Elvis Costello, The Roots, Living Colour, Bettye LaVette & Others Pay Tribute to Robert Johnson

According to a tall tale, legendary guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in order to become a great musician. There’s no real proof of this Faustian legend save for Johnson’s immense talent and status as the root of the blues genre. Last night, in celebration of his 100th birthday, a stellar line-up of musicians gathered at the historical Apollo Theater in Harlem to pay tribute to the man who has inspired generations of artists across the globe. A benefit for the building of a Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tennessee, the event was co-produced and hosted by actor Joe Morton in league with the Blues Foundation in Memphis. 

Opening the show was the house band, made up of Steve Jordan, James Blood Ulmer, Keb Mo, Colin Linden, Sugar Blue, and Willie Weeks — a group that Morton asserted was "the greatest blues band ever assembled." After performing "Terraplane Blues," Otis Taylor came onstage with a banjo to perform a solo rendition of "Kindhearted Woman." Immediately afterward, Todd Rundgren stepped out to perform a second version of the song; Morton explained that multiple versions of songs would be performed, as Johnson himself would sometimes put the same song on a record more than once. Soon after came The Roots, performing a spirited "Milkcow’s Calf Blues."

In a surprising turn displaying his versatility, "star of stage and screen and anywhere he wants to be" Jeffrey Wright joined Keb Mo at the microphone to sing "Stones in My Passway." Tony-award winning actor and dancer Hinton Battle glided across the stage while Public Enemy frontman Chuck D rapped the verses of "Last Fair Deal Gone Down." A choir joined Macy Gray onstage for "Come on in My Kitchen," and things really heated up when the great Bettye LaVette and Taj Mahal performed "When You Got a Good Friend" together. Following Sarah Dash and Keb Mo’s "Honeymoon Blues," funk metal band Living Colour earned the first standing ovation of the night after an electric rendition of "Preachin’ Blues," featuring gut-busting basslines and ear-piercing vocals from Corey Glover. Soon they were joined by Shemekia Copeland for the first of three versions of "Stop Breakin’ Down."

In the second half of the show, Sam Moore sang a consumate cover of "Sweet Home Chicago," Predito Martinez Group performed a Latin-inspired "Travelin’ Riverside Blues," and Elvis Costello wandered out to perform a single song: "From Four Till Late." One of the night’s highlights, however was the lovely Bettye LaVette, who returned to the stage to sing "I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man" accompanied by Kevin Kiley on harmonica. Before she twisted around, encouraging cheers from the audience, the venerable soul singer announced, "I haven’t stood on this stage since 1965 — and it seemed much bigger." 

Other than Todd Rundgren’s second performance, before which he mentioned that it was also the 100th birthday of the Oreo cookie and likened himself to "an inside-out Oreo" to an awkward silence, the end of the show was full of energy, with the group of performers, including Keb Mo, Taj Mahal, Living Colour, Sarah Dash, Jeffrey Wright, and Bettye LaVette, joining Patrick Droney, the 2006 winner of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation New Generation award, in "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day." The cheering audience jumped out of their seats at Sam Moore’s insistence. The event proved that Johnson, despite meeting an early death at the age of 27, was eternally influential, and most contemporary musicians owe a debt to his trail-blazing music. 

Patti Smith, Cyndi Lauper, & More Salute John Lennon

John Lennon fans filled the Beacon Theater on Friday night to watch over a dozen entertainers – including Jackson Browne, Patti Smith, Cyndi Lauper, Aimee Mann, Keb’ Mo’, Shelby Lynne, and Martin Sexton – take the stage for the 30th annual tribute concert in honor of the late, great Beatle.

During the rousing three-hour celebration, the all-star lineup sang Lennon covers that varied from heartfelt to eclectic to plain absurd. For an example of the last, look no further than the version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that featured Joan Osbourne and Maura Kennedy on vocal duties, while Chris Bliss sent yellow glowing balls rapidly into the air in perfect tune with the song (his juggling routine for the Abbey Road finale has been viewed on YouTube over 60 million times).

While the divergent musical lineup gathered to honor the memory of Lennon, they also hoped to raise funds for Playing For Change, which builds music schools for impoverished children around the world. The 6-year-old organization announced that together with Theatre Within, producers of the annual charity show, they’re launching Power to the People, a worldwide “peace through music and activism” campaign. The charity has earned the rare blessing of Yoko Ono, who delivered a video message to kick off the concert, saying: “John would have loved what you are doing.” The endorsement of Lennon’s very private widow is not entirely surprising – one imagines if Lennon was alive today, he would be at the center of this kind of idealistic grassroots cause.

We caught up with the performers backstage and asked them about why they chose to perform the Lennon classics they did. Their responses, along with a photo gallery of the event by guest photographer Jeff Fasano, follows.

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Jackson Browne plays “Revolution” with Mermans Kenkosenki (right) and the rest of the Playing For Change Band, a globe-trekking band of musicians from places as diverse as Senegal, Argentina, New Orleans, Netherlands and New York. Kenkosenki, who grew up in the Congo, has lived in South Africa since 1998. He spoke to us after the show about performing with Browne. “Yaaw! He’s a very good guy,” said the always festive Kenkosenki. “We’re from the Congo so we don’t know much about American music. But he’s a lovely guy.”

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Among the most inspired renditions of the evening was Martin Sexton’s breathtaking acoustic cover of “Working Class Hero.” While too many artists were content to hang in the background along side the house band, singing behind music stands, a solitary Sexton sat on a crate in the front of the stage, guitar in hand, and then with the wry howl of a down-on-his luck troubadour on a Dublin dock, peeled the song to its most angry, defiant and heart-wrenching core. “It was an honor to sing that song, especially in these troubled times we’re living in now,” Sexton told us. “John said that was a song for the revolution, and I think it’s a wonderful song for a revolution because even though it has some cuss words, it means something.”

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Patti Smith delivered a subdued, utterly surreal take of “Strawberry Fields” before telling the crowd about the pain of losing her husband Fred Smith in 1994, and how Yoko Ono’s graceful strength and determination after John had been killed served as a model for her. “She taught me how to carry on as a widow,” Smith told the rapt audience before honoring her with a light, zippy “Oh, Yoko.”

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Eighties pop icon Cyndi Lauper, looking great in a black leather outfit, belted out “Across the Universe” over swelling digital strings, so that her distinct voice could be heard, well, across the universe. Lauper emailed us her reason for picking that song. “As a kid, when school or life as I knew it then became unbearable, that song made everything bearable.”

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By injecting his mellow, Delta blues style, Keb’ Mo’ rearranged the melancholy ballad “In My Life” into a joyous piece of remembrance. “John Lennon wrote it, so he’s in there,” Keb’ Mo’ told us after the show. “So what I do is kind of to represent his soul.”

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Joan Osborne lent her gutsy voice to a groovy rendition of Yellow Submarine’s “Hey Bulldog.” “It’s a great rocker,” said Osborne. “I love that aspect of John Lennon, but actually, years ago when I was a film student at NYU, I used it as the soundtrack of a short film of mine. The film I had made wasn’t that good but when I put “Hey Bulldog” to it, it made it ten times better. So I thought, this is all you have to do – put great music to a scene and you’re home free.”

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Among the highlights of the show was Shelby Lynne’s rendition of “Mother.” Hearing her universe-splitting quaver exposes the deep wounds that sent Lennon into “primal scream” therapy around the time he wrote this heartbreaker.

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Jackson Browne gives a faithful rendition of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Way.” We spoke to Browne before the show but he barely spoke above a whisper, and stared at me with such focused intensity whereby he put some kind of mind meld on us, rendering us and our digital recorder useless. After speaking to his road manager, among others, we learned it’s Browne’s m.o. not to look at you, but through you. Funny thing is Browne should have done a bittersweet countrified “Take It Easy”-like rendition of “I’m Looking Through You,” a song he could have connected with better than the one he chose.

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Just before intermission, Chris Bliss delivers a fresh, psychedelic spark with his oddly moving juggling routine to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”

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Aimee Mann, who writes as good a Beatlesesque ballad as anybody around, delivers a solid if not exceptional version of “Jealous Guy.” We’ll stick with Bryan Ferry’s soulful, spaced-out treatment.

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The headliners valiantly try to perform the majestic epic “A Day in The Life.” To be fair, tough song to pull off without much rehearsal. To create some chemistry between the quirky pair, they might have joined for a sweet, heartfelt “Norwegian Wood.” Oh well, we can imagine.

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The show closed with the all-star lineup gathering on stage to remind concert goers of Lennon’s defining message: “give peace a chance.”