The audience skewed older, but the energy never abated at T-Bone Burnett’s Speaking Clock Revue this past Saturday night. The Wang Theatre played host to rock icons like Elton John, John Mellencamp, and Elvis Costello, all gathered to support the new documentary Waiting for Superman, a movie about five children and their parents’ struggles to get them into good schools. All of the musicians put an emphasis on the importance of revitalizing the public school system, and as Jeff Bridges put it best, “Tonight’s about the kids. Let’s hear some music!”
Music producer Burnett’s master plan was to put together a two-city benefit concert, with a house band consisting of the players featured on a number of Burnett’s recordings. Joining for the majority of the night, the bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers put a fresh spin on country music. Their harmonizing and thumping banjos on songs like “Rye Whiskey” served as a palate cleanser of sorts between the big name acts. A down-south kind of Mumford and Sons, they played off the energy of every vocalist they accompanied, stomping around the stage in a cool, yet bouncy manner. It was clear that the band was just happy to be invited, but the impression they made is sure to be a lasting one.
Next to take the stage was Karen Elson, a pale skinned, red haired model turned singer who more than held her own in the cavernous theater. Elson went right into “The Ghost Who Walks,” a haunting, dazzling track that heavily features an old-fashioned organ. The generally older audience at first didn’t know what to make of Elson, as her star shines far less brightly than the majority of the headliners, but by the time she wailed her way through “The Truth is in the Dirt on the Ground,” the building erupted in applause. She graced the stage with her presence several more times, ably assisting Costello with the help of The Secret Sisters, an enchanting new band that just released its first, self-titled album. The two sisters’ voices were clear and angelic, blending together in a beautiful, melodious way. Ending their two-song number with the bluesy “The One I Love is Gone,” the sisters proved that they belonged in the presence of all the greats onstage.
“This next artist used to have three names,” chuckled our MC, Elvis Costello, as he introduced one of America’s greatest rockers, Mellencamp. Disappointingly, the singer skipped over hits like “Pink Houses” and “Jack and Diane” in favor of newer, more acoustic numbers, like the chill-inducing “Save Some Time to Dream” and “Longest Days.” His voice is still that fascinating blend of smoky and soulful, and the passion he brought to the stage was unmatched by any other performer. After Mellencamp’s short set, T-Bone himself took to the stage to introduce his good friend Jeff Bridges, Oscar winning actor and star of movies such as The Big Lebowski and the Burnett-scored Crazy Heart. His two songs were good, but unmemorable in a field of incredible talent.
The special guest at the Boston edition of the Revue was Neko Case, one of the members of the band The New Pornographers and a brilliantly talented songstress. She performed several of her own songs in addition to assisting Greg Allman on his hit, “Midnight Rider.” Allman has been through it all in the past year, and he began his set by thanking God “and the man who gave me a liver just a few months back.” He was unusually reserved and restrained, perhaps nervous about straining himself after his surgery, but his voice sounded better than ever.
The only standing ovation of the night was awarded to Ralph Stanley, “America’s oldest and best country singer” as Costello so eloquently phrased it. At 83 years old, Stanley emerged in a sparkly silver suit and sweetly sang his way through “Girl from the Greenbriar Shore” and his biggest hit, “O Death,” from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The applause and ovation the audience gave the legend as he walked off stage was both a sign of respect and a response to the goose-bumps everyone had long after Stanley’s songs ended.
While Leon Russell hobbled onto the stage, Elton John strode confidently toward his piano to the sound of rapturous applause. The two musical legends effortlessly ran through five songs off their new collaborative album, The Union. John’s pipes are not as nuanced as they used to be, but he still managed to command the stage. Like Mellencamp, John ignored the hits and instead performed only numbers off his new CD, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. Instead, people seemed thrilled just to have the chance to hear Sir Elton live. Sure, the 6-year-old in me died a little when I realized I wouldn’t be hearing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” but then the two pianists began to play “Gone to Shiloh” as Greg Allman reemerged to harmonize with the men. It was a truly special moment, with Russell’s gruff and honky-tonk voice meshing against all odds with John’s poppy and Allman’s soulful ones. I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the backup singers exclusively for John and Russell’s set. It was a privilege to see John cede the vocals to the four women for a section of “Hey Ahab,” giving them the chance to show off their spine-tingling voices.
When all the artists assembled on stage at the end of the show, I have to say I was expecting a group number. The opportunity was there, but it never came to fruition. It was the only real disappointment in a night otherwise filled with breathtaking performances and collaborations.