Some of the key figures weren't there, but those who were present at the 27th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday night delivered a heartfelt and epic celebration -- much to the delight of both the high rollers at the VIP tables and the 6,000 "real" fans who whooped it up in the Town Hall balcony.
Much of the news leading up to the event focused on those who were skipping it, whether for health reasons (the Beastie Boys' Adam "MCA" Yauch andthe Faces' Rod Stewart) or because of lingering issues with bandmates -- most notably Guns N' Roses' Axl Rose, who was roundly booed by the crowd every time his name was mentioned during the evening. But disappointment and hard feelings were scarce throughout the five-and-a-half-hour bash, which was packed with enough verbal and musical highlights to give HBO's editors palpitations as they hone it down to two-and-a-half hours for its May 5 broadcast premiere.
Green Day, there to induct GNR, got things off to a crushing start with "American Idiot's" "Letterbomb" as Billie Joe Armstrong exhorted the crowd to "stand up…This is f---ing rock 'n' roll! This is not a f---ing party -- this is a celebration, motherf---ers!" That set the tone for a night that mixed musical fireworks with warm and emotional speeches, putting plenty of heart in rock 'n' roll and reveling in past glories to, as Armstrong also said, "know where you f---ing come from."
So Bette Midler choked up as she remembered the late Laura Nyro as "the very essence of New York City, really, not in the gritty, real sense but in the passionate, romantic, ethereal, maternal sense. She would take the most ordinary people in the most ordinary situations and spin them into heroic figures…" Carole King noted that the "most fervent wish" of the late Don Kirshner, receiving the Ahmet Ertegun Award for non-performers, "was to be inducted in this iconic institution"; his widow, Sheila, noted that Kirshner would have turned 77 on April 17 and considered the induction "the best present he could've received." Fortunately, Johnny Meeks of Gene Vincent's Blue Caps -- one of the six backing bands/vocal groups being inducted years after their frontmen -- was there to be inducted the day before he turned 75.
Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea let the tears flow freely as he thanks his mother, producer Rick Rubin and others -- and recalled playing street football with former GNR drummer Steven Adler when they were teenagers together in Los Angeles. Bandmate Anthony Kiedis, meanwhile, thanked his longtime friend and cohort for helping him to get clean. And Ronnie Wood, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones each paid tribute to the late Small Faces members Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane.
There were moments of levity as well. Comedian Chris Rock's hilarious induction speech for the Chili Peppers took at shot at the habitually late Rose -- "Even if he was coming here tonight he wouldn't have been here by now" -- and also applauded the Chili Peppers for wearing black ties rather than tube socks on their, well, you know, for such a formal occasion. John Mellencamp, meanwhile, talked about first meeting Donovan, a hero since he was a youth (he brought a copy of an early album along to prove it), while he was having a fistfight with his guitarist at a Los Angeles recording studio. And LL Cool J joined the laughter as he described his first impression of the Beastie Boys as "punks."
Despite what guitarist Slash called the "drama" surrounding GNR's induction, the former band members who attended -- original guitarist Izzy Stradlin and continuing keyboardist Dizzy Reed joined Rose as no-shows -- credited fan support for their success, which was well received at Town Hall. Drummer Matt Sorum, meanwhile, spoke of being asked to join the group because Steven Adler had been kicked out for doing too many drugs. "I said, 'In Guns N' Roses, how the f--- is that possible?!' Steven Adler deserves an award for THAT." Sorum also fessed up to bringing cocaine into GNR's heroin-dominated drug mix; "I said, 'You guys have to wake up and play some rock 'n' roll."
The GNR alumni did just that, tearing through a three-song set fronted by Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge, who also sings for Slash's band, and joined by onetime guitarist Gilby Clarke, who was not included in the induction. Armstrong guested on "Mr. Brownstone," while "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "Paradise City" had the Town Hall crowd on its feet and pumping its collective fists. The Faces skied in Simply Red's Mick Hucknall -- who's been working with the group since 2009 -- from England for a tight set that included the Small Faces' "All or Nothing" along with "Ooh La La" and "Stay With Me." And a consortium of the Roots, Kid Rock and Gym Class Heroes' Travie McCoy -- with the MCs in green Adidas track suits -- paid homage to the Beastie Boys with a medley that included "Sabotage" and "No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn."
ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill joined forces with Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa for a fierce Freddie King salute of "Hideaway" and "Goin' Down." Donovan capped his three-song set by dueting with Mellencamp on "Season of the Witch." Sara Bareilles celebrated Nyro with "Stoney End," 2011 inductee Darlene Love sang "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" in honor of Kirshner and Ledisi sang "At Last" for the In Memorium segment.
The Chili Peppers rocked the night to a close with "By the Way," the recent hit "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie" and a rendition of "Give It Away" that flanked drummer Chad Smith with predecessors Cliff Martinez and Jack Irons. The group was also charged with the night's all-star finale and coaxed the Faces' Wood and Jones, Armstrong, Slash, George Clinton and Funkadelic guitarist Michael Hampton on stage for a romp through Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." "Thanks for sticking around," Kiedis told the weary but still wired crowd - as if anybody would have really considered the alternative.