By Eric Renner Brown
April 08, 2017 at 12:34 PM EDT
Kevin Kane/WireImage

Perhaps Chuck Berry was watching over Brooklyn’s Barclays Center as the music industry’s A-list gathered Friday night to induct the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s latest class. “No one in this room would be here tonight but for this man,” Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner told the crowd at the evening’s outset as he briefly eulogized the Rock Hall’s first inductee, who died in March at the age of 90.

The diverse 2017 slate of inductees — symphonic rockers Electric Light Orchestra, folk hero Joan Baez, prog legends Yes, hip-hop genius Tupac Shakur, arena gods Journey, and alt-rock luminaries Pearl Jam — confirmed the seismic impact and breathtaking reach of Berry’s music. And from Baez’ blistering acceptance speech to Lenny Kravitz’ cathartic Prince tribute to Pearl Jam’s kinetic set, the event’s performers and presenters channeled rock’s enduring legacy. EW was on the scene Friday night — read on for 16 memorable moments from the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Electric Light Orchestra honor Chuck Berry

Inductees are allotted minuscule time frames to perform their greatest hits — so it was meaningful that, at the expense of smashes like “Do Ya” and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” Electric Light Orchestra kicked off the night’s festivities with their 1973 reimagining of Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” Frontman Jeff Lynne’s revered blend of orchestral textures and rock riffage immediately brought the Barclays crowd to their feet and served as the perfect prelude to renditions of E.L.O classics “Evil Woman” and “Mr. Blue Sky.”

Dhani Harrison gives E.L.O. a cosmic tribute

Born in 1978, George Harrison’s son wasn’t even alive when E.L.O. released their early hits. But he came armed with a unique perspective: George’s creative partnership with Lynne in the late ’80s and early ’90s yielded gems like the late Beatle’s Cloud Nine and culminated with the beloved supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. Dhani recalled being awestruck as a kid in Lynne’s orbit and used plenty of celestial language to describe the experience. “They reminded me of a Star Wars cantina band, only with lots more hair,” he said when reminiscing about seeing them for the first time in 1986.

And when George was nearing the end of his life in 2001, Dhani remembered, “he told me to seek out once again that space wizard, Jeff, and that together we would know what to do.” For those reasons and so many more, Dhani declared Electric Light Orchestra and their “killer songs will live longer than any of us now, somewhere out there in a musical galaxy right between Chuck Berry and Beethoven.”

Joan Baez reiterates the importance of political activism…

Presidents from Kennedy to Trump, wars from Vietnam to Iraq: The iconic 76-year-old folk artist has witnessed decades of American history firsthand and brought her weathered perspective to the Barclays Center. “My voice is my greatest gift,” she said. “It has given my life deep meaning and unending pleasure to use my voice in the battle of injustice.” But, after summarizing her own experiences, Baez reminded the audience that “in the new political, cultural reality in which we find ourselves, there’s much work to be done. Where empathy is failing and sharing has become usurped by greed and lust for power, let us double, triple, and quadruple our own efforts to empathize and to give our resources and ourselves.”

She also deployed some contemporary political vernacular: “Let us together repeal and replace brutality and make compassion a priority,” she said. “I want my granddaughter to know that I fought against an evil tide and had the masses by my side. When all of these things are accompanied by music, of every genre, the fight for a better world, one brave step at a time, becomes not just bearable, but possible and beautiful.”

…and nods to President Trump during her performance

Though the Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter joined Baez for most of her set, she began by herself, armed with just an acoustic guitar. And her solo performance of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was magnetic, silencing the audience with its elegance. Still, Baez introduced some levity. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me,” she sang for a final time, before extending the line: “You… us… even Donald Trump… home.”

Rick Wakeman tells dirty jokes

The transition from Baez’ subdued, political hymnals to Yes’ bombastic, prog-oriented tunes was already bound to create tonal whiplash. But the British rock band’s keyboardist Rick Wakeman threw the contrast into even sharper relief with his riotous, politically incorrect acceptance speech. “I really probably shouldn’t tell you [this],” he began. “Less than half a mile away from this very building is where I had my very first meaningful sexual experience. No, no, no. Please. It wasn’t very good!”

But Wakeman revived one of rock’s less savory legacies: chauvinism. “[Guitarist] Steve [Howe] said a thank you to his wife, I want to say a thank you to mine,” he began. “Unfortunately, she’s not here tonight. When I left her this morning, I think she was in a coma. The sex was still the same, but the washing was piling up!” He went on to joke about running into his father at a strip club and his physician getting an erection while giving Wakeman a prostate exam, momentarily transforming the Barclays Center into an uncomfortable backstage encounter at a ’70s arena rock show.

Rush’s Geddy Lee lends Yes a helping hand

Lee and Rush cohort Alex Lifeson introduced Yes on Friday, detailing how that band’s brand of proto-prog — combined with some mind-expanding substances — paved the way for Rush’s epochal work. But Lee subsequently performed a more solemn task: manning the bass parts when Yes performed their 1971 hit “Roundabout” in lieu of Chris Squire, who died in 2015. A somber moment, to be sure, but also any prog-rock fan’s dream.

Snoop Dogg memorializes Tupac Shakur with hilarious, heartfelt passion

The hip-hop star spent much of his early career in tandem with Tupac at Death Row Records; in his speech posthumously inducting the rapper into the Rock Hall, Snoop compared the label in the ’90s to a powerhouse sports franchise, with Suge Knight serving as owner, Dr. Dre performing coaching duties, and “me and Pac [being] the stars on the court making history every which side.” Few musicians knew Tupac better, and Snoop’s speech illustrated that in colorful, heartrending fashion.

“To be human is to be many things at once,” he said. “Strong and vulnerable, hardheaded and intellectual, courageous and afraid, loving and vengeful, revolutionary and — oh, yeah, I’m getting f—ed up.” Snoop continued by paying homage to Tupac as “a strong black man who stood up” and vividly recounting the compassion Shakur’s mother displayed in the hospital room as she watched her son die. He also brought considerable levity, recalling a parasailing trip in South America (“Does anybody know what parasailing is? Because we damn sure didn’t.”) and sharing Tupac’s essential role in his stoner upbringing. “Pac passed me my first blunt,” Snoop said of their first meeting in 1993. “That’s right, Tupac is the one that got Snoop Dogg smoking blunts. I was a Zig-Zag man before that s—!”

All-stars turn out for the Tupac tribute

With Tupac long dead, the Rock Hall could’ve foregone his performance slot. Instead, the roster of artists organizers assembled presented a rousing set that showcased Tupac’s stylistic range. “One of my favorite things about Pac is the way you know that every lyric he sang came exactly from his life, exactly from his heart,” Alicia Keys said during a medley of “Ambitionz Az A Ridah,” “I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” “Dear Mama,” and “Changes.” She then ceded the stage to Snoop, who returned to perform his Tupac duet, “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” with rising L.A. rapper YG holding down Pac’s parts. And, clad in Tupac’s iconic bandana, T.I. closed the set with a rendition of “Keep Ya Head Up.”

Steve Perry showers his former Journey bandmates with praise

Before the induction ceremony, rumors swirled that singer Steve Perry would perform with Journey for the first time since 1991. That didn’t happen, but the 68-year-old musician honored his peers with a thoughtful acceptance speech. Perry reminisced about regularly going to Journey shows at West Hollywood’s Starwood nightclub as a fan so he could see the “one instrument that was flying above the entire city of Los Angeles, the magic fingers of Neal Schon’s guitar.” And he shouted out each member of the band by name before remarking, “Are you f—ing s—-ing me?! Any singer would give his ass for that s—.” Perry’s final message, however, was for the fans. “I’ve been gone a long time, I understand that,” he said. “But I want you to know, you’ve never not been in my heart.”

Neal Schon dedicates “Lights” to Steve Perry

Arnel Pineda — who Perry shouted out in his acceptance speech — has performed vocal duties for Journey since 2007 and he belted the ubiquitous lyrics for “Separate Ways,” “Lights,” and “Don’t Stop Believin'” on Friday night. But Perry lingered over the set, with Schon dedicating “Lights” to the singer. “Light this place up,” the guitarist said, urging the crowd members to raise lighters and cell phones. “I’m gonna dedicate this to Steve Perry tonight.”

Lenny Kravitz channels the Purple One

Prince died less than a month after the 2016 Rock Hall induction ceremony, but he loomed large at Friday’s event nonetheless. Flanked by a gospel choir, Lenny Kravitz paid tribute to the late icon in a too-brief performance comprised of Purple Rain‘s “When Doves Cry” and Sign o’ the Times “The Cross.” Taken at a slower tempo, “When Doves Cry” sagged slightly, but Kravitz achieved rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy when he donned a Flying V guitar for “The Cross.”

Late addition David Letterman steals the show

Longtime Pearl Jam collaborator Neil Young was supposed to induct the alt-rockers into the Rock Hall but canceled Wednesday due to illness. The duty fell to noted Pearl Jam fan David Letterman who, along with his still-unwieldy beard, gave Snoop Dogg a run for his money as the night’s best introductory speech. “Why isn’t Neil Young here?” Letterman began. “The truth of it is, the poor guy just can’t stay up this late. Either that or he swallowed a harmonica.”

From there, Letterman riffed on how long he’s known Pearl Jam (since 1988, when they “were all in a band called Mother Love Bone”), why he loves “Better Man” (it rhymes with “Letterman”), and the band’s lengthy list of past percussionists (“tonight the entire balcony is full of former Pearl Jam drummers”). Letterman also commended the “true living cultural organisms” of Pearl Jam for fighting injustice through their crusades against poverty, environmental abuses, and Ticketmaster. “Those beady-eyed, blood-thirty weasels!” Letterman said of the ticketing behemoth. “Because [Pearl Jam] stood up to corporations, I’m happy to say that, ladies and gentlemen, today every concert ticket in America is free!”

Eddie Vedder ruminates on evolution, climate change, and the Chicago Cubs…

“I’d like to start by thanking all those who came before us,” the Pearl Jam singer began his acceptance speech with a glint in his eye. “The tetrapods. The primates. The homo erectus. Without them, we would be so much less evolved.” From there, he extrapolated: “We’ve got a lot of evolving to do. It’s evolution, baby. Climate change is real — it’s not fake news.” The rocker and activist then reiterated the urgency of the climate crisis through a sports analogy. “Anything can be obtainable: the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series,” Vedder said with a smile, nodding to his beloved baseball team. “It can be done, but here’s the thing: We don’t have 108 years to wait.”

…and continues the evening’s tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of music’s younger class

“If Chance the Rapper ever sees or hears this, I just want to tell him, my daughter really loves you,” Vedder said when thanking his family during his acceptance speech. “I also, Chance, want to thank you for all the great work you’re doing in Chicago. That gives us all hope.” Earlier in the night, Baez had also admitted that maybe the artists being honored Friday night weren’t at the forefront of the younger generation’s mind. “I’m aware that I’m speaking to many young people who, without this induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, would have no clue who I am,” she quipped. “My granddaughter had no clue who I was until I took her backstage at a Taylor Swift concert, where she got a selfie, an autograph, a T-shirt, and a newfound respect for her grandmother.”

Pearl Jam distill their essence to three songs

The band’s marathon shows often feature dozens of songs, so performing only three may have seemed like a tall order; luckily, Pearl Jam were up to the challenge. Though fans might have winced that guitarist Mike McCready had to abbreviate his legendary extended “Alive” solo, the band roared through that 1991 hit, along with 1997’s “Given to Fly” and 1994’s “Better Man.”

An explosive superjam closes the night

Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” is a Pearl Jam live staple, but their performance of the song Friday night was exceptional for a number of reasons. It honored the aging rocker in his absence and affirmed Pearl Jam’s rebellious, politically active spirit. And a number of the rock legends in attendance joined the band, from Dhani Harrison to Rush’s Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, who were on hand to induct Yes. But the highlight came when Vedder cheered Schon on as he laid down a definitive take on Young’s screeching guitar solo.

HBO will broadcast this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 29.