Glen Hansard of The Swell Season was more than halfway through his deconstructed version of the woman-suppressing “Under My Thumb” at the “Music of the Rolling Stones” tribute concert at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday when he asked the song’s there-but-not composers, ”What kind of headspace were you in when you wrote this?”
A half-second later he replied to laughter, “I think this was a Keith.”
So went a typical episode during a playful, if not a bit reserved, night of rock ‘n roll at the famed New York City concert hall, where nearly two dozen artists from points ranging from Italy to West Africa to North Carolina delivered their takes on the 21 gems off the Rolling Stones’ hits collection, “Hot Rocks 1964-1971.” Presented by Michael Dorf as part of what is now a regular series of tributes, all proceeds of the event went to fund-depleted music education orgs.
Tuscan superstar Jovanotti paired with TV on the Radio to start the night off with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Looking and moving like a cross between Mick Jagger and Mike Love of the Beach Boys (bearded 1970s version), the whip-thin Jovanotti gyrated and spun in his rhinestone shoes while members of the venerated Brooklyn band worked through a rendition that stayed true to the “Let It Bleed” original. The Jovanotti-TVOTR performance, which was peppered with a choir of young folks, set the pace for the next seven or so artists to more or less do the work, play the song, dispense with too many frills.
The three strong women who followed all added oomph to the proceedings, beginning with Ronnie Spector’s flirtatious and brassy go of “Time Is on My Side”; fiercely independent performer Peaches drew puzzled looks in her impossibly tight Ziggy Stardust-ian outfit and punk ‘do, but her “Heart of Stone” pumped just fine; and actress-singer Juliette Lewis may have misplaced a lyric or two during her perfectly sassy reading of “Satisfaction,” but she made up for it with a pro stage presence.
In the mix early on, Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes and his Gretsch guitar gave “Play With Fire” a delicate touch and Marianne Faithfull told the story of how Mick and Keith wrote “As Tears Go By” for her. In town to play shows at City Winery, Faithfull’s voice is deeper than when she made “Tears” a hit in 1965, but her command has not diminished a bit in 47 years. Will her obvious musical offspring (both in voice and stage demeanor) Lana Del Rey have this kind of longevity?
There were no magical cameos from Stones members at Carnegie Hall, but some of the concertgoers up in the nosebleeds may have been fooled for a second when David Johansen emerged. The ageless New York Doll is looking more and more like Mick Jagger, though a few lbs heavier. Wearing skinny white jeans and a baby blue t-shirt, the protopunk icon barked and raved just the right amount during “Get Off My Cloud.”
After nine performances, including a twanged-up “Mother’s Little Helper” from Steve Earle and a snarling “19th Nervous Breakdown” by Ian Hunter, the show entered into a more adventurous phase beginning with The Mountain Goats’ slowed-down and semi-creepy take on “Paint It Black.” It was a low-fi, indie folk shot in the arm for the show, which until then could have passed for one of those specials you see during PBS pledge drives.
Next came Glen Hansard and his acoustic take on “Under My Thumb.” He owned the crowd from the start, getting hundreds to snap their fingers in unison, later morphing the ending of his three minutes into a fun mashup of “Gloria.” After the show, the songwriter, who is currently staging a Broadway production of his Oscar-winning film “Once,” could be seen outside Carnegie signing programs and even a young man’s guitar before dashing into a cab.
A few a-ha moments were to come starting with a euphoric version of “Ruby Tuesday” by the made-for-Carnegie-Hall Art Garfunkel, whose crisp tenor warmed the crowd. Another well-preserved voice, belonging to Jackson Browne, followed Garfunkel with an acoustic, paired-down “Let’s Spend the Night Together” that still maintained its swagger somehow. British psych-folk-rockers Gomez gave a “Wow, this is beautiful” reaction to seeing Carnegie splayed out in front of them before they launched into a delirious, slow-fast take on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Ben Ottewell’s gravely rasp, one of the most distinct in rock, echoed the Hall in the best way possible.
“Street Fighting Man” came charging next, and at the helm was West African artist Angelique Kidjo, who closed out her song with a solo using her breath as the instrument.
From the uttering of “Pleased to meet you…” in the epic “Sympathy for the Devil,” Rickie Lee Jones had the Carnegie faithful in the palm of her hand with sexy physical interplay punctuating her trademark half-spoken singing style. She was seated with her guitar but she moved more than half of the night’s other performers. Toward the end, the unprompted crowd began woo-hooing to Jones’ eventual delight.
“You know, one of the great things about the Stones is you can deconstruct their songs to the Blues, and that’s what we’re gonna do tonight,” said Taj Mahal, who launched into a downright gritty version of “Honky Tonk Woman.” His daughter, Deva, owns a voice that deserves recognition; her Hall-filling soulful voice was one of the standout moments of the night.
Another dive, Rosanne Cash, took it easy on “Gimme Shelter” but got surprise help from Jon Sebastian, who tinkered along with his harmonica.
The clever and quirky traditionalists Carolina Chocolate Drops followed with “Midnight Rambler” and the Americana-thon continued with Jackie Greene, donning a “Desire”-era Dylan look for a rollicking if not particularly engaging version of “Brown Sugar.”
“Walking in Memphis” star Marc Cohn was then joined by Browne and Cash to play the last track off “Hot Rocks,” the achingly beautiful “Wild Horses.” Marianne Faithfull returned as a “bonus track” to sing “Sister Morphine,” a standout track off “Exile on Main St.”
And what would be a big, fat tribute concert without an all-star sing-a-long. “Tumblin’ Dice” got the honors, and though quite loose, the assembled stars got into the spirit of things with the bigger-voiced singers taking the reigns while others danced feverishly.