The way Lionel Richie sees it, every one of his songs — from “Easy” to “Hello” to “Dancing on the Ceiling” — was given to him by God for a single purpose: to help carry him toward Saturday night, when he stood onstage at the Los Angeles Convention Center and told a room full of high rollers that they’d raised more than $7 million to aid musicians in need.
Well, OK, sure.
The occasion was the annual MusiCares Person of the Year gala, in which a veteran artist is celebrated ahead of the Grammy Awards for his or her work and philanthropy. Recent honorees include Carole King, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, who made waves last year when he accepted the accolade with a lengthy jeremiad against his perceived detractors in the record industry.
Yet the donations made Saturday in Richie’s name — partly through a live auction in which a private house concert by the singer went for $325,000 — were the highest ever for a MusiCares benefit, according to the organization’s president, Neil Portnow. So you could understand Richie’s temptation to think of his music as a means to an end.
“There was something else greater God had in store,” said the 66-year-old, referring to his charitable endeavors.
But let’s not go too far. Surely, any god worth believing in recognizes that Richie’s best songs — those he wrote as frontman of the Commodores and later as a solo act — serve as their own reward. The songs have done other, equally important jobs too, most notably blurring the lines that once separated funk and gospel and R&B and pop.
That was certainly the accomplishment you were reminded of during the all-star tribute concert that preceded Richie’s heartfelt speech, in which a wide variety of singers — including Rihanna, Stevie Wonder, Dave Grohl and Florence Welch of Florence & the Machine — adapted Richie’s hits in ways that showed how durable they are.
Singing quietly over strummed acoustic guitar, Welch turned “Dancing on the Ceiling,” that jumpy mid-’80s party tune, into a spooky incantation. Chris Stapleton drew out the tear-in-your-beer quality of “Lady,” which Richie originally wrote for Kenny Rogers. And the Band Perry brought a polished country-soul vibe to an “Endless Love” lacquered with pedal steel. (Credit the show’s heavy Nashville contingent to “Tuskegee,” Richie’s platinum-selling 2012 album of country duets.)
For “Say You, Say Me,” Rihanna reset the song to 6/8 time and added strings for a lush old-Hollywood sound. John Legend took the opposite tack, stripping down the burnished “Easy” to surprisingly raw voice and piano. In Stevie Wonder’s hands, “Three Times a Lady” took on a joyous rhythmic intensity.
The evening’s most impressive performance came from Yolanda Adams, the gospel singer who made the convention center feel like a church for five fervid minutes during “Jesus Is Love.” Then, as a kind of cooling agent, Grohl told a funny story about receiving an enormous basket of muffins from Richie after the Foo Fighters frontman broke his leg last year.
Grohl hadn’t brought along any baked goods to thank Richie, he added, but instead did a goofy version of “You Are.”
Not everyone tapped so successfully into Richie’s flexibility and good humor. Lenny Kravitz’s “Running with the Night” was a hard-rock slog, and Ellie Goulding seemed completely adrift in “Sail On.” And why in the world Luke Bryan, a reliable keg-stand type, would choose a Lionel Richie tribute to show off his sensitive-balladeer side (in a grim “Oh No”) is something I may never figure out.
Still, any dodgy bits were quickly swept away by Saturday’s guest of honor, who after describing himself as “the father of mankind” (thanks to the number of babies made to his love songs) closed the show with two songs that clearly demonstrated his range.
First, he did “Hello,” as stark and appealingly creepy as I’ve ever heard it. Then, inevitably, it was time for “All Night Long,” which brought many of the concert’s performers back to the stage for a confetti-filled finale.
If the song was a vehicle, as Richie had suggested, it had room for plenty of passengers.