Sunday night on CBS, The Recording Academy hosted a special “Grammy salute” concert event called “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America,” in commemoration of 50 years to the day that The Beatles first performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
Let’s be honest here: to ask a bunch of current musical celebrities to cover The Beatles in front of the two surviving Beatles is a daunting prospect in itself. True, these songs are covered by millions of people all over the world, but to perform them on national television in tribute to the Fab Four—that’s a lot of pressure. Not to mention the pressure on the production team, and dealing with the things that inevitably go wrong during stage performances. But I’m happy to say that the show, first filmed after The Grammy Awards and cut from 4 hours down to 2.5 for television audiences, absolutely did The Beatles justice.
It’s seriously difficult to identify standout performances, because so many of them were stellar. Of course, it helped to have a cover band featuring guitarists Peter Frampton and Steve Lukather, but the artists themselves (for the most part) truly committed to the songs entrusted to them. Particular noteworthy performances included Steve Wonder’s funky rendition of “We Can Work It Out;” Imagine Dragons’ harmony-filled acoustic version of “Revolution;” a sonically brilliant Jeff Lynne/Joe Walsh collaboration on “Somewhere” (accompanied by George Harrison’s son Dhani on guitar); Ed Sheeran’s intimate performance of “In My Life;” and Dave Grohl’s passionate performance of “Hey, Bulldog” (prefaced by his acknowledgment of The Beatles as the favorite band of three generations of his family line), among many others.
Few would argue that among the tribute part of the event, the guitar work stood head-and-shoulders above the other performance moments. Two standouts in particular: Keith Urban and John Mayer riffing on their guitars to “Don’t Let Me Down,” and a bringing-down-the-house guitar duel between Joe Walsh and Gary Clark, Jr. on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
The only performance of the evening that felt “phoned-in” was “Here Comes the Son,” largely because Pharrell Williams (who hasn’t got the memo about burning that hat) seemed distracted during the performance, and despite an honest try by collaborator Brad Paisley and a team of aerialists from Cirque du Soleil, the song fell flat. The reunion of the Eurythmics on “Let It Be” was meaningful, but something seemed uncharacteristically amuck with Annie Lenox’s voice.
The undisputed capstone of the evening, of course, was when the surviving two members of the Fab Four took the stage toward the end. Ringo Starr, ever the showman, engaged the delighted crowd with energetic performances of “Matchbox,” “Boys” and “Yellow Submarine,” after which Paul McCartney took the stage to perform “Get Back” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” When Ringo reappeared for “With a Little Help From My Friends” and a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Hey, Jude,” the evening felt complete.
It’s saying something for the music industry to pay this much tribute to one band over one performance that occurred fifty years ago. But then again, The Beatles were no ordinary band. Sunday night’s tribute show reminded us once again what made them so special.