Aerosmith shared the stage with its estranged drummer, Joey Kramer, Friday at theMusiCares Person of the year gala, but declined to perform with him
The heavy fog that enveloped downtown Los Angeles late Friday night seemed to accent the unusual pall that hung inside the Los Angeles Convention Center, where Aerosmith was honored as the 2020 MusiCares Person of Year for the 50-year-old band’s musical and philanthropic contributions.
On another day, at another time, this all-star concert would likely have been cause for unabashed celebration as the Boston-bred Aerosmith became only the second band ever to be honored as the MusiCares Person of Year in the nonprofit charity organization’s 30-year history. (Apart from Fleetwood Mac in 2018, all other honorees have been solo artists, among them Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand.)
On Friday, the celebration was decidedly tempered, for reasons we’ll explain in a moment. The resulting pall was as undeniable as the praiseworthiness of the causes that MusiCares funds.
Like the Grammy Awards — which will celebrate its 62nd anniversary Sunday with Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Aerosmith and a slew of other young and veteran artists — MusiCares is operated under the auspices of the Recording Academy.
In the past 8 days, the academy has become ensnared in major controversy and litigation, following the sudden ouster of its new President and CEO, Deborah Dugan. Her ouster, dubbed “Dugangate” by some, was a key topic of conversation at the MusiCares event.
The fact that the star-studded MusiCares fete raised a whopping $6 million Friday for musicians and music industry members in need of assistance is certainly worth celebrating. Ditto the fact that, since its inception three decades ago, MusiCares has raised more than $66 million, which has provided aid to more than 172,000 beneficiaries.
Before Aerosmith’s energetic four-song concluding set, the band’s songs were performed by more than a dozen other artists. Standouts included rising young acts (most notably Ashley McBride, Jessie J and Yola) and more established artists (most notably Sammy Hagar, Kesha, Foo Fighters and a show-stealing Gavin DeGraw, who traded charged vocal lines with Aerosmith singer Steve Tyler on a piano-fueled version of the 1989 chestnut “What It Takes”).
Introducing his rendition, DeGraw said: “Are you ready to hear the song in a lower key and not quite as good?”
After he sang with Tyler at a table in the audience near the front of the stage, DeGraw made an amusing admission. “To be totally honest,” he told the crowd, “I sang every (expletive) lick in the first verse.”
It was illuminating to hear Aerosmith’s songs interpreted by women artists, who brought new dimension to the music and the lyrics.
English singer Yola — whose real name is Yolanda Quartey and who performs Feb. 23 at the Music Box in San Diego — was a revelation as her powerhouse vocals elevated Aerosmith’s power-ballad “Cryin’” to a new high-octane level.
Fellow English singer Jessie J turned “Home Tonight, a bluesy 1976 Aerosmith deep album cut, into an impassioned torch song. Country-music dynamo McBryde delivered a galvanizing version of “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” a gender-bending classic to which she brought a welcome new twist and resonance.
For her dramatic reading of the child-abuse-inspired “Janie’s Got a Gun,” Kesha performed with a string quartet and former San Diego bass great Nathan East, who was an integral member of the house band that accompanied most of the performers. (Cheap Trick and Foo Fighters, who both rocked with vigor, were the only self-contained groups to perform Friday, apart from Aerosmith itself.)
“I don’t know how Steven Tyler screams like that for more than one song,” head Foo Fighter Dave Grohl said, after belting out “Let the Music Do the Talking.” (Tyler, 71, later pointed out with some glee that he has longer hair than Grohl, who is 51.)
Bassist East and ace drummer Curt Bisquera anchored the terrific and unusually versatile house band, which was led by keyboardist Greg Phillinganes (whose joint musical credits with East includes collaborations with everyone from Eric Clapton to Michael Jackson).
East was especially notable with his hard-driving bass lines on Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle,” which Van Halen alum Hagar and guest guitarist Orianthi deftly transformed into a Van Halen-styled stomp.
The evening also featured such talented guitarists as Gary Clark Jr. (with Yola) and former Extreme mainstay Nino Bettencourt (with a so-so Melissa Etheridge). But the standout was the house band’s six-string virtuoso, Tariqh Akoni, whose solos were consistently creative and exciting while remaining respectful of the music at hand.
Other acts on Friday sounded pleasantly innocuous (take a bow, the Jonas Brothers, Emily King and Luis Fonzi). But even their performances underscored the well-structured durability of Aerosmith’s best songs and of the band itself, especially given the debilitating drug and alcohol problems this still-hard-rocking group’s members have overcome in previous decades.
Or, as English comedian Russell Brand — the host of Friday’s gala, black-tie dinner concert — told the audience: “I’m here to celebrate the fact that they’re not (expletive) dead. I have a list of all the drugs Steve Tyler has taken ...”
Brand, who is himself 17 years clean and sober, also briefly addressed the pall hanging over the event. “We’re here to celebrate the members of Aerosmith, all of whom will be here tonight,” he said.
The attendance by all five original members of the band had been in doubt, due to the very public legal feud that took place this week. It began when Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer — who co-founded the band and came up with its name — filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against singer Steven Tyler, bassist Tom Hamilton and guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford.
His legal action came after the band informed Kramer, who suffered a back injury last year and was replaced by his drum technician, that he would not be allowed to perform with Aerosmith at either Friday’s MusiCares event or at Sunday’s 62nd Annual Grammy Awards telecast.
In a recent statement explaining their decision, the band said: “Joey Kramer is our brother; his well-being is of paramount importance to us. However, he has not been emotionally and physically able to perform with the band, by his own admission, for the last six months.
“We have missed him and have encouraged him to rejoin us to play many times, but apparently he has not felt ready to do so. Given his decisions, he is unfortunately unable to perform, but of course we have invited him to be with us for both the Grammys and our MusiCares honor.”
Kramer, in turn, alleged that he had been asked to audition for his old job to demonstrate that he could still drum at “an appropriate level.” On Wednesday, a Massachusetts judge ruled against him and TMZ posted footage of Kramer being turned away by security guards after he showed up at Aerosmith’s Los Angeles rehearsal studio.
So the fact that Kramer joined his four band mates on stage Friday to accept their MusiCares honor was significant, but no more so than the fact that the band then performed without him.
Tellingly, Kramer and Tyler were the only two members who addressed the audience, albeit briefly. The crowd of several thousand was hushed, rather than excited.
“You got awfully quiet, awfully quick,” Tyler noted of the audience, which seemed notably subdued compared to previous MusiCares Person of the Year editions.
Then, as he rested his left hand on Kramer’s shoulder, Tyler said (seemingly more to the estranged drummer than the audience of several thousand): “Remember, people only really get interesting when they start to rattle the bars on their cages. And the best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.”
Kramer, whose facial expression conveyed very mixed emotions, was even more succinct in his remarks.
“A shout-out for love and gratitude,” Kramer said, “to MusiCares, to all our fans, to my partners, to my forever-supportive wife, Linda, and to you guys out there.”
With that, he exited the stage as his band mates prepared to perform with Doug Johnson, Kramer’s former drum technician and on-stage substitute in recent months, in his place.
Johnson led the band into a suitably rollicking version of “Big Ten Inch Record,” a bluesy 1952 classic by Bull Moose Jackson that Aerosmith recorded in 1975. The next song, an uneven version of “Dream On,” featured a high-velocity guitar and vocal cameo by H.E.R. (as 22-year-old Bay Area Grammy-winner Gabriella Wilson is known professionally).
After an extended rendition of “Sweet Emotion,” Alice Cooper and actor/guitarist Johnny Depp — Perry’s partners in the band The Hollywood Vampires — joined Aerosmith on stage, Together, they performed a show-closing, jam-happy version of the 1951 Tiny Bradshaw jump-blues romp, “Train Kept a Rollin’,” that managed to be both enjoyable and anticlimactic.
The underlying irony of the evening, which went largely unspoken, is that the members of Aerosmith have themselves famously battled some of the same addiction problems as a number of other MusiCares beneficiaries.
Indeed, as one of the vintage videos shown reminded the audience, Tyler and Perry were once known as “the Toxic Twins.” It was a moniker that, earlier in their lives, could potentially also have served as their shared epitaph.
Speaking in more general terms at the start of the evening, new MusiCares board chair Steve Boom told the audience: “When members of the music community need help, MusiCares is there. …
“Because of you, we’re able to offer programs that provide everything from emergency financial assistance to medical assistance, addiction recovery and disaster relief in times of crisis.”
Tyler added a more personal comment at the end of the night, saying: “And should I — which I won’t — fall again, you will help me back up again.”
This remark came a few moments after the singer said: “Joey Kramer, where are you? I love you, man.”
Tough love? Dysfunctional band love? Both?
Whatever it is, Aerosmith have weathered many storms before and pulled back together against considerable odds. With any luck, they’ll do so again and Kramer will once again be welcomed back in the saddle.