Judge Erich Asperschlager is a proud member of the Stop, Drop, and Roll Hall of Fame.
"For 25 years, a building on the lake in Cleveland has been calling out around the world that rock and roll is synonymous with love and happiness, with peace and freedom, with joy and R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Hail, hail rock and roll!"—Tom Hanks, from his introduction
In the Stephen King short story "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band," a young couple gets lost in the woods and ends up in a strange town populated by deceased rock and roll legends like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, and Janis Joplin. They are forced to join other unlucky travelers in an audience of the damned, watching the dead rockers play a concert that lasts forever. In October of 2009, real-life rock fans got the chance to see something similar, albeit less spooky.
For two nights, Madison Square Garden became a real-life Rock and Roll Heaven, bringing together some of rock, folk, funk, and soul's biggest names for The 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts. A month later, the shows aired on HBO in a heavily edited format, mixing performances from both nights and culling the tracklist by about half. Almost a year later, that TV special makes its debut on DVD and Blu-ray in a three-disc set that also includes more than an hour's worth of performances that didn't make it on TV. While we don't get everything that fans lucky enough to be at those shows saw, it captures the spirit of one of the biggest concerts in rock history.
The best thing about the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts is that it's not just a bunch of stars playing their biggest hits. The show is structured so that there are a series of "house bands" who act as backing bands for other acts, combining music legends in crazy ways. Bruce Springsteen is great on his own, but if you've ever wondered what it would be like if Billy Joel joined him on "Born to Run," you'll find out here. So you like U2 and Mick Jagger? Ever wanted to see them onstage together? Done. Stevie Wonder and Sting. Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons. Simon and Garfunkel. Metallica and Ozzy-freakin'-Osbourne! It's like someone read through a wish list thread in a music fan chat room and said "yeah, we can do that."
Disc one covers rock's early days, focusing on folk-rock and soul. After a shaky Jerry Lee Lewis struggles through "Great Balls of Fire," the concert zips from one great performer to the next: Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, B.B. King, Smokey Robinson, and Sting; plus two high-energy sets from Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. The best moments on the disc belong to Paul Simon—with his band on "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" (a bonus performance not seen on HBO) and "You Can Call Me Al"—and with his former partner, Art Garfunkel. Whatever their BFF status, seeing Simon and Garfunkel together again is magical, and they sound just as good as ever on their classics, "The Sounds of Silence," "The Boxer," and "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
Disc two does more than just split the set; it's also a musical U-turn, with heavy rockers (and recent inductees) Metallica setting the tone. Whether or not you like Metallica's music, it's hard to complain about their backing performances on "Sweet Jane," with Lou Reed, "All Day and All the Night," with Ray Davies, and a mini-medley of "Iron Man" and "Paranoid" with a joyfully obscene Ozzy Osbourne. You can tell they're thrilled to be there, and it shows.
Compared to the old-timers on disc one, U2 are mere kids, but they make a great case for their "world's best band" status here—both by themselves, and sharing the stage with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith (on "Because the Night"), and with special guests Fergie and Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas. The Peas' bandmates help out on the Rolling Stones classic "Gimme Shelter," which jumps to concert highlight status once Stones frontman Mick Jagger makes a surprise appearance to trade lead vocals with Bono.
Besides U2's set, disc two belongs to Springsteen and his E Street Band, who come to the stage after a lengthy Jeff Beck blues rock interlude. The Boss plays host to an eclectic mix of artists, including soul legend Sam Moore ("Soul Man"), Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello ("The Ghost of Tom Joad"), John Fogerty (on blistering renditions of "Fortunate Son" and "Oh, Pretty Woman"), and Bruce's cross-state compadre, Billy Joel. It's a heck of a way to wrap up an already epic show, especially considering the concert itself ends with Springsteen and all of his guests coming together to jam on "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher."
As it aired on HBO, The 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts is four hours of once-in-a-lifetime performances by some of music's best. The home video release adds a third disc with more than an hour of songs that got cut. Unfortunately, that means a lot of the performances from the concerts themselves are still missing (before any edits were made for TV, they had nine hours of footage). It's a shame that this isn't a four or five-disc set with everything. Still, the bonus disc is packed with lots of great stuff from both nights. There are additional performances from Crosby, Stills, and Nash, four more Stevie Wonder songs, full versions of "Iron Man," "Paranoid," and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," the Simon and Garfunkel classic "Mrs. Robinson," U2 sharing the stage with the Black Eyed Peas, two more Jeff Beck jams, and "London Calling" as interpreted by Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.
The set also comes with a collector's edition booklet that reproduces the 26-page article about the Hall of Fame Concerts that first appeared in the Nov. 26, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. The booklet cover is a reproduction of that issue's cover, featuring Bono, Mick Jagger, and Bruce Springsteen. The article was written by David Fricke and Brian Hiatt, with photographs by Mark Seliger; it's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what it took to make it all happen. Also tucked into the set is a card you can send in for a free year of Rolling Stone, a benefit of the museum's founder also being the magazine's managing editor.
The 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts set comes with two audio mixes, a 2.0 Dolby stereo track and a 5.1 surround mix. Both sound great. The surround mix adds a little more oomph all around, though the rear speakers are mostly relegated to crowd and ambient noise. The 1.78:1 widescreen image is clean and clear. The stage is dark by design, with all of the attention on the performers. Unlike more frantic concert DVDs, Joel Gallen's direction is well-paced and doesn't detract from the music. Even in standard definition, there's more than enough detail to see just how old everybody looks these days.
Even with a seemingly endless lineup of all-stars, these Hall of Fame Concerts probably aren't for everyone. At the very least, you'll probably prefer one disc to the other (I know I'll revisit disc two a few more times before I go back to disc one). The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honors some of the biggest names in music, but it also represents the tastes of a limited selection of critics. This concert boils that list down even further. If you dig even half of the artists who came out to perform, though, you'll enjoy this set. I hope that someday they release a mega-super-collector's edition that has all of the performances, but the five-and-a-half hours of music here is plenty for those of us who didn't sell a kidney to see the shows live.
Rock on! Not guilty.
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