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.

image

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.”

image

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.”

image

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.”

image

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.”

image

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.”

image

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.”

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

Catfight!

imageShelby Lynne, Just A Little Lovin’ (Lost Highway) Cat Power, Jukebox (Matador)

Interpretation can be as rare and mesmerizing a talent as the act of writing great songs—and these two new covers albums prove it. Finally making good on all those comparisons to Dusty in Memphis, Shelby Lynne has recorded Just A Little Lovin’, an album of songs made famous by Dusty Springfield. The hits are there, but in place of Springfield’s dramatic sweep is the spare intimacy of Lynne’s voice, a casual triumph of feeling. There is one Lynne original, “Pretend,” but the real highlights are revelatory versions of songs we only thought we knew, such as “How Can I be Sure,” “The Look of Love,” “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” and the seductively perfect title track. Jukebox, Cat Power’s second covers album, transforms numbers inviolably linked to their original artists such as Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”—even one by Billie Holiday (“Don’t Explain”)—into songs only Power could sing.

imageLike Lynne, Power is all about inflection, here bending the bars so deftly that her lone original, “Song to Bobby,” ambles with the easy gait of Bob Dylan; the Dylan cover (“I Believe in You”) sounds like Power wrote it. One can only imagine what Frank would have to say about this enigmatic chanteuse’s wholesale reconfiguring of his theme song. Plenty. But Cat Power is an artist who takes in music like smoke—she exhales only after it has sunk into her lungs and run through her bloodstream. Take a hit.

Shelby Lynne’s Top 5 Albums

image1. Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears. “It takes balls to feel like this on a record. This one cuts deep.”

2. Leonard Cohen, Collection. “The voice? Maple syrup. The words, sublime.”

3. Nirvana, Unplugged. “Kurt wasn’t destined to be here too long. He was too good. That alone brings tears.”

4. David Gray, White Ladder. “It’s a chick thing.”

5. Annie Lennox, Diva. “A singer’s singer. A singer’s songs.”