Jim Gaffigan, surveying the front table as host of the annual MusiCares gala Friday night, had a thought. Looking at “the musical powerhouses Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney — now, hear me out: a reboot of the Traveling Wilburys.” After a pause, he added, “I see Robert Kraft as the lead,” referring to the New England Patriots CEO who was sharing the veteran rockers’ company.
McCartney was there just as an onlooker and friend, and Kraft was there to give a speech introduced the night’s honoree, Bon Jovi, being celebrated as MusiCares’ Person of the Year at the charitable org’s annual dinner and concert. Springsteen had a bigger or at least more audience-galvanizing role to play: not just as the symbol of original New Jersey royalty bestowing its eternal blessing on Bon Jovi, but as his on-stage duet partner for the night.
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After the honoree opened the evening’s musical performances as a solo artist with “Legendary,” he brought on “my mentor, my friend, my brother, my hero,” Springsteen, and together the two of them performed one song each from their respective catalogs. From Bon Jovi’s, it was “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” and from Springsteen’s, “The Promised Land” — the latter ending with both performers joining forces for a harmonica duet as the anthem’s coda.
“I’ve got the best seat in the house,” said Bon Jovi, pleased for his very closeup view of his duet partner.
There was some question, at least among curious fans, about whether Springsteen would keep his commitment to appear in tribute to his most famous acolyte, given that the news was out about his mother, Adele Springsteen, having died at age 98 just two days before the gala.
Explained Bon Jovi in his speech: “When I first got the news, he was already on the airplane on his way here. I certainly would’ve understood if he’d said that he couldn’t make it, but he wanted to be here tonight for MusiCares, and he wanted to be here tonight for me — and I’m forever grateful to you,” he said, looking at Springsteen. The overhead screens showed a reaction shot of Springsteen with what appeared to be wet eyes.
It was a surprise to most attendees that Bon Jovi and Springsteen would open the show rather than bring down the house as a closer, but it was understood among those talking backstage that the guest of honor wanted to get his part over with and then enjoy a drink. He did return after his climactic speech to sing again for a bit on the show-closer, “Livin’ on a Prayer,” trading lead vocal lines with Lainey Wilson and Brandy Clark as the full cast joined in on gang vocals.
Besides Springsteen, Wilson and Clark, Bon Jovi was also serenaded during the evening by Jelly Roll, Jason Isbell, the War and Treaty, Shania Twain, Melissa Etheridge with Larkin Poe, Marcus King, Sammy Hagar with Orianthi, Goo Goo Dolls, Damiano David of Maneskin, Pat Monahan of Train, and Mammoth WVH, Wolfgang Van Halen’s band.
Gaffigan said early on that the evening was not a roast, and then naturally proceeded to make his portions of the show mostly that. Much of his commentary had vintage photos from the ’80s of Bon Jovi, with and without his band of that name, with costuming and hairstyles that would register in most people’s minds as… slightly dated. “I say this with respect, as a Bon Jovi fan,” said Gaffigan, looking up to a project of an image of the group from about 35 years ago, “but you guys here look like you’re about to shoot a porn version of ‘Mad Max.'”
Some of Gaffigan’s other humor consisted of the don’t-hate-him-because-he’s-beautiful variety, as he pointed out, “Jon was recently dubbed the Sexiest Singer Alive by Glamour Magazine for the second year in a row — at the age of 61. That’s fucking annoying, people.”
He also had some fun at the expense of Bon Jovi’s acting career, naming some highly forgettable film titles before landing on one that has better stood the test of time, “Ally McBeal.” He brought it back to that series with a later gag.
“So much of Jon’s work has been a part of the fabric of our lives, marking milestones and rites of passages,” said Gaffigan. “Have you been to a wedding reception and not drunkenly sang along to ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’? I’m sure I’m not the only one here that lost their virginity to some of Jon’s work. For me, it was season 5 of ‘Ally McBeal.’ It played faintly in the background as I became a man.” Several beats later, he added, “I still don’t know why that guy was watching the show.”
Wedding reception hooks and magazine covers aside, the message was repeated again and again that, as a philanthropist and family guy, the “You Give Love a Bad Name” singer gives rockers a good name.
Introducing Bon Jovi before the award was handed out, the sports mogul Kraft sang his praises, saying, “Unlike the majority of artists and performers who understandably are insular, Jon’s always had an empathy for the world at large, and he’s shown that impact as a philanthropist. He has used his platform as a global rock star and paired it with his own money and operating skill and created the Soul Foundation, as you saw earlier, building a model program for solving the vicious cycle of hunger, poverty, and homelessness that has now been copied by many others. And I’m very proud of him because as the son of two Marines, he has a deep respect and affection for the brave women and men who serve our country, and he has written multiple songs and tributes and dedicated the proceeds to veterans in need. But above all else, and unlike most people who have excelled in their professional and philanthropic life. John is somebody who, at the age of 61, is still married to his high school sweetheart, Dorothea… With people with his background, I find that unusual that they still stand true to their family roots.”
Kraft added, “I must tell you, I’m so thankful that Jon came into my life, having first met him on the sidelines of the Super Bowl in 1997 in New Orleans. And unfortunately we lost that game, but my life became in infinitely richer for the relationship we have shared over the last three decades. His impact on me has been profound.”
In return, Bon Jovi said, “Thank you for your New England Patriots, and in this crazy world. I want to thank you for your leadership through your philanthropy, especially the foundation to combat antisemitism.”
Waxing passionate about music generally, Bon Jovi said, “Every kid who ever learned to play an instrument or to sing is given one of the great gifts of God’s heaven, and that gift is music. Music moves us, moves us when we’re happy, and it comforts us when we’re sad. It brings us together and when we may not have much else in common; there is still that common thread that is the song.
“Recently,” he said, “I had the opportunity to get back my first electric guitar. I sold it in 1979 to a kid from the neighborhood for $100. When he sold it back to me recently, he said it’s where it belonged: home. And when I took that guitar out of that cardboard case, it only had five strings on, and I still believe that the sweat marks were mine. I doubt that kid ever played it. The first thing I did was held it, cradled it, really, and then I wrote a song on it.
“Another thing I’ve come to know is that every time that I strung my guitar, I’m reminded that I have a best friend for life. That instrument will never let you down. It doesn’t matter if you’re 8 or if you’re 80, if you’re playing in a bedroom or the local stadium. Tonight and every night. I know how blessed I’ve been. There are millions of other musicians who set out on the same journey, but for whatever reason, their paths took them in different directions. Some of them may have played professionally, some as a hobby, and some may have needed help along the way,” he said, segueing into MusiCares’ mission to aid musicians in distress.
“Because musicians, we don’t have safety nets, and when the song’s over, it’s over … Some find work and some may need some basic assistance. That is when MusiCares comes to lend a hand. I love what they do, not just financially, but when service providing becomes available.”
Highlights of the show abounded, but the most galvanizing turn might have come from currently Grammy-nominated husband-and-wife duo the War and Treaty, who performed “I’ll Be There for You” on a revolving stage at the ballroom’s center and brought not just the night’s most flagrantly soulful singing but serious marital chemistry that may have helped reinforce the family theme of the night.
Another standing-ovation-worth performance came from Isbell, who went full-on rock cowboy with a hat and duster as he performed “Dead or Alive,” making use of a double-necked guitar that proved those aren’t just formidable-looking props after all. The shredding wasn’t just on guitar, but on Isbell’s vocal cords, as he delivered a vocal arguably even louder and raspier than Bon Jovi’s original.
Brandy Clark brought things back down to earth on the revolving center platform with the final performance of the night before the speeches, a haunting, tender rendition of “(You Want to) Make a Memory.”
The big-energy moments of the night included two more Nashvillians, Jelly Roll and Lainey Wilson, doing “We Weren’t Born to Follow” and “Bad Medicine,” respectively — a reminder of the time Bon Jovi briefly flirted going country, and how the South continues to take to him almost as fervently as NJ ever did.
Shania Twain, introduced by Kylie Minogue, paid tribute not just to Bon Jovi’s influence on country-pop but his influence on truly copious hair.
While the aforementioned performances would not be accurately characterized as not rocking, more traditional rock flavors were brought by performances by Hagar, Wolfgang Van Halen and Damiano David, who did for Bon Jovi what he did for Frankie Valli.
Full MusiCares Person of the Year setlist:
Jon Bon Jovi, “Legendary”
Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” and “Promised Land”
Melissa Etheridge and Larkin Poe, “Blaze of Glory”
Jelly Roll, “Bad Medicine”
Lainey Wilson, “We Weren’t Born to Follow”
Shania Twain, “Bed of Roses”
Pat Monahan, “It’s My Life’
Jason Isbell, “Dead or Alive”
Damiano David, “Keep the Faith”
Goo Goo Dolls, “This House Is Not for Sale”
The War and Treaty, “I’ll Be There for You”
Mammoth WVH, “Have a Nice Day”
Marcus King, “Born to Be My Baby”
Sammy Hagar and Orianthi, “You Give Love a Bad Name”
Brandy Clark, “(You Want to) Make a Memory”
Lainey Wilson, Brandy Clark, Bon Jon Jovi and full cast, “Livin’ on a Prayer”
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