Inside Tom Petty's star-studded MusiCares charity concert
Grammys weekend kicked off with a bang Friday at the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year Concert. The gala, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, honored Tom Petty — and the Grammy-winning rock icon was toasted by a top shelf of his friends and peers. The Foo Fighters, Stevie Nicks, the Bangles, Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, George Strait, ELO’s Jeff Lynne, Randy Newman, and more came out to celebrate Petty’s indelible catalog of music — and his charitable contributions — with a nearly three-hour all-star salute.
Ed Helms served as the night’s emcee and the actor lightened the mood with pointed political jokes — along with a few bombs. “I would do a Donald Trump joke about Russia but there’s literally nothing funny about Donald Trump and Russia,” he said at one point, while introducing the Russian singer-songwriter Regina Spektor. Earlier, he ribbed the president’s knack for inflating facts by claiming Trump would likely claim to have won several Grammys himself.
But naturally, it was the music that took center stage throughout the star-studded dinner, which counted the Beatles’ Ringo Starr and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as guests. The tribute concert started with a performance by Grammy-winning icon Randy Newman. The singer-songwriter set up in the middle of the room on a rotating dais to perform Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1979 hit “Refugee” — a fitting selection given the controversy surrounding Trump’s travel ban — which Newman turned from an amped-up rocker into a ruminative ballad.
For the most part, the performers stayed true to Petty’s original arrangements. After all, it’s hard to work a change on bulletproof FM classics that are perfect to begin with. George Strait ignited the house with a twangy take on Petty’s “You Wreck Me.” Norah Jones added subtle countrified flair to “Time to Move On” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” And the Foo Fighters, along with guitarist Gary Clark Jr., ignited the room with a raucous cover of his 1985 tune “Breakdown.”
Throughout the concert, Petty remained elusive; he mostly observed from backstage. “I love you, Tom Petty — where are you? Are you out there?” Jones asked. But towards the end of the night, he came out to receive a trophy from NARAS president Neil Portnow and gave a touching, somewhat politicized speech about rock and roll’s place in American culture. While recalling how the music had originated with African-Americans before becoming popularized by the white radio DJ Alan Freed, he commented about how rock still has the ability to change the world — and question authority.
“It empowered the youth of America and the government got really nervous,” he said, referring to rock and roll’s rise in the 1950s. “Especially Republicans. They put Elvis in the Army and Chuck Berry in jail and things calmed down for a few years but it was too late. The music reached England…and I joined the conspiracy to put black popular music on the white radio.”
After thanking his peers and a newer generation of artists like Cage the Elephant and the Head and the Heart, who also performed that night, Petty strapped on a guitar to perform some of his quintessential tunes — and he was backed by surprise guests including the Bangles, Stevie Nicks, and ELO’s Jeff Lynne, who was also a member of Petty’s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. That set — featuring hits like “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Running Down a Dream” along with deeper cuts like “Insider,” which he had originally penned for Nicks — led the crowd to abandon their gilded dinner tables and flood towards the stage.
Moments before, Petty remarked about his wild musical ride and recalled some sage advice he had received from Johnny Cash in a letter. “[It said] you’re a good man to ride the river with. And that’s all I wanna be — a good man to ride the river with. I’m gonna keep riding that river.”
The MusiCares Foundation, which provides financial and medical support for ailing members of the music industry, also had a reason to celebrate. Portnow shared with the audience that this year’s auction and dinner broke all previous records with $8.5 million dollars raised.