If you enjoy multi-generational musical mash-ups, you owe it to yourself to attend the next “It’s Only Rock and Roll” Benefit for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. It’s a grand party with a purpose. Rock Hall of Fame member musicians and potential future inductees deliver inspired live performances, trying to outdo each other and, if they are not yet inductees, trying mightily to impress the Rock Hall board members in attendance.
The Rock Hall uses the “It’s Only Rock and Roll” Spring Benefit to raise money for its many music education programs, including summer seminars, inner-city programs with Cleveland city schools and my personal favorite,”Toddler Rock,” a program that gets the kindergarten and pre-school crowd in touch with their inner Keith Moon and Jimi Hendrix.
My wife and I have been traveling to Cleveland since 2005 to attend the benefits, which are usually held in mid-May. Balcony tickets are a steal at $15 and even the VIP packages are affordable and mostly tax deductible.
This year’s “It’s Only Rock And Roll” Benefit, held Saturday, May 15, 2010, at Cleveland’s Public Hall, was the best one I’ve experienced. The theme this year was “Cirque de la Musique” (apologies to Mick and Keef as well as Cirque de Soleil). The theme was apt because the Rock Hall’s Executive Director Terry Stewart has always struck me as an affable ringmaster at these fundraisers.
As in the past, the main floor of Public Hall was reserved for VIP ticket holders. The VIP packages include dinner and drinks before the 8pm concert, with doors opening at 6pm.Corporate types,long-of-tooth rock true believers and curious first-timers with money or connections mingled easily. All were bemused by the outlandishly costumed Cirque performers wandering the silent auction exhibits, gourmet food stations and multiple bars. A noticeable few VIPs took liberal advantage of the free libations, which wasn’t unexpected when the invitation to the Benefit encouraged all comers to “party like a rock star.”
The invited performers to the Benefit are usually on the Boomer generation’s rock camp fantasy list. But, this year the Hall added an electrifying millennial: Canadian FeFe Dobson. Oh. My. Goodness. This young woman has rock and roll DNA to spare. Dobson has whisper-to-a-scream pipes. She prances, preens and prowls the stage with a feline presence that can’t be taught. I scribbled on my table napkin “Ronnie Spector and Pat Benatar reincarnated in one body.”
Party With A Purpose
Poor Terry Sylvester of The Hollies had to follow FeFe. After Terry’s performance, Sheila E hit the stage for an energetic but annoyingly short two song set.
Next, Ringmaster Terry Stewart and chief auctioneer Morris Everett cajoled the deep-pocketed VIP’s seated near the stage into pledging nearly $300,000 for auctioned items, including a Rolling Stone magazine summer internship in New York City and a backstage pass /private plane travel package to an East Lansing, Michigan performance of U2.
Richie Furay, Buffalo Springfield alum, kicked off the second half of the concert with a strong solo performance, strumming his guitar and crooning in his clear mountain air voice.
Then, the party REALLY got started. Windy City soul singer Gene Chandler blew onstage with a truly rockin’ version of “Rockin’ Robin” and followed it up with his 1970 hit “Groovy Situation.” Chandler flashed a brilliantly white,broad smile. He looked to be in excellent health and was still strong of voice. Chandler quickly disappeared from the stage and magically reappeared near the back of the main floor.
He strutted to the stage, now adorned in top hat and cape with a silver-handle walking cane in hand to the opening strains of his classic doo wop hit, “Duke of Earl.” In terms of consummate showmanship, Gene Chandler stole the show from all other male performers that night, including MC Hammer and his large stage entourage from Oak-town.
Before the VIP attendees, two-thirds of whom had deserted their dinner tables and crowded the dance floor in front of the stage, could catch their breath, the well-muscled fireplug of a rocker, Mark Farner, charged the stage with his Grand Funk cover of “Some Kind Of Wonderful.” Farner followed up with crowd-pleasers ,”Bad Time,” and another million selling Grand Funk cover, Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion.” On cue, the VIP throng started dancing dodgy versions of the Loco-Motion- – -most of them were really doing the Twist.
The evening was getting long when M.C. Hammer was inexplicably allowed to play a far too long set. Did we really need the buzz-kill of Hammer’s tedious version of the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her?” when everyone, including FeFe Dobson, who was standing next to my wife and me at the lip of the stage, wanted to hear Mark Farner do at least one more song? Farner’s “Footstompin’ Music” would have shaken Public Hall to its foundation.
Still, dozens of VIPs clamored onstage for cringe-inducing dancing when Hammer invited them to do so during his closer, “U Can’t Touch This.” Jumbotron sized video screens mounted around the auditorium displayed close ups of Clevelanders onstage trying to emulate Hammer’s moves. Terry Stewart must have assured them that these proceedings would NOT be videotaped. But, haven’t these folks heard of cell phone cameras?
The official Benefit ended with Tommy James, still able to hit all the high notes with that keening tenor of his, singing a welcomed extended set of all his big hits, including “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” The concert was supposed to end at 11pm but it was pushing midnight when my wife and I left, bopping to the driving beat of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Mony, Mony.” We were among the first to leave. Public Hall was still crowded. Attendees didn’t want it to end. Well, there was always the unofficial “Afterparty” which Stewart wickedly hinted would go into the wee hours of the morning.
As you might have concluded by now, the “It’s Only Rock and Roll” Benefit is the best party you’ve never attended. The next “It’s Only Rock and Roll” Benefit happens in May 2011. Be there. Because, as Mick Jagger famously confessed,”you’ll like it.”
Article and Photography by Jack Marchbanks ©2010
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