Not that the week’s events -- the Recording Academy placed CEO/president Deborah Dugan on administrative leave after only five months on the job, and then Dugan filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the organization -- weren’t seemingly on everyone’s lips during the cocktail party and silent auction. But when it came time for the program to officially start, the Recording Academy wisely focused squarely on the music and not the controversy.
That meant MusiCares’ chairman of the board, Amazon’s Steve Boom, gave a short introductory speech, but Harvey Mason Jr., Recording Academy interim CEO and a major mouthpiece this week defending the organization, never took the stage. It also meant presenting Aerosmith with its Person of the Year trophy -- an honor taken care of by former Recording Academy CEO/president Neil Portnow in the past -- was handled by Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler’s longtime attorney, Dina LaPolt (although Recording Academy vice chair Tammy Hurt and chair emeritus Christine Albert did briefly address the audience to explain MusiCares’ mission).
Former Aerosmith tourmates Cheap Trick opened the tribute concert with their robust take on 1976’s “Rats in the Cellar,” followed by a slew of artists -- some of whom replicated their chosen song fairly faithfully, while others totally reinvented their selections. The female vocalists seemed to fare better than the males for good reason: to even come close to replicating Tyler’s legendarily supple vocals, you have to have belting abilities plus a wide range. Ashley McBryde’s take on “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” was appropriately spirited and gritty complete with a Janis Joplin-like yowl, while Kesha completely reinvented “Janie’s Got a Gun” into a mesmerizing heavy dirge with help from a string quintet. Vocal powerhouse LeAnn Rimes started “Livin’ on the Edge” a cappella before being joined by strings and then an explosive full band. Gavin DeGraw acknowledged the magnitude of attempting a Tyler vocal when he introduced his rendition of "What It Takes" by saying, "Get ready to hear this song in a lower key and not quite as good." He delivered a perfectly fine version, plus had showmanship to spare, jumping up from his piano and serenading into the crowd and eventually finding Tyler in the audience for a short, sweet duet.
Of course, saluting Aerosmith means paying equal props to Tyler’s Toxic Twin, guitarist extraordinaire Joe Perry, and some of the evening’s most memorable moments came from performances that paired exceptional vocalists with guitar virtuosos. Leading the list was best new artist nominee Yola and Gary Clark Jr.’s incendiary take on “Cryin’,” during which Yola was not only able to match Tyler’s keening vocals, she was able to hold her own against Clark’s insane guitar work. Similarly, Sammy Hagar yelped his way through “Back in the Saddle” with blazing guitar accompaniment from Orianthi. And in a match that seemed odd on paper but worked very well in the hall, Melissa Etheridge delivered a perfect sand-papery vocal take on “Walk This Way” partnered with fiery guitarist Nuno Bettencourt.
When it came time to accept their award, the members of Aerosmith kept it short and sweet -- and cryptic. Tyler said “Musicians, magicians, artists. And remember, people only really get interesting when they start to rattle the bars on their cages. And the best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.” Drummer Joey Kramer then took over, saying “A shout out to love and gratitude, to MusiCares, to all our fans, to my partners, to my ever supportive wife, Linda, and to you guys out there and to the music industry.” Perry, bassist Tom Hamilton and guitarist Brad Whitford were on stage but didn’t speak.
Over its five decades, Aerosmith has had a tremendously tumultuous history and Friday night was no exception. Though Kramer joined the band on stage to accept the award, he did not play with the quintet due to an ongoing legal battle that left him suing his bandmates for excluding him from playing with them at MusiCares, Sunday night’s Grammy Awards and the band’s Las Vegas residency. Injuries took Kramer out of commission last spring, but he now claims that even though he has recovered -- and auditioned to get his job back -- the other members of the band have not allowed him to rejoin. The awkwardness of Kramer leaving the stage while his bandmates prepared to play an electrifying four-song set aside, everyone was on their best behavior.
The band started with 1975’s cheeky “Big 10 Inch Record,” a song, Tyler said, that caused quite a stir because people thought he was singing “suck on my big 10 inch,” instead of the actual lyric, ‘“Cept for my big 10 inch.” Next came a soaring take on “Dream On,” with H.E.R. duetting with Tyler, followed by “Sweet Emotion.” The set concluded with Perry’s Hollywood Vampires bandmates Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp joining Aerosmith for a cover of 1974's “Train Kept A-Rollin.”
Tyler, who has been sober for years, took the mic again to thank the audience and MusiCares for being there for musicians in need, including himself. “Thank y’all for doing what you do. You raise this money because we’re musicians, we’re f--king artists and we’re out of our minds. Most of the time it goes to music and we get lost in it and we love it and it’s what keeps us around and alive and good. I just want to thank you very much because should I -- which I won’t -- fall again, y’all might help me back up again. I love you so much for that.”
MusiCares 2020 Person of the Year set list:
“Rats in the Cellar,” Cheap Trick
“Crazy,” Jonas Brothers
“Angel,” Luis Fonsi & Emily King
“Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” Ashley McBryde
“What it Takes,” Gavin DeGraw
“Janie’s Got a Gun,” Kesha
“Cryin,’” Yola & Gary Clark Jr.
“Livin’ on the Edge,” LeAnn Rimes
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” John Legend
“Home Tonight,” Jessie J
“Walk This Way,” Melissa Etheridge with Nuno Bettencourt
“Back in the Saddle,” Sammy Hagar with Orianthi
“Let the Music Do the Talking,” Foo Fighters
“Toys in the Attic,” Foo Fighters
“Big 10 Inch Record,” Aerosmith
“Dream On,” Aerosmith with H.E.R.
“Sweet Emotion,” Aerosmith
“Train Kept A-Rollin,’” Aerosmith with Alice Cooper & Johnny Depp