“Twenty years ago, I would have been way too cynical to do this, but I’m 66 now,” said a better-sentimental-late-than-never Tom Petty, feeling all the feels while being feted Friday night (Feb. 10) during MusiCares’ pre-Grammy dinner at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
The “It’s Good to Be King” singer did not go so far as to add that it’s good to be Person of the Year, but expressed gratitude to heroes and Heartbreakers alike, telling the black-tie crowd, “We got together last week and rehearsed for this thing, and I realized I may actually be in one of the best two or three rock and roll bands there is.”
Friday’s 27th annual benefit set a couple of records, first in fundraising, with Recording Academy president Neil Portnow announcing that the evening had brought in more than $8.5 million for musicians in medical or financial need. (That eclipses the then-record $7.2 million taken in at last year’s Lionel Richie night.)
It also set a new benchmark -- luckily for the assembled -- for length. Although recent MusiCares tributes to Richie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Barbra Streisand were all in the 16-to 20-song league, the T Bone Burnett-produced musical portion of Friday’s gala stretched to 27 songs spread across three hours and 20 minutes -- with the best arguably saved for last, that being a 40-minute Petty mini-set that included contributions from Jeff Lynne, Stevie Nicks, the Bangles, and Dhani Harrison.
“To be here in the presence of so many great American songwriters is amazing,” Petty said during an 11-minute speech, citing “Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Lucinda Williams...” He lowered his voice for effect. “...Randy Newman.” The latter legend had kicked off the night’s music with an inspired solo piano reading of “Refugee,” rediscovering the tune’s darker side and making the “kicked around” verses sound closer to an “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” derivative than late ‘70s power pop.
Whether the opener was chosen because of any literal applications of the title in the present day wasn’t explained, although host Ed Helms pointed them out anyway: “I hate to bring things down right off the bat, but due to the White House’s executive order, that rendition of ‘Refugee’ has been banned. And we just got word that Randy Newman has been placed on a plane to Syria. Already, he’s in the air... It’s bad news if you’re a Randy Newman fan, but I know, myself, I feel safer.”
An equally inspired choice followed, with country superstar George Strait trading in neo-traditionalism for rocking out with a reading of “You Wreck Me,” backed by a house band that included Booker T. Jones, Larkin Poe, David Mansfield, Jay Bellerose, and anywhere from one to three Heartbreakers at a time.
The only pre-Petty performer to get standing ovations from a quorum of the well-heeled thousands on hand was bluesman Gary Clark Jr., first when he joined the Foo Fighters to solo on “Breakdown,” then when he returned for his own frontman moment moving through the descending riffage of “Good Enough,” a more recent track from one of Petty’s most underrated efforts, Mojo.
Clark Jr. was not the only double-threat of the evening, as a few others also got twin turns. Dave Grohl had a separate raunch-rock moment with “Honey Bee,” while Browne took a straightforward turn on “The Waiting” and “Learning to Fly.” A couple of tracks from the Southern Accents album found their inflection-appropriate interpreter in Lucinda Williams, whose full-band version of “Rebels” was blown out of the water by a cover of the title track accompanied on piano by Heartbreaker Benmont Tench. Norah Jones revived the two gently rolling songs she did last fall at the far lower-key Petty Fest at the Fonda Theatre, “Time to Move On” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (this time without the harmonies of Kristen Wiig, a no-show this time despite being announced for the lineup).
Petty gave a shout-out in his speech to some of the younger acts on the bill, saying he was “heartened to see these young bands, the Head and the Heart and Cage the Elephant and the Shelters -- they’re gonna carry this forward, and we have to be there to support them through it. Because there ain’t nothing like a good rock and roll band, people.” Interestingly, those three acts did the most faithful covers of the night, sometimes sounding more like the Heartbreakers than the Heartbreakers. A fourth next-gen band, the Lumineers, got quieter on the center acoustic stage with “Walls," matching the more Americana-ish tenor of some of the veteran acts.
Regina Spektor’s exquisite “I Forgive It All” might have counted as the second-most obscure number to the crowd, coming off last year’s Mudcrutch side project. But the deep track of the night was “Waiting for Tonight,” sung by Petty himself, after he declared it one of his favorite recordings ever -- never mind that he was responsible for nixing it from Full Moon Fever and eventually kicking the also-ran to a boxed-set. Joining him for it here, as at the original late-‘80s session, were the Bangles.
Susanna, Debbi, and Vicki stuck around while Petty brought out Nicks, who briefly bickered with Petty over their conflicting recollections of whether or how fervently she turned down “Insider” for her solo debut in favor of forcing him to write something more hit-like, which turned out to be “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Both duets were performed.
When Lynne appeared, along with Dhani, George Harrison’s son, it might’ve seemed like a Traveling Wilburys climax was due. Close: Rather than duet, Petty ceded lead vocals to the ELO-meister entirely on “I Won’t Back Down,” which was co-written and produced by Lynne around the same time as the first Wilburys sessions, and which featured Dhani’s dad on backing vocals and acoustic guitar, the same roles Dhani played here.
Another classic from Full Moon Fever, “Free Fallin’,” was sung earlier by Henley, with an elaborate horn-section arrangement. In his speech, Petty gave a shout-out to former Warner Bros. head Mo Ostin in the audience as he shared the origins of that album, and how it helped him through a moment of self-doubt.
“Me and George Harrison and Jeff Lynne one night were over at his house, (when) we were just working on the idea of the Traveling Wilburys. I had ‘Free Fallin’ and had done the record and had taken it to my label, MCA, and they rejected the record. That had never happened before, and I was like, Wow, what do I do here? So we forgot about it. And we were at Mo’s house when dinner ended and George said, ‘Let’s get the guitars out and sing a little bit.’ George said, ‘Let’s do that “Free Fallin’” one, Tom. Play that one’... Lenny Waronker stood there and said, that’s a hit! With two acoustic guitars. I said, ‘Wow, my record company won’t put it out.’ And Mo says, ‘I’ll f---in’ put it out.’” (Petty actually remained tied to MCA for two more albums before moving in with his new Warner paramours.)
Some artists on Friday’s bill told Billboard that they picked songs for deeply personal reasons. The Lumineers selected “Walls” because lead singer Wesley Schultz’s wife walked down the aisle to the song when they wed. Elle King chose “American Girl,” a song she recorded two years ago for the film, Hot Pursuit.
“I heard that he liked my version, which is probably how I ended up being here,“ King said. Others got asked to sing a specific tune: Cage the Elephant received the call last week to perform “Mary Jane's Last Dance” after Kings of Leon dropped out. The band worked it up in their dressing room, played it during a sound check, and loved it so much, they added it into their show in Barcelona that night.
Lynne praised Petty’s collaborative spirit, saying of “I Won’t Back Down”: “We wrote that song really quickly. We came up with ideas almost simultaneously and we had that song written in like half an hour or an hour, which is unusual for me.” The song has taken on a new life in the Trump era -- Senator Ben Sasse even tweeted out the video as an anti-Trump statement a few months ago -- but Lynne declined to comment on any topical resurgence: “I don’t like getting into politics,” he said. Spektor, however, had no qualms about tying in Petty to the current climate. Of selecting “I Forgive It All,” she said, “I was truly being haunted by that song, in the best way possible. A line that’s really been helping me when I get pissed off is, ‘People are what people make ‘em. That ain’t gonna change.’ And then the chorus is ‘I forgive it all,’ which I’m trying to do.”
Tench and Petty met as teenagers; Tench was 19 when he began playing in Mudcrutch. “As a songwriter, what people don’t always understand is how subtle and meaningful his lyrics so often are,” said Petty’s keyboard player of 44 years. “They can sound like, ‘Well, that’s easy.” I’ve seen him write a song on the spot; he’s really damn good. Those are real songs. He has something to say and I wish people would see that he’s really exceptional. If you look after the hits, there’s song after song... after song after song.”
On stage, Petty backtracked to tell a more humbling origin story involving a legend. “I got into town in 1974, and I was signed by Denny Cordell to Leon Russell’s Shelter Records. Leon brought me over to his house, and he said, ‘I want you to just hang around.’ He liked the songs that I had done and said, ‘If it comes to (a point) where it needs some words, I need you to be here, and I’ll pay you for it.’... So the first session, in come, George Harrison, Ringo (Starr, who sat in Friday’s audience, and drummer) Jim Keltner. And they didn’t need any words. But those cats were so cool. After the session, when we were hanging out, I found myself slipping my sunglasses on. And Leon said, ‘What the hell are you doing with dark glasses?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, it feels cool, you know, like Jimmy Keltner...’ Leon said, ‘Wearing sunglasses at night is an honor you earn. Lou Adler had Johnny Rivers and the Mamas and Papas before he put them glasses on! Jack Nicholson made really shitty Boris Karloff movies before he put them glasses on.’ Well,” added Petty, putting away his clear spectacles and pointedly pulling out a pair of aviator shades, “I’m putting my glasses on. But I thank Leon for that advice.”
Petty then recalled a more complimentary legend. “This is kind of a surreal moment in a surreal life (in which), for some cosmic reason, so many of the artists that I adore came into my world without me calling; they just showed up and we played together and we became friends... I was fortunate enough to know the great Johnny Cash. I had loved him since I saw him on the Hootenanny television show in 1962... Any young songwriters, if you want to be a songwriter, just listen to ‘Big River’ about 60 times and you’ll write something. But we made an album together, Johnny and the Heartbreakers, and it won a Grammy for the best country record of the year, without ever being played once on a country record station. But that’s because it was actually a rock and roll record. Johnny was pretty rock and roll.
“And this morning, I was looking through a box, and a card fell out, and it was from John, on my 50th birthday. And it said ‘Happy birthday. You’re a good man to ride the river with.’ And that’s all I want to be: a good man to ride the river with, and I’m gonna keep riding the river.”
“Refugee” — Randy Newman
“You Wreck Me” — George Strait
“American Girl” — Elle King
“Hometown Blues” — Taj Mahal
“Time to Move On” — Norah Jones
“You Don’t Know How It Feels” — Jones
“Honey Bee” — Foo Fighters
“Break Down” — Foo Fighters and Gary Clark Jr.
“Walls” — The Lumineers
“Mary Jane's Last Dance” — Cage the Elephant
“The Waiting” — Jackson Browne
“Learning to Fly” — Browne
“Rebels” — Lucinda Williams
“Good Enough” — Gary Clark Jr.
“I Forgive It All” — Regina Spektor
“Southern Accents” — Lucinda Williams
“Love is a Long Road” — Jakob Dylan
“You Got Lucky” — The Head and the Heart
“Listen to Her Heart” — The Shelters
“Free Fallin’” — Don Henley
“Wildflowers” — Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen
“Waiting for Tonight” — Tom Petty with the Bangles
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” — Petty with the Bangles
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” — Petty and Stevie Nicks
“Insider” — Petty and Nicks
“I Won’t Back Down” — Jeff Lynne
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” — Petty