But looking at the wry, quirky smiles on Lennon’s face as classic photos of the Beatle great alternated all evening long on a screen at the Beacon Theater, one couldn’t help but think he would have thoroughly enjoyed himself.
Lennon, it’s still startling to think, would have turned 70 last month – and so even though Friday’s tribute was the 30th in a series, this one had a special feel. Produced by Theatre Within, a nonprofit arts group, the evening was a benefit for the Playing for Change Foundation, which builds music schools in poor areas of the world.
Among the big names this year: Cyndi Lauper, who performed “Across the Universe,” a song she said had helped her get through her teen years. Then she recalled how, singing Beatles songs long ago with her sister, she would “be” John and her sister would stand in for Paul.
“Not this time, though,” Lauper quipped, calling onstage a substitute “Paul” – none other than Jackson Browne – to collaborate on “A Day in the Life.” Earlier, Browne had the somewhat graying crowd singing happily along to “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”
Patti Smith was there, too, with a quirky rendition of “Strawberry Fields,” before striking an emotional chord when she spoke of losing her husband. Yoko Ono, she said, was an example for her of how to carry on as a widow. So she serenaded Ono – with Lennon’s “Oh Yoko,” of course. (Ono was present via video message, telling the organizers: “John would have loved what you are doing.”)
Dance, anyone? The Wendy Osserman company presented a free-flowing duet to “Free as a Bird,” nicely capturing the whimsical song’s mood. The evening’s most curious offering, though, came from juggler and YouTube sensation Chris Bliss, who expertly plied his trade to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” On vocals: Joan Osborne and Maura Kennedy.
Osborne also provided a gritty, spirited rendition of “Hey Bulldog.” But for sheer power, it was hard to beat Shelby Lynne’s remarkably searing version of “Mother.”
In other highlights, blues singer Keb’ Mo’ came on for a quietly soulful “In My Life,” followed by crowd favorite Taj Mahal, who performed a rousing “Come Together” with his daughter, then called back Keb’ Mo’ for “You Can’t Do That.” Earlier, Taj Mahal had joined with South Africa’s Vusi Mahlasela on “Watching the Wheels.” Aimee Mann was there with “Jealous Guy,” Martin Sexton with “Working Class Hero,” and Alejandro Escovedo with a slowed-down rendition of “Help.”
And the Playing for Change Band, musicians from across the globe who earned fame with a viral video of “Stand by Me,” made of separate snippets woven into a single performance, presented a new video – to Lennon’s iconic “Imagine.” They also came onstage in the flesh to rev up the crowd with songs like “All You Need is Love” and “Instant Karma.”
At the end of the Theatre Within’s 30th Annual John Lennon Tribute, the band was back – along with all the artists and the house band, led by Rich Pagano, for a rollicking finale. It ended, naturally, with perhaps Lennon’s most famous words:
“All we are saying,” the artists sang along with the audience, “is give peace a chance.”