“This is a lot of Alpha energy to wrangle,” Guster’s Ryan Miller said in testament to Alex Levy and the Cabin Down Below Band’s work last night. “This is a hard thing to organize.” And that’s probably true of most every tribute concert of this nature, as it has probably been true of the decade of Petty Fest’s preceding last night’s. But for this debut Los Angeles installment, the nature of those Alphas was distinct, peculiar, and fitting the environment. The NYC jam last month had Devendra Banhart. Last night had Johnny Depp in a feathered hat for six songs. Also it’s cool how you learn certain things about smoking in California venues when Johnny Depp comes to your show, like how it’s totally prohibited, unless you are onstage, and wearing a feathered hat, and called Johnny Depp. Aspirational loophole for you cloves smokers out there.
Most every installment of the Best Fest series — which include similar productions honoring Dylan and the Stones — are a motley melange of actors, comedians, and rock stars, congregated to worship the work of the evening’s predesignated demigod. Last night’s idol, Tom Petty, is custom-built for this sorta thing. Over a long and storied career, Petty’s work is a testament to the enduring resonance of the open-voiced guitar chord, and proof you can find unprecedentedly memorable melodies within them if only you were inspired enough. These are songs built to belt out loud. They are tunes built for a feel good night (a fact enhanced by the fest’s pledge that all the night’s proceeds would benefit the musicians’ charity Sweet Relief and Hurricane Sandy victims, and the cups of whiskey flowing from the night’s primary and visible sponsor, Jameson.) And this wasn’t a night for reinvention, but rather revisitation. It’s live karaoke where the fun is in the stunt casting, the songbook, and the bizarre onstage combinations of humans giving it voice.
You had Sarah Silverman sing “Don’t Come Around Here,” and Hangover man Justin Bartha do “Into The Great Wide Open,” and the aforementioned Depp, who is unforgettably tied to the Petty legacy via his appearance in the “Into The Great Wide Open” video. Walk Of Fame aside, the actual musician list ran fairly deep — Albert, Fab, Nick from the Strokes, Pat from the Black Keys, Jared from the Kings Of Leon, Petty Fest fixture Nicole Atkins, golden voiced Har Mar Superstar, Rodrigo from Little Joy, Petter from Alberta Cross, Paul Simon’s son, Jenny O, Matt Sorum, Butch Walker, Ryan from Guster, Landon Pigg, some Eagles Of Death Metal, and Ke$ha who, when she arrived, saw the room collectively gasp and take four steps forward (though that definitely had more to do with the simultaneous and honestly magnetic arrival of Captain Jack Sparrow).
The show’s album of choice was Wildflowers — covered nearly completely, and giving the “Cabin Down Below” band (Alex Levy, Matt Romano, and Rolling Stone scribe Austin Scaggs) its name — but its grand finale came from a trio of stone cold classics from other years: the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” and Petty’s own “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’.” The whole artist list crashed the stage for those, and while the affair had an overarching, starry LA sheen, it drew strength and purpose from its NYC roots. Most of the roster spoke to “flying out of a hurricane to be with you tonight.” East coaster Nicole Atkins spearheaded a Tom Petty-signed guitar auction specifically to benefit her New Jersey hometown, which was essentially washed away by Sandy. (A fact bringing new meaning, and a charitable reprise, to her single “Neptune City.”) It was a night of corporate branding and the like, but one harnessing a fair degree of collective fabulousness in service of a greater good. The singer of “American Girl” managed to raise thousands of dollars for hard-up Americans, in absentia and just by virtue of his art, which is true Life Champion type shit. Good job everyone. Photos by the ever talented Andrew Youssef.