Aloe Blacc, Melissa Etheridge, Walk the Moon Celebrate Charity at Annual Grammy Foundation Concert
There's something slightly incestuous -- in a good way -- about a philanthropic organization putting on a tribute to other philanthropic organizations. So it was Thursday night at the Grammy Foundation's annual show at the Wilshire Ebell; celebrating a different theme each year, this year's, titled "Lean on Me," saluted the best-known all-star benefit shows and musical charities of the last five decades.
"It's been a whole evening of good-deed-doers," Melissa Etheridge quipped at the end of the night. "And here's another good-deed-doer song," she added, introducing her Oscar-winning "I Need to Wake Up," which was more or less commissioned by Al Gore for his "slide show"-turned-documentary about climate change. The focus on altruistic anthems somewhat limited the palate of the evening, in contrast to 2014's Grammy Foundation show, a jaw-droppingly awesome salute to songwriters that somehow seemed to encompass the entire history of popular music. But this year's show also gave some cause for musical goosebumps, amid all the good causes.
Only in one instance did someone famously associated with a historic charity perform. Following a video tribute to Farm Aid on the occasion of the charity's 30th anniversary, co-founders Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp turned in brief, separate performances. Circumstances would have been similar if Cyndi Lauper had showed up as billed, but she was thwarted by a family emergency, so the Plain White T's were drafted at the last minute to perform "True Colors" in honor of the pro-LGBT charity that Lauper named after the song.
Most of the rest of the evening had younger performers similarly covering tunes by elders associated with charities or all-star benefits of decades past. Many of these match-ups involved some strange bedfellows, although, after initial head-scratching, the pairings usually offered some kind of reward, or even sense. The up-and-coming pop group Walk the Moon might have seemed an odd choice to salute Live Aid, unless you consider them as squarely in the tradition of the poufy-haired synth-rock acts who were in vogue in the mid-'80s. They covered "Heroes," which David Bowie sang at the 1985 extravaganza, as well as a couple of tunes not associated with Live Aid: the Killers' "All These Things I've Done" and the Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Walk the Moon were joined on that last choice by Deborah Cox, recreating the Merry Clayton part (though she seemed on the red carpet not to have heard of Clayton). No one will ever accuse Walk the Moon of living up to their classic-rock antecedents, but they won some doubters over with their sheer spunk and game-ness.
If Cox and Walk the Moon were an odd couple, so were Etheridge and current R&B Grammy nominee Aloe Blacc, who joined up for George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," following a spoken salute to the Concert for Bangladesh by Olivia Harrison. What was even stranger was the roles they took: Blacc took the first verse of the Beatles' classic, unsurprisingly, but then also the second and third, as Etheridge stuck strictly to recreating Eric Clapton's guitar soloing on the tune. Again, Etheridge is probably never going to be anyone's idea of a true guitar hero, but her licks were creditable enough that she deserved all the applause she got for stepping out of her singer/songwriter comfort zone into the land of shredding.
Electric-violin sensation Lindsay Stirling had been scheduled to perform with Lauper, and even styled her hair as a tribute to Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"-era 'do. What she did instead was a fairly ingenious way for the show to honor all-star anthems "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are the World" without having everyone backstage come out to add a single line: an instrumental medley of the two. (Stirling also deserves best-dressed honors for her homemade ensemble, which was half-formal gown, half-short shorts; Lauper would have been proud.)
Robin Thicke's reputation is due for rehabilitation as quickly as possible, and he got a good start on a possible rebound tour by offering a suitably feathery cover of Sting's "Fragile" and dueting with Mary Mary singer Erica Campbell on a predictable but effective version of the Chili Peppers' -- sorry, Stevie Wonder's -- "Higher Ground."
For highlights, you might have looked to a couple of the show's most and least grizzled performers. By the latter, we're referring to fresh-faced Rozzi Crane, famous for being the first signee to Adam Levine's label and then having her debut album put on hold for years. (The first four tracks from the Levine-produced album are finally coming out later this month, she declared on the carpet.) She was bravely the first singer to appear on stage, and from her first vocal licks on "Ooh Child," it was clear Levine hadn't championed Crane just because she's an exceptionally pretty face. Even the sight of the great Oren Waters walking out to join her didn't diminish the shock of hearing a great set of chops coming out of someone who looks at first blush like just another model-thrush.
But it's hard to beat actual life experience, and Mellencamp brought plenty of that to his solo acoustic performance of "Longest Days," which he explained was inspired by something his dying grandmother said to him some years back. The song comes from Mellencamp's latter-career depressing/morbid phase, if we can call it that (not that he was ever John Cougar Cheerful), and it was so unapologetically downbeat in its life-and-death pragmatism that it felt like a breath of fresh air amid the unrelenting positivity of the rest of the evening. Sometimes context really is everything.
Kudos, as every year, to musical director Darrell Brown for reassembling everyone whose name you remember from the credits of every classic Linda Ronstadt album, along with the odd Wallflower or contemporary studio cat. With the show's focus on music and nothing but music (and, okay, historic fundraising, this year), the Grammy Foundation show is always like a good preventive pill to take to steel yourself for all the choreography destined to take place at the bigger show three nights later.
The night's set list
1. "Ooh Child"/"Get Together" – Rozzi Crane, Oren Waters, Riley Bria
2. "We Shall Overcome" -- Aloe Blacc
3. "Love is the Answer" -- Aloe Blacc
4. "Longest Days" -- John Mellencamp
5. "We Don't Run" -- Willie Nelson
6. "On the Road Again" -- Willie Nelson
7. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" -- Aloe Blacc, Melissa Etheridge
8. "All These Things I've Done" -- Walk the Moon
9. "Heroes" -- Walk the Moon
10. "Gimme Shelter" -- Walk the Moon, Deborah Cox
11. "Do They Know It's Christmas"/"We Are the World" -- Lindsay Sterling
12. "True Colors" -- The Plain White T's
13. "Fragile" -- Robin Thicke
14. "Higher Ground" -- Robin Thicke, Erica Campbell
15. "I Need to Wake Up" -- Melissa Etheridge
16. "Lean on Me" -- Melissa Etheridge