By Joel Francis
When the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, a tuxedo-clad Mick Jagger famously announced “Tonight we’re all on our best behavior — and we’re being rewarded for 25 years of bad behavior.”
That irony is on full display throughout eight of the DVDs in a new collection of induction ceremony performances released by Time Life and the Rock Hall this month. (A ninth disc features highlights from the 1995 Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held in Cleveland.) Despite white tablecloth banquet tables and austere surroundings, great music frequently prevails.
The “Rock Hall Live” discs each run between 75 and 90 minutes and have a loose theme of soul, punk or ‘50s pioneers and the performances span the first ceremony in 1986 to this year’s Metallica induction. The performances tend to fall in two camps.
The early ceremonies were all-star celebrations of the inductees’ songbooks shot with on a couple video camera. Through fly-on-the-wall footage we see Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry swap verses on “Roll Over Beethoven” and Little Richard rejoice through “I Can’t Turn You Loose” as Jagger, Bob Dylan, members of the Beatles, Beach Boys and other rock royalty stand shoulder to shoulder, holding mics and strumming instruments. It’s fun to play spot the artist during these early presentations. Sometimes the results are shocking, as when Stevie Ray Vaughan appears – playing a Les Paul, no less – during “Beethoven.”
As the ceremonies grew in stature, the performances were better preserved and choreographed. The past 15 years of inductions play like one massive VH1 special, makes sense as these events have been a spring broadcast staple on that channel for better than a decade. Although the production is smoother, the spontaneity is retained when Jimmy Page casually strolls onstage to join Jeff Beck on “Beck’s Bolero” and Queen jam with the Foo Fighters on “Tie Your Mother Down.”
With are more than 100 performances across the nine discs, some unevenness is expected. Some this is because of the health of the performers. These discs capture some of the final appearances by The Band’s Rick Danko, Ruth Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Billy Powell and Johnny Cash. Brown and Powell are fine, but Danko and Cash labor through their sets. Sometimes the pairings misfire, as on Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose’s duet through “Come Together.”
These missteps are minimized by the tight pacing of each disc, which moves from artist to artist like a well-paced soundtrack, with occasional snippets of introduction and induction speeches. (Complete version of selected speeches are available as bonus features.) Despite the loose themes, each disc boasts a variety of guitar heroes, singer/songwriters, tributes and hits.
The best moments come when the performers reach beyond the formal atmosphere, like when Patti Smith spits onstage, or two kids bum rush the stage to help Green Day commemorate the Ramones. There is an impressive display of solos from guitar heroes Beck, Page, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Joe Perry, Carlos Santana, Peter Green, and Kirk Hammett, but the greatest six-string moment is Prince’s searing tribute to George Harrison on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Anchored by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Harrison’s son Dhani, the immaculately tailored Prince soars on an jaw-dropping solo that is long on both melody and style.
Each disc contains about a several bonus features, which highlight backstage moments like watching Steven Tyler and Joe Perry induct Led Zeppelin from the wings of the stage with the band (and Willie Nelson!). It’s fun to watch Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty work out “Green River” and to eavesdrop on Hammett and Perry talk about guitars, but one viewing is probably enough.
One downside to this set is the packaging and sequencing. Each disc is housed in its own separate, full-sized case. This takes up a lot of shelf space. It would have been nice if they all came bundled in one compact, cardboard and plastic unit like seasons of TV shows.
The greater inconvenience is the sequencing. Cream’s three-song reunion from 1993 is spread across three discs. Ditto for the Doors’ 1993 set with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (three songs over three discs) and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street revival from 1999 (four songs on four discs). Culling the best moments is understandable, but it would have been great to get the multi-song sets in one place. It is also puzzling that less than two hours of the six-hour Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are included.
Oversights aside, any of these discs stand alone as a fun romp through rock history and celebration of its greatest songs and players across most genres and eras. At $120, this set isn’t cheap, but it’s a heck of a lot more affordable – and easier to come by – than the ticket that gets you a plate at one of those sterile, banquet tables. You don’t have to dress up, either.
(Full disclosure: The Daily Record received a complimentary review copy of “Rock Hall Live.”)
George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)