BY JEFF LEVEN
Celebrity tributes can be sometimes be awkward affairs. In an industry where part of the art of performance is the self-conscious act of making yourself the center of the apparent universe the moment you hit the stage, it can often seem disingenuous when rock stars attempt to humble themselves long enough to praise another person. When that person happens to have died, the atmospherics are all the more strained. One attempts to project an air of sobriety and respect, yet at the same time, a lot of money is changing hands and pop songs often make flippant eulogies. Squaring the circle and managing to produce an event that is not only appropriately reverent but also satisfyingly rocking is a challenge indeed.
For the most part, last week’s star-studded tribute to the late Billboard Magazine editor Timothy White at the FleetCenter accomplished just that. Featuring such adult contemporary stars as James Taylor, Sting, John Mellencamp, Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd), Don Henley, Sheryl Crow and Billy Joel (replaced by Jimmy Buffett and Brian Wilson at the sister show in New York), the show provided both a sensitive remembrance of one of rock journalism’s greatest names and, incidentally, an impressive romp through a catalogue of classic songs.
From the outset, the focus remained on White and his legacy. Considering the traditional antipathy between rock musicians and those who write about them (like the moment in Almost Famous where the Stillwater lead singer dubs the cub journalist “the enemy”), the mere fact that such a group of musicians would choose to forego their usual six-figure performance fees to celebrate a rock journalist is itself remarkable.
But White was no ordinary journalist. To begin with, White was more sensitive than most to the manner in which the recording industry often brutally exploits artists (it’s no accident that the night’s roster featured Crow and Henley, both key members of the Recording Artists Coalition), and his willingness to be a conscientious voice in the wilderness earned him a special respect among the people he covered. That being said, White was not of the same libertarian stripe as other notable critics like Lester Bangs — White’s columns at times challenged the validity of gangsta rap and often dealt as much in morality as in taste — a bold departure when one considers how truly aesthetic most music criticism essentially is. Whether or not you agreed with him, White was different, and over time this difference earned him the undying loyalty of at least those performers who took this opportunity to lament his passing.
Indeed, although a variety of short video clips, family photos and a special taped tribute by Bill Murray presented a warm and personal picture of Timothy White, the performers themselves offered the best sense of White’s personality. James Taylor began the night with a short address, and throughout the night each performer was preceded by a clip of themselves explaining how they knew White and announcing what songs they were going to play in his honor. Most played what they deemed to be “Tim’s favorite song of mine,” and Billy Joel even introduced a raucous performance of “Only the Good Die Young” by saying, “I’m not entirely sure this is appropriate, but I suspect Tim would have appreciated the irony.” Most, if not all performers, insisted that the crowd “rock out” because “Tim would have wanted it that way.”
Many of the performers seemed to take their own advice. The set began with a particularly touching performance by Roger Waters, who sang the Pink Floyd classics “Wish You Were Here” and “Comfortably Numb” (with somewhat irrelevant vocal accompaniment by Don Henley) as well as a new composition that, although slightly overlong, was clearly heartfelt. Given his reputation for being somewhat difficult, and his long and stormy relationship with the Pink Floyd catalogue and legacy, to hear Waters humbly tackle two of his most enduring classics was a thrill.
The youngest one on an admittedly geriatric bill, Sheryl Crow was tentative on her recent hit “Soak Up the Sun,” but seemed to gain a little steam as she played “If It Makes You Happy.” She polished off the set with “Steve McQueen” a song which, although heavily borrowed from just about every Steve Miller song I can think of, still managed to engage the crowd. She was followed by James Taylor who, despite a somewhat soul-starved take on “Hound Dog,” recovered with a beautiful version of “Mexico,” and a glorious two-man lullaby with Sting. Taylor more than anyone imbued the event with a certain cuddly reverence, and in some ways his mild-mannered acoustic musings were the most naturally at home in the proceedings.
The incontestable highlight of the night, however, was Billy Joel’s passionate performance. Starting off with the self-consciously awkward gesture of playing “New York State of Mind” to an arena full of Bostonians, Joel alone seemed intent on making a real rock n’ roll show out of it all. Crashing through “Only the Good Die Young” and “It’s My Life,” Joel ended his set with the show’s only encore, a rousing solo performance of “The Piano Man,” accompanied by most of the near sellout crowd. The house band, largely composed of session musicians, was competent if a bit anonymous — their playing glazed the whole night with a certain middle-aged lite-rock radio professionalism that, in some moments, robbed the performances of vitality. The onus, therefore, was pretty much on each marquee performer to bring some punch to their material. Joel did that, others did not.
Don Henley was the night’s biggest disappointment. Sporting an abysmal haircut, Henley played a pacemaker safe version of “Boys of Summer,” and then unloaded an embarrassing cover of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” redeemed only by Sting’s timely arrival. For a guy whose primary claim to fame is his past as the drugged-out soft-country crooner for the Eagles, Henley’s vain attempts to be funky were grimly awkward. Sting, for his part, was sensational, offering a kinetic take on “Roxanne,” a lush version of “Fields of Gold,” and a somewhat speedy but faithful recreation of “Every Breath You Take.”
After a lengthy set break, the night ended with John Mellencamp, who replaced the house band with his own group who, for their part, were hellbent on being about three times as loud as the early lineup. The extra volume did add a certain intensity to such songs as “Paper in Fire,” and his closer “Little Pink Houses,” featuring Patty Smythe on vocals. Mellencamp also offered a bluesy, stripped-down version of “Small Town.” By the end of Mellencamp’s set, the crowd had thinned a little, but the obligatory ensemble encore played on as everyone poured back onstage (except, curiously, for Joel) to do a seemingly unrehearsed version of the old soul song “This Train,” and a halting take on Sly Stone’s “Everyday People.”
While the show’s deflated finale perhaps underscored some of the event’s musical warts, it’s certainly hard to complain too much about the evening’s collective greatest hits set. Detached from their own bands and thrown into a somewhat constricted format, the performers as a whole managed to make the event into a selfless tribute to White simply by showing up, cutting to the chase, and playing their most recognizable work. As an audience member, one couldn’t help but feel that you were sort of doing the same — like so many events of its kind, perhaps the historic value of White’s tribute supercedes even the performance itself. White was an amazing man, and the opportunity to watch some of the biggest names in musi
c pay their respects to him was a special experience in its own right.