By Steve Hochman
Bruce Springsteen, the 2013 MusiCares Person of the Year, strode into the vast ballroom of the Los Angeles Convention Center on Feb. 8 and picked up a signature cream-colored Fender Telecaster and gave the first of his performances of the night … without playing a single note.
This was early in the event and the guitar, which was signed by various artists on hand (including Sting and Tim McGraw, two of the night's tribute performers) was being auctioned off to benefit MusiCares, the health and human services organization affiliated with The Recording Academy. Producer David Foster was doing OK in his role as the Person of the Year dinner auctioneer, but as the Boss came in it only got better.
"With this guitar comes one free guitar lesson," Springsteen declared, "with me."
And the bids started to go up.
"And," Springsteen added, "a ride in the sidecar of my Harley-Davidson."
Then he added eight tickets and a backstage tour conducted by him at any upcoming concert, if the bidding reached "200,000 [expletive] dollars." Then he topped himself again.
"And lasagna made by my mom! Stand up, mom!"
Springsteen's mom, Adele Springsteen, stood up. That did the trick. A woman came forth with a bid of a whopping $250,000 — a Jersey girl, as it turned out. Of course.
And that little display set the bar for the night: high expectations, low pretensions. Get the job done, but get it done in an inspiring, entertaining fashion. It's Bruce Springsteen, after all.
Host Jon Stewart spoke of his own New Jersey origins, telling of driving home from his job at a sleezy liquor store in a "1976 off-brown Gremlin" with Springsteen tunes cranked up high, from which he learned, "that I am not a loser. I am a character in an epic poem — about losers."
And the performers honoring Springsteen in the concert portion that followed — superstars and new stars alike — stepped up to meet the standards.
A growling, urgent "Adam Raised A Cain" performed by Best New Artist GRAMMY nominees Alabama Shakes kicked it off. Patti Smith followed with her yearning hit "Because The Night," which she co-wrote with Springsteen. An acoustic trio featuring Natalie Maines, Ben Harper and harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite did "Atlantic City" from a small rotating stage in the center of the hall.
Other highlights included Zac Brown teamed winningly with Mavis Staples for a gospel-charged "My City Of Ruins"; Mumford & Sons gathered around one microphone for a tenderly brittle "I'm On Fire"; Jackson Browne teaming with guitar ace Tom Morello (who later also paired with My Morning Jacket's Jim James); Elton John's soulful "Streets Of Philadelphia" and Juanes' half-Spanish, half-English reworking of “Hungry Heart."
Arguably the most arresting were John Legend transforming "Dancing In The Dark" with spare jazzy runs on a baby grand piano on the small stage, Sting bringing soul fire to "Lonesome Day" and Neil Young, joined by longtime associate and current E Street Band member Nils Lofgren on keyboards (and two cheerleaders) for a dark, angry "Born In The U.S.A."
Each artist made the performance their own, creating a sound that would make one think they've been playing the songs for years.
And then Bruce topped it again, and again without playing a note. His speech after being given his award by President/CEO of The Recording Academy and MusiCares Neil Portnow was a reflection of his art: touching and humble and bold and funny and all about the frailty of the people who make music (leading to the need for MusiCares, he noted) and the unshakable power of the music they make.
He also thanked the performers.
"John Legend made me sound like Gershwin, which I love," he said. "Neil Young made me sound like the Sex Pistols, which I love."
And then his usual generosity: "I owe you all one," he told the night's performers.
No one, though, can sound like Springsteen but Springsteen, and so he did with an exuberant five-song set in the course of which the outstanding house band was joined by most of his E Street Band companions. With much of the crowd following his request that they come close to the stage, he launched into "We Take Care Of Our Own," which has only grown more meaningful in the course of the tragic events of late, then "Death To My Hometown," a triumphant "Thunder Road," an elevating "Born To Run" and a, well, glorious "Glory Days" with nearly every one of the night's performers joining in.
As he finished, it was beaming faces all around the hall, none more so than the one belonging to his mother. The lasagna can wait.