The gala tribute concert that concludes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s annual American Music Master series each year always features some surprises — usually relatively unknown artists who bring down the house. This year’s tribute to Janis Joplin Saturday night at the State Theatre was no different.
Although some people were complaining ahead of time that there were no “star” names — people like Robert Plant, B.B. King, Slash or Elvis Costello, who performed in previous years — moving, even roof-raising performances were turned in by artists who might not have sounded exciting on paper, and one of the bigger names turned out to be a dud. Performances were interspersed with narrative from Rock Hall CEO Terry Stewart, clips of Joplin performing and doing TV interviews, and taped tributes from artists connected to Joplin who couldn’t be there — like her old band Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Kris Kristofferson, who wrote her hit “Me and Bobby McGhee.”
Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel kicked off the evening with a workmanlike performance of ’50s country tune “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” which Joplin recorded, followed by legendary Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark doing a Lightnin’ Hopkins tune he said both he and Joplin heard Hopkins perform around Houston in the ’50s and ’60s.
Roky Erickson of the ’60s Texas garage act 13th Floor Elevators — in his first Cleveland appearance ever — came out and did a couple of their notable tunes. Country Joe performed “Janis,” which he’d written in the ’60s shortly after they broke up as a couple, while her old Texas musical buddy, Powell St. John delivered a surprisingly effective solo acoustic version of “Bye Bye Baby,” a song he’d written for Big Brother’s 1966 debut album.
The first performer to really shake things up was one probably almost no one in the theater had heard of: Texas singer/songwriter/electric guitarist Carolyn Wonderland who shook her head of magenta hair while belting out “Down on M,” also from Big Brother’s debut. She was followed by low-key but moving performance by legendary producer/songwriter/Chicago bluesman Nick Gravenites, who performed “Buried Alive in the Blues.” He introduced it with a sung narrative about Joplin and how she recorded it for the album she was making when she died.
His intimate performance contrasted with a rafter-rattling performance by former Santana/Journey keyboardist Gregg Rolie and percussionist Mike Carabello, with the full house band, rocking two of Santana’s biggest hits “No One to Depend On” and “Evil Ways.” Yet somehow the energy level got even higher when singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi exploded onstage looking like a soccer mom dressed as a hippie for Halloween, and delivered a knockout set featuring “Try,” “Kozmik Blues” and “Tell Mama,” her guitar playing incendiary and her vocals passionate.
Ex-LaBelle vocalist Nona Hendryx provided one of the most theatrical performances, appearing in a giant Afro, skin-tight leggings and stiletto ankle boots, showing off a body at age 65 that most 25 year olds would die for and playing to the crowd as she sang “Move Over.” Soul singer Bettye LaVette’s version of “Piece of My Heart,” which she recorded in 1969, the year after Big Brother did it, was strikingly different from Joplin’s version, more restrained and smoldering.
Singer/songwriter/scenester Bobby Neuwirth — resplendent in a Nudie rhinestone-bedecked shirt —performed a sentimental song about Joplin before bringing her family — sister, brother, nieces and former road manager — onstage to join him in a rousing version of “Mercedes Benz.”
That affectingly ragged performance should have concluded the show. Instead, Lucinda Williams tottered out and delivered flat performances of “Me and Bobby McGhee” and “Ball and Chain,” reading the lyrics off a music stand. She ended with an acoustic song she said she’d just written about Joplin — “I guess I’ll call it difficult child,” she told the crowd. The song was forgettable, and she got a tepid response throughout. It was hard to tell if Stewart was being sarcastic or not when he said, after her set, “New song. How special.” —Anastasia Pantsios