By Melinda Newman
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While the GRAMMY Awards get the bulk of the attention — as they should — for many folks like me the most fun GRAMMY Week event is the MusiCares Person of the Year tribute. It's a relatively intimate evening — people are much more relaxed than they are at the GRAMMYs, and you're very likely to bump into some of your favorite artists making small talk, such as Elvis Costello stopping by Tony Bennett's table to pay his respects.
MusiCares Person of the Year celebrated turning 20 Friday night by honoring Neil Young in a packed ballroom at the Los Angeles Convention Center with more than 2,000 people in attendance. Proceeds from the evening benefit MusiCares' Emergency Financial Assistance and Addiction Recovery programs.
Jack Black, a convincingly rabid Young fanboy, hilariously hosted the evening despite the fact he noted that he, unlike many of the performers, has "approximately zero GRAMMYs." So committed was he to the MusiCares cause that Black auctioned the shoes off his feet (arch supports not included), and later his tie.
A lineup of nearly 30 artists performed 20 Young songs, all of them rendered with a spirit and reverence for Young and an astonishingly outward lack of nerves considering they were performing before a true music legend. And performing one of his own songs, no less. Yikes! The artists' confidence may have been bolstered by a message from Young posted in the performers' area that read, "Just do what you want to do, don't listen to anyone else." (Black later auctioned off the sign.)
The beauty of the MusiCares tribute lies in the special combinations that arise, such as Stephen Stills and Sheryl Crow (who strapped on her accordion) collaborating on a countrified version of "Long May You Run"; Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams' otherworldly harmonies filling "Comes A Time"; or John Fogerty, Keith Urban and Booker T.'s scorching rendition of "Rockin' In The Free World." (Man, that's what we're talking about: No one rocks as ferociously as Young, but the boys gave it a great shot. If there is one complaint about an otherwise memorable night, it’s that fiery classics like "Southern Man" and "Hey Hey, My My [Into The Black]" got short shrift.)
Other performers transformed Young's tunes into their own creations, like Ozomatli's horn-laden, bouncy romp on "Mr. Soul"; Wilco's ambitious interpretation of "Broken Arrow"; or Ben Harper's soulful rendition of "Ohio." Tops was the quintet of Elton John, his hero Leon Russell, Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, and T Bone Burnett joining forces for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Helpless," which they somehow turned into an intriguing blend of "Helpless," John’s "Burn Down The Mission" and Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
Recording Academy and MusiCares President/CEO Neil Portnow introduced the evening's other Neil, who had a short but sweet, and often funny, speech. "I forgot how many songs I'd written," he said. "I just want you to know I'm working on a new album…I don't want to stop. I hope to continue for a very long time."
We hope you do too, Neil.
(To view photos from MusiCares Person of the Year and other GRAMMY Week events, click here.)