Longevity and conflict have become defining characteristics in the shared half-century career of Aerosmith, the classic rockers who were honored Friday at the annual MusiCares Person of the Year Gala. Over the decades, they’ve survived addiction, cancer and a falloff of chart action, and somehow bounced back mostly intact.
The band’s latest moment of glory and dysfunction landed during a Grammy weekend planned as triumphant recognition for a winning streak of hits and fortitude — unfolding at the MusiCares tribute and on the Grammy telecast on Sunday. But after sidelined drummer Joey Kramer sued (unsuccessfully) to prevent Aerosmith from performing without him, a few awkward moments were to be expected.
“Remember, people only really get interesting when they start to rattle the bars on their cages,” declared singer Steven Tyler from the stage, receiving his award alongside Kramer, guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford and bassist Tom Hamilton at the podium, just before the band performed, sans Kramer. Tyler rested a brotherly hand on Kramer’s shoulder.
“And the best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.”
An injury last year is reportedly why Kramer has had to sit out live performances with the Boston group, including Aerosmith’s ongoing residency in Las Vegas. For the Grammys and MusiCares, he wanted to return to the drum kit. A judge in Massachusetts ruled in the band’s favor instead. Drum tech John Douglas has been filling in, as he did Friday after Kramer left the stage.
While the MusiCares honor came amid a week of trauma at the Recording Academy — after its chief executive and president, Deborah Dugan, was placed on leave after just five months — the night raised $6 million for the popular charity, which provides music industry workers with support during financial and medical crises, including for substance abuse.
“We’re musicians and we’re ... artists and we’re out of our minds. Most of the time it goes into the music and we get lost in it,” Tyler said during the night’s closing moments, thanking the charity. “And should I — which I won’t — fall again, you will help me back up again.”
The dinner marked the 30th anniversary of the MusiCares award, which has honored major artists from Barbra Streisand to Bob Dylan. At past dinners, the Grammy CEO has played a public part, but amid the organization’s current upheaval that role was shared by Recording Academy Vice Chair Tammy Hurt and Chair Emeritus Christine Allen.
From the podium, Hurt said the group “serves to support the people behind the music, the creators, the songwriters, the engineers and producers and mixers and all the others who poured their heart into stirring our souls.” While no mention was made onstage of the Dugan controversy, the explosive back and forth about the academy has raised concern about how the charity might be affected.
On his way into the event, REO Speedwagon singer Kevin Cronin noted that MusiCares is aiding his guitar tech, currently in need of a lung transplant, and was a crucial resource for his son, 43, in battling substance abuse. Any damage to the charity would be a disaster, he said.
“They provided my oldest son with a sober living facility, which was kind of the final step in his recovery and, so I owe them a lot,” said Cronin, adding that he hoped this week’s Recording Academy’s meltdown wouldn’t hurt donations to the charity. “This organization raises so much money and helps so many people who would be really lost without it, especially crew guys.”
The lineup of rock, pop and R&B acts that included John Legend, LeAnn Rimes, the Jonas Brothers and Kesha unfolded at the Los Angeles Convention Center beneath dozens of decorative electric guitars hanging from the ceiling like a chandelier of polished wood and steel strings.
By the time of Aerosmith’s closing four-song set, Tyler promised, “And now we’re going to let the music do the talking,” quoting the title of a song originally recorded on a Perry solo album as the guitarist’s statement of independence during another period of conflict decades earlier. The band was joined on guitar and vocals by H.E.R. for “Dream On,” and on vocals and blues harp by Alice Cooper and actor/guitarist Johnny Depp (Perry’s partners in the Hollywood Vampires) for a heavy breathing “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”
While some of the night’s earlier performers delivered the veteran rock band’s songs as if speaking a foreign language (Jonas Brothers, Luis Fonsi and Emily King), multiple guests gave inspired readings of the Aerosmith catalog.
Sitting at a piano, Gavin DeGraw got some laughs when he asked, “You ready to hear this song in a lower key and not quite as good?” But the singer-songwriter delivered an early emotional peak Friday with “What It Takes,” leaping from the stage and wandering the aisles to Aerosmith’s table to shout an impromptu duet of the song’s “Yeah! Yeah!” with Tyler.
Ashley McBryde belted out a fervent countrified “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” in black leather, a big eagle tattoo across her chest. On a slowly rotating stage deep into the audience, Kesha recast “Janie’s Got a Gun” as a song of empowerment to electric guitar and a five-piece string section.
Among the night’s best matching of song and artist was singer Yola (a nest new artist nominee this year) and modern guitar hero Gary Clark Jr. on “Cryin’,” part molten rock ’n’ blues, part soul-stirring vocal, played against a scene of stormy weather on the big screen behind them. Melissa Etheridge sang a raspy “Walk This Way” with guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, though the speedy opening rap is a tall order for anyone who isn’t Tyler (or Run-D.M.C.).
If the first half of the night was largely focused on hits from the band’s late-'80s/early-'90s comeback, other performers attacked the hard rock songs at the foundation of Aerosmith’s career.
Sammy Hagar shouted out the 1977 hit “Back in the Saddle,” accompanied by Australian guitarist Orianthi on squealing leads. Cheap Trick opened the musical performances with the honorees’ spirited and noisy ‘70s-era song “Rats in the Cellar.”
Following a clip of Aerosmith’s 1990 performance of the “Wayne’s World” theme on “Saturday Night Live,” Dave Grohl led his Foo Fighters in two of the band’s hardest rocking songs, the throat-ripping “Let the Music Do the Talking” and “Toys in the Attic.”
Between songs, the hard-charging Grohl caught his breath and said, “I don’t know how Steven Tyler screams like that for more than one song.”