The stage Wednesday night at the Cocoanut Grove was filled with a group of musicians that you could only picture in dreams.
More than a dozen of the most acclaimed figures in rock — from Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello to Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt — were paying tribute to Roy Orbison, whose classic recordings in the '60s reflected romantic anxiety with an intensity unequaled in pop music.
The encouraging aspect of the concert, which was produced for a Cinemax cable-TV special that will air early next year, was that the musicians were saluting Orbison, 51, at a time when the veteran performer is still active — his voice was as powerful and persuasive as ever. This wasn't one of those nights where the artist is in obvious decline and the party has the sad overtones of a retirement.
However, the problem — as Orbison had sensed during a rehearsal at the Grove the evening before the concert — was that some of the musicians were being too respectful.
Though the cast had been running through tunes like "Only the Lonely" and "Runnin' Scared" for more than four hours, the music near the end of the rehearsal was stiff.
T Bone Burnett, the lanky Texan who was the show's musical director, looked concerned. Backup singers were becoming tense as they frequently came in on the wrong words; the same with the battery of guitar players as they searched awkwardly for their place in the songs.
At the end of the rehearsal at 1:15 a.m., Orbison walked over to a table in front of the stage where several of the musicians were seated. As his admirers gathered around him, Orbison gave them, in effect, a pep talk.
"The main thing for me in this show is that it's such a thrill for me that you guys are here. ... I'm grateful that you came by to help me out. Don't worry about the music. Just relax. If we make a mistake, we can just leave it in the show. The idea is to have fun."
Even with that encouragement, the musicians seemed nervous Wednesday night as they walked on stage just before 8:30 for a show that was easily the hottest "invitation only" pop event of the year in Los Angeles. The 300 guests included both celebrities (Billy Idol, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Harry Dean Stanton and more) and record industry scene-makers.
As the musicians assembled under the hot stage lights, it was odd to see them placing sheet music on stands in front of them. Some in the audience thought it was a gag. No one in rock carries sheet music on stage. If you don't know a song, you just wing it.
But it was clear during the opening number that many of the musicians were paying attention to what was on the stands. Forget their ages for a moment and you could imagine Springsteen and Costello, seated near each other and playing guitars, in a schoolroom somewhere, trying to please their favorite teacher as they nervously followed the notes.
The only thing that broke the musicians' concentration was Orbison's singing.
Standing motionless on stage in his customary black outfit (a fringed leather jacket this time), the Texan, who now lives in Malibu, hit the dramatic high notes with purity and evocative power as he sang his epic rock ballads of lovely and terrifying romantic dreams.
(It's no wonder that Blue Velvet director David Lynch, in trying to find music to convey the mood of a man hopelessly tortured by his own desperate search for romantic fulfillment, turned to a 20-year-old Orbison hit, "In Dreams.")
Time and again when Orbison would reach a dramatic point in a song or hit a particularly high note, various musicians would smile at each other in awe.
Despite frequent stops in the action to reload cameras, the individual numbers worked well — the musicians loosening up as the evening progressed. Still, the fun didn't really begin until the second half, when Orbison switched from ballads to rockers.
Backed by Elvis Presley's old rhythm section (including James Burton on guitar), Orbison moved into tunes like "Dream Baby" (a duet with Springsteen), "Candy Man" (a vigorous Costello on harmonica) and "Ooby Dooby" (Burton and Springsteen trading blistering guitar solos).
Even with the camera reloading, there was finally a sense of momentum and interchange on stage: Tom Waits joining on keyboards on some numbers, playing rhythm guitar on others ... J. D. Souther joining Orbison on "Claudette " ... the whole cast gathering for "Oh Pretty Woman."
At the end, the musicians and singers (also including Jennifer Warnes, Steven Soles and K. D. Lang) joined the audience in applauding Orbison. In a world of frequently synthetic "tributes," this evening at the Grove was a moment of genuine affection and warmth.
After the Tuesday night rehearsal, an enthusiastic Souther (who co-wrote some of the Eagles' hits and reached the Top 10 in 1979 with his own recording of "You're Only Lonely") said, "This is a payback for me ... a small way of saying thanks for giving me a big piece of my life ... helping me get through high school and into music. 'You're Only Lonely' was also a sort of hats off to him.
"But being part of this is also more than that. It's a thrill for all of us. I've been trying to sing and play and write like him since I was 12 or something.
"Before we got on stage, Bruce and I were looking at each other because we thought we knew all his songs. ... We've worshiped them for so long, but we found we didn't know them. There are so many unusual chord changes and stuff. We're looking at each other's hands, going, 'Oh, it's in G.'"
Though he has continued to tour regularly, Orbison — who began his record career in the '50s on the same Memphis label (Sun) that launched Elvis Presley — is still associated by most rock fans with the '60s. His profile was raised significantly when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year — at a ceremony highlighted by a moving speech by Springsteen.
He was subsequently signed by Virgin Records, the enterprising British-based label that has recently opened an aggressive U.S. wing. Orbison has already recorded some tunes for an album with producer Burnett and has cut a track with heavy-metal/rap producer Rick Rubin for the upcoming film Less Than Zero. Costello, Springsteen and U2's Bono Hewson have written or revised songs for him. The Cinemax special should add even further to the resurgence.
"This has got to be one of the greatest moments in my life," the soft-spoken Orbison said backstage at the Grove. "I'm so grateful. It has been an up for me ever since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It has been unbelievable. You know there was a time in the '70s when I wondered if people still cared about my music at all.
"It's funny. For years, it was hard for me to appreciate something until a few days later. There was always this distance. But that distance is not there. I'm enjoying this now. Everything finally feels in sync."