“Hi, I’m Michael and I’m an alcoholic and addict.”
That might sound like a traditional introduction to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, not a pop concert – or awards show, for that matter. But then the 13th Annual Musicares MAP Fund Benefit Concert honoring U2 bassist Adam Clayton (which took place June 27 at New York City’s PlayStation Theater) gloriously wasn’t typical of either.
The above quote comes from Michael McDonald, the renowned artist manager whose clients have spanned John Mayer to Ray LaMontagne. McDonald is also one of the most passionate advocates of sobriety in the music industry and incoming chairman of the Musicares Foundation, an altruistic wing of the Recording Academy, the organization that gives us the Grammy Awards. Musicares’ mission is to support the literal health of the music community: from offering emergency financial and legal assistance to preventive programs and funding for medical expenses. The organization has given out $48 million dollars to over 16,000 individuals in its nearly three-decade history ($4.7 million in the last year alone) and its MAP Fund, meanwhile, specifically addresses the needs of those struggling with substance abuse, addiction recovery, and sober living. Its esteemed annual benefit show has honored the likes of Chris Cornell and Ozzy Osbourne and Smokey Robinson with the Stevie Ray Vaughn Award celebrating their personal and philanthropic commitment to this cause.
Musicares’ events are famed for their unique, one-time-only celebrations of the artists they honor, with surprising all-star lineups paying tribute to those artists’ musical legacy — and the 2017 edition of the MAP Fund Benefit proved no different. In addition to U2 playing a rare set in such an intimate venue (indeed, the PlayStation’s 2,100 capacity proves minuscule compared to the Irish alt-rock icons’ arena spectaculars), a varied group of both established names and cutting edge up-and-comers handpicked by Clayton himself performed a vibrant program helmed by legendary musical director Hal Willner (Randy Newman, Lou Reed) and hosted by So You Think You Can Dance?’s bubbly Cat Deeley.
The set made frequent deft, winking insider nods to U2’s history. Socially-conscious singer-songwriter Michael Franti opened the proceedings with a savagely kinetic version of “Television, the Drug of a Nation” by his early-‘90s protest-rap group Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Not coincidentally, Franti had also performed that song as the intro music on U2’s 1992 ZooTV tour, although here he updated it for the present day with a montage of Trump-heavy newscast samples and pointed lyrics decrying “opioid overdoses sponsored by the drug companies that made them possible.” (Later in the set, Franti thrillingly transformed U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” – a great version of a song that doesn’t easily lend itself to reinterpretation.) Willner’s house band, meanwhile, essayed a jazzed-up version of the Mission: Impossible theme Clayton and bandmate Larry Mullen updated for Tom Cruise’s 1996 remake. Later, an instrumental acoustic-bass duel reinterpreted U2’s most beloved melodies with virtuoso abandon, proving a most unexpected highlight.
Notably, the newer acts proved as vital as the more heritage names on the bill. The charismatic Jamaican new-school reggae singer Chronixx dazzled the crowd with his combination of Bob Marley-style uplift and supple lover’s rock vocalizing. The Lumineers – also openers on U2’s current smash Joshua Tree anniversary tour – stunned by tackling one of U2’s most signature songs, “One,” and beauteously making it their own. Their spare rendering seemed invested with even greater poignancy due to Lumineers frontman Wesley Schultz’s passionate, Dylanesque vocal and percussionist/keyboardist Jeremiah Fraites’ own recent two-year commitment to sobriety.
The night’s revelation, however, may have come from the hirsute young British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jack Garratt. A true one-man band, Garratt dynamically fused numerous genres and instruments in his three-song set – overlaying his sampler/percussion workouts, thumping trap basslines, and Prince-style guitar histrionics with a Thom Yorke-meets-Al Green falsetto. Garratt’s balls-out take on U2’s “The Sweetest Thing,” however — imbued with Dixieland swing and Gospel testifying — may arguably have surpassed the original. Soul proved the unifying theme of the night, both sonically and spiritually, as Macy Gray clearly demonstrated in her contributions. The eccentric R&B anti-diva brought a welcome note of irreverence to the proceedings. “You sure are quiet for a whole bunch of sexy people,” she hilariously castigated the crowd. “What do we have to do to please you? Maybe we should ask Jesus to come back – maybe that would get you on your feet.”
Outfitted in a psychedelic frock with an enormous fake-fur collar, Gray managed to do just that, however. She kicked off with a wonderfully bizarre version of Frank Sinatra’s chestnut “My Way,” giving it a build recalling Ike and Tina Turner’s classic “River Deep, Mountain High.” Gray also rehabbed “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” into a funky, Muscle Shoals-style shuffle that proved a startling, wildly memorable interpretation of one of U2’s biggest hits, enhanced even further by an ecstatically sprawling solo by guitar iconoclast Marc Ribot.
Still, despite the profundity of the evening’s tributes, when it comes to U2, nothing’s better than the real thing. Music-biz legend Chris Blackwell (who signed the nascent U2 to his Island Records label in 1980) bestowed Clayton with the Stevie Ray Vaughn Award, which Clayton followed with a good humored yet trenchantly moving speech of his own. Calling it “an award for not doing something,” Clayton got a big laugh, but he also melted hearts when thanking his bandmates. “I didn’t think you could be in a band and not drink,” he said. “I’m unreservedly grateful for their friendship, and I am in awe of the extraordinary work we’ve done together… We made a pact: in our band, no one will be a casualty.”
With that, Clayton was joined by Bono, The Edge, and Mullen for a three-song set that let the music do the talking. Opening with the ballad “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” from U2’s triumphant comeback from 2000, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the intimacy of the room heightened Bono’s heartfelt vocal to almost astonishing levels; similarly, The Edge’s artful blasts of post-punk guitar on “Vertigo” seemed imbued with newfound urgency. Taking the audience full circle, U2 climaxed with a rousing rave-up rendition of one of its earliest songs, the coming-of-age anthem “I Will Follow.” Earlier, Clayton had ended his acceptance speech with an apt quote from its chorus: “Walk away, walk away/I will follow…”