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Rock Almost Didn’t Go Away : Pop review: The beat goes on and on at celebratory Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert.

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

For a while Saturday night, it looked like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebration concert at Cleveland Stadium wasn’t just going to salute four decades of rock music but make us relive every minute of them.

Scheduled to run six hours, the program was still in full swing as it headed through its seventh hour just before 2 a.m. Sitting in the worn, old stadium, you could sense thousands of tired HBO viewers, including those watching on tape delay in Los Angeles, having long ago turned off the set and headed for bed.

Most of the nearly 60,000 fans here, however, hung on gamely, hoping--between moments of numbing blandness by some artists who have little place on a Hall of Fame show--for another moment of the magic that came when some of the current and future Hall members filled the stadium with some of the most celebrated music of the modern pop era.

In addition to captivating individual performances, the historic gathering was highlighted by some classic pairings: soul greats Al Green and Aretha Franklin singing together for the first time . . . John Fogerty backed by the band that he calls the best in the world, Booker T. & the MG’s . . . Jerry Lee Lewis teaming up with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band . . . and Springsteen with surprise guest Bob Dylan on “Forever Young.”

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Without U2, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails or one of today’s other vital young rock forces agreeing to participate, the concert faced the danger of being another nostalgia-fest a la the “Woodstock II” main stage. There was no way Bon Jovi, the Gin Blossoms, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Hornsby or Melissa Etheridge was going to inject the evening with a contemporary urgency. The show’s contemporary edge was further hurt when Whatever You Call That Purple Reign Guy and rappers Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg decided not to perform as scheduled.

Just as the Hall of Fame should apply the highest standards to its inductees, it ought to restrict its stage to the most visionary artists. That guideline Saturday would have cut 90 minutes or more from the program and spared both the live and HBO audiences some performances that ranged from pedestrian to torturous.

What purpose is served by having Jon Bon Jovi, no more than a serviceable rock talent, sing one of the most treasured songs of the modern pop era, John Lennon’s “Imagine”?

There’s no guarantee that the Hall of Fame members will turn in memorable performances, as several showed Saturday. But you can at least appreciate the artists for the contributions they made to rock over the years. James Brown, for instance, was only a shadow of his old self, but still deserves his place of honor. Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were more convincing Saturday, but they, too, are mostly approximations of their early fire.

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Most of the Hall members, however, were inspiring, including Green, Franklin, Fogerty, the Kinks, Johnny Cash and the Allman Brothers Band. The future inductees who also contributed impressively to the show included Springsteen, George Clinton, the Pretenders, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.

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The concert started wobbly at 7:30 p.m. when Chuck Berry tried gamely to connect with Springsteen and the E Street Band, but they never really established a groove.

The pace picked up when John Mellencamp, another contender for Hall membership, checked in with his band for two numbers, including a duet with Hall member Martha Reeves on Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.” But things then slowed again as Bon Jovi sang the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” offering neither the endearing innocence of Ringo Starr’s vocal nor the desperate yearning of Joe Cocker’s.

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After two energetic but largely uninvolving Animals numbers by Hall member Eric Burdon, Etheridge, whose overwrought Janis Joplin tribute at the Hall of Fame induction dinner in January apparently wasn’t warning enough to the concert production staff, returned for serviceable but largely undistinguished versions of such “girl group” hits as “Be My Baby” and “Leader of the Pack.”

The first touch of magic came almost an hour into the show as Green’s versions of “Tired of Being Alone” and the gospel-tinged social commentary of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” showed why he is not just the best soul singer of his generation, but perhaps the most captivating male singer period.

Just when you wondered if anyone could effectively follow Green on stage, Ohio-native Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders delivered an equally blistering set, built around “My City Is Gone,” which looks with disillusionment on some of her old turf, and Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done,” a song about drugs and despair.

Johnny Cash followed with strong renditions of his hits, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire,” joined on the latter by Mellencamp and the Memphis Horns. After two acoustic numbers by Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin sang three songs with the urgency and spunk that were a hallmark of her music in the ‘60s, when she set the standard for female soul singers. Green joined her on the final song, “Freeway of Love,” and it was a summit meeting of soul.

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Fogerty kept pace, playing “Born on the Bayou” and “Fortunate Son” with the timeless rock instincts that seem ingrained in him. Soul Asylum, a creditable but second-level contemporary band, seemed out of place in this company, but it supplied surprisingly gritty textures in support of Iggy Pop on the blues standard “Back Door Man” and Lou Reed on his own “Sweet Jane.”

George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars saluted Sly & the Family Stone in one of the night’s most energetic performances, but the Kinks were equally masterful, getting the audience in such a sing-along mood on “Lola” that Ray Davies could have kept the crowd chanting through the midnight hour.

Springsteen and the E Street Band came on stage at about 10:45, moving from a relatively slow, bluesy version of the old “Shake, Rattle & Roll” to his own “She’s the One” and, finally, “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The set didn’t offer the revelation that Springsteen often packs into these special occasions, but the hookup with the E Street Band will probably give added hope to those Springsteen fans who long for him to tour again with his old mates.

Dylan arrived shortly before midnight and played four songs in the taut, steamrollering style that he favors with his current band. The Allman Brothers Band, playing with its usual precision and grace, turned in the evening’s final piece of magic.

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Rather than a stage full of artists for the finale, Sam Moore and Fogerty teamed vocally on “In the Midnight Hour,” followed by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas with “Dancing in the Street” and, finally, Chuck Berry returning to the stage to bring the whole affair, mercifully, to an end.

There were some marvelous moments in the Hall of Fame’s celebration concert. It’s just a shame you had to struggle so hard at times to find them.


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