the Oscars coincided with an existing concert he’d booked for his farewell tour in Nebraska. But he was piped in via satellite for the audience to see his two encore numbers, and a brief exchange with his husband, David Furnish, the chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. “I heard there was drama, and Will Smith punched Chris Rock? Did he knock him out?” asked the genuinely curious star. “No, it was just a friendly little jab,” Furnish reported back, understating the case a little so as not to hold up the show.
On the carpet, Furnish lauded Carlile, saying, “Just as a friend, she and her family came to stay with us last year in the south of France, and we really got to know each other. Our kids got on together so well, and they were playing again together this morning. I mean, Brandi has just the biggest heart of anyone I know. And as an artist, I just think she gets better and better, so she’s really, really hit her stride. The last two albums I think are fantastic. … She’s got so much talent, so much charisma, and she’s a real, real star who just gets better and better.”
As for his husband having just spent his 75th birthday out of town, Furnish said it wasn’t that big a deal: “He’s on tour, so he’s in a COVID bubble. The boys got off school on Friday in the U.K. and we flew straight here together, so we didn’t get to spend his birthday with him, but in a couple of weeks’ time, we will celebrate with him in person. In the meantime, he had lots of video messages and flowers and balloons and presents and the boys wrote things for him, so he felt very, very loved, and we’ll make it up to him. … He’s loving this tour, he’s loving the shows, but he really looks forward to when it all ends and the next chapter of his life will begin and we can spend so much more time together.”
After a live auction, Furnish announced toward the end of the gala that another $8.6 million had been raised just that night for the foundation. Guests toasted with signature cocktails by Belvedere Vodka (yes, one was called Belvy and the Jets) at an icy custom bar build-out. “We’re making great grounds,” he said earlier on the carpet. “We lost some ground during COVID; unfortunately, HIV didn’t go into lockdown.” Furnish expressed distress over Russia’s war on Ukraine, saying he and John were well familiar with the embattled country. “We’ve been working in that country through the AIDS Foundation for 20 years, and Ukraine has the highest HIV transmission rate of any country in Europe. So we’ve gotten to know the Ukrainian people very, very well. They are so resilient, they are so kind and so compassionate and we’ve made fantastic progress with them fighting HIV/AIDs. They’ve really done amazing work. It’s devastating to see what they’re going through.”
Elton was not the only event headliner to put in a furtive appearance. Lady Gaga opened the evening with Furnish in a brief introduction before being skirted over to the Dolby Theatre to put in an appearance with Liza Minnelli on the telecast.
Other presenters in the big tent included Billy Porter, Eric McCormack and Christina Hendricks. Guests included Chris Pine, Saweetie, Ed Harris, Demi Lovato, Kevin Costner, Zooey Deschanel, Donatella Versace, Fran Drescher, Patricia Arquette, Rosanna Lucy Hale, Heidi Klum, Sharon Osbourne, Chris Sullivan, Chrissy Metz, Andrew Rannells, Sofia Richie, Liam Payne, Beck, Bobby Berk and Emily Hampshire.