The secondary blast of drama this week surrounding the Grammy Awards – call it Aerosmith agita – seemingly ended deep into Friday night’s MusiCares Person of the Year gala.
With a hand on drummer Joey Kramer’s shoulder, Steven Tyler leaned into the microphone to say a few words about the potency of music before stepping back to allow Kramer to speak.
The packed room at the Los Angeles Convention Center fell into near silence with a bit of apprehension clouding the air. But any concerns about what he might say after a week of vitriol with his band brothers dissipated when a quietly emotional Kramer gave a “shout out of love and gratitude” to MusiCares, his family and Aerosmith’s fans.
With that, Tyler said it was time to “let the music do the talking” as he and guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford (in full David Letterman-beard mode) and bassist Tom Hamilton walked a few steps to their instruments while John Douglas, Kramer’s drum tech who has been filling in for the founding drummer since he injured himself last year, slipped behind the kit and broke into the intro to their snappy blues-rock cover of “Big Ten Inch Record.”
After the week’s emotional drain – Kramer was unceremoniously turned away from an Aerosmith rehearsal because the band felt he wasn’t ready to play, Kramer filed a lawsuit for excluding him from performing at this weekend’s events but lost his bid - Aerosmith’s four-song performance, which closed the 30th anniversary production of MusiCares, felt oddly flat.
Of course Tyler’s yowls were in top form as he whirled through “Dream On” with guest H.E.R. on vocals and guitar and it was a blast to see Perry’s Hollywood Vampires pals Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp frolic with the band on “Train Kept a Rollin’.” Depp at one point threw an arm around Tyler and gave him a peck on the cheek, and Tyler called out to Kramer in the crowd at the end of the song to say, “We love you.”
But there was a lingering sense of awkwardness that really doesn’t matter considering that $6 million was raised from the event for MusiCares, which helps musicians with financial and medical issues, among other assistance. Aerosmith was chosen as the Person of the Year – only the second time a band has been tapped, following the 2018 coronation of Fleetwood Mac – for their philanthropic efforts with organizations including Aspire and Janie’s Fund, which has Atlanta-area ties with Tyler’s Janie’s House. (Other Atlanta connections came with the appearances of Tammy Hurt, vice chair of the Recording Academy, who spoke about how MusiCares benefits the music community and Delta CEO Ed Bastian, who was in the crowd.)
The nearly two hours of performances that preceded Aerosmith’s finale were also filled with notable moments – some from unlikely participants.
Expected highlights came from Melissa Etheridge, who, with sidekick Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, engaged in a thrilling guitar shred-off during “Walk This Way” (Etheridge’s well-honed rasp was, naturally, ideal for the song). Foo Fighters reliably muscled through “Let the Music Do the Talking,” which prompted frontman Dave Grohl to joke at song’s end, “I don’t know how Steven Tyler screams like that for more than one song,” and a punky “Toys in the Attic.” And John Legend proved a perfect match for Aerosmith’s toothless, but immensely popular swooner, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
Slightly more surprising was Gavin DeGraw’s soulful read of “What It Takes.” In his maroon tuxedo and familiar newsboy cap, the self-deprecating musician said from behind his piano, “Are you ready to hear the song in a lower key and not as good?” But DeGraw’s version was full of heft thanks to the ace backing band led by Greg Phillinganes. And when DeGraw navigated tables in the crowd while singing and slapping hands, few would have expected him to end up next to Tyler’s seat, who joined him for the song’s ending shrieks.
Kesha performed her haunting version of “Janie’s Got a Gun” on a slowly rotating platform atop a smaller stage in the middle of the room. Backed by a five-piece string section, she infused the ballad with octave-climbing emotion paired with purposely dissonant strings and earned the first ovation of the night.
And Britain’s Yola served as the ideal complement to Gary Clark Jr.’s stinging guitar as the pair stormed through “Cryin’,” with Yola adeptly growling and wailing through the lyrics while Clark kept pace (the camera found an impressed-looking Tyler in the crowd during their performance, which also earned an ovation).
Other performances from LeAnn Rimes (a standout a capella opening for “Livin’ On the Edge”), Jessie J (lovely on the 1976 album track, “Home Tonight”) and Ashley McBryde (joyfully fierce for “Dude [Looks Like a Lady]”) demonstrated the everlasting influence of Aerosmith’s 50 years of music, regardless of their next act.
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