Always a great time and even more importantly, supporting a great cause that looks out for the well-being of the musicians and artists we love, Above Ground 2019 was held on Monday night at The Fonda. This is the first year the show was hosted in Hollywood, with its debut in 2018 taking place at Downtown’s Belasco Theatre. For those that aren’t aware, Above Ground is a fundraiser hosted by Dave Navarro and guitarist Billy Morrison and includes a slew of rock ‘n roll special guests. Proceeds are donated to MusiCares, a non-profit organization that’s run through the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science – you know, the folks that put on the GRAMMYS. Throughout the night, the musicians provided anecdote after anecdote about times they’ve personally benefited from the organization or known someone that has used its services.
Last year’s Above Ground featured famous musicians covering albums by Adam Ant and the Velvet Underground. Following a fairly similar template, this year’s performances were jacket-to-jacket covers of The Stooges’ self-titled debut and David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It’s hard to imagine two albums more influential in rock ‘n roll history and who better to cover it than an all-star lineup of rockstars?
The band kicked things off with a rousing performance of “1969” with Billy Idol on vocals and Morrison’s co-guitarist in Idol’s band, Steve Stevens. Idol was an ideal Iggy Pop stand-in, blending the vocal attack of Pop with his own sneering style. While Idol is probably not quite spry enough anymore to pull off the stage antics of The Stooges enigmatic frontman, the next special guest was. Juliette Lewis thrashed along the stage, flailing her arms and bounding around just like Iggy Pop in the late ’60s. She performed two songs as the band altered The Stooges track list just a bit to place “No Fun” before “We Will Fall.” Lewis had a great time with two of the album’s most well-known songs, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “No Fun.” Velvet Undergroud guitarist Dave Kushner performed along with the band on “No Fun.”
Up until this point the mood had been upbeat and light. That immediately took a 180 as Navarro had the lights dimmed and told the audience things were about to get heavy because he had a personal message. After the lights were low and it was nearly impossible to see anyone on stage, Navarro sat on the floor and took a microphone to address the crowd. To the shock and dismay of the crowd, the legendary guitarist revealed that two years ago, before the founding of Above Ground, he had decided to take his own life. He said he had a note written, a stockpile of drugs and all of his finances lined up for his family. Of course, he did not go through with it, instead seeking out help. Audience members were audibly heard saying to themselves “no!” when he made this revelation. It was this experience that led Navarro to call up Morrison with the idea that he needed to do something, anything to help others.
This was the lead-in to the next song, “We Will Fall.” While it appears on side A of The Stooges, in order to make the most impact with Juliette Lewis’s appearance and the somber mood of this 7-minute song, it was the fourth song performed. The song was slightly altered, with Navarro asking the crowd to participate in a group chant over the dirge-like song. During the performance, scantily clad, tattooed women along with robed men partook in a bizarre ritual – it was difficult to tell what exactly what was going on up on the stage, but it was certainly weird. There was even one person on stage wearing a mask with a nose fashioned out of a dildo. Strange stuff. They mercifully cut the song down to around five minutes. It’s a bit of an odd duck on The Stooges and the performers did a great job making it something to remember from the night.
Next, Morrison invited the next guest up, a man who was a peer to The Stooges back in the proto-punk era of Detroit Rock City. None other than Wayne Kramer came out to help the band perform “Real Cool Time” – even though he was the least glamorous looking guy on stage, he certainly shredded and showed off his punk-rock credentials. Much like Iggy Pop, there’s plenty of showman left in Kramer and it was on full display during “Real Cool Time” at Above Ground. “Ann” was the next song, one of Morrison’s favorites from the album and he sang this one. Before the performance, he said people would ask him if they were going to play “Lust for Life”…”Wrong album” was all Morrison could retort. Donovan Leitch came out next to sing “Not Right.”
The final performance of the first half of the night was from industrial icon Al Jourgensen. He performed the final song on The Stooges with a sinister rendition of “Little Doll,” being joined by Billy Duffy and Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson. After the song, we got a bit of a mini-encore when the band launched into “Search and Destroy,” which while Navarro admitted it wasn’t on The Stooges, he said he just couldn’t resist playing that song with Jourgensen on stage. It was certainly the heaviest moment of the night, with Jourgensen’s growl belting out the unforgettable lyrics.
After The Stooges was complete, Dr. Drew Pinsky came out with Tom Arnold for a little more MC-ing as well as an auction in which famous street artists donated their work. The pieces sold for upwards of $2000, with the highest bid going for Morrison’s own piece of art.
While listening to these world-class musicians perform The Stooges, you couldn’t help but think “Damn, are there any albums as good as The Stooges?” That was quickly answered in the opening moments of “Five Years” – oh yeah, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The record is simply flawless and luckily this diverse cast of musicians was able to faithfully cover it and do it tremendous justice. “Five Years” was done with an awe-inspiring backdrop of colors and images and without any special guest vocalists. Franky Perez of Deadland Ritual was up next to sing “Soul Love.” Then, Billy Idol and Steve Stevens returned to the stage to perform one of the biggest singles from the album, the hard-rocking “Moonage Daydream.”
Next was Bush’s own Gavin Rossdale, who apparently had just returned home from tour earlier that day. He was still down to hop on a plane to LA and perform at the show, giving an impressive go at “Starman.”
Following that performance, a less-known but still very-talented singer from the band Stitched Up Heart, Mixi Demner performed on “It Ain’t Easy.” Already sort of an oddball on the album as a cover of a country artist, Demner’s performance was full-throated and bluesy, a little different from the punk rock and glam rock deliveries up until that point.
Then came one of the biggest treats of the night. First a backup vocalist Laura Mace was called up to center stage to sing the next song, “Lady Stardust.” Navarro described it as one of the most difficult songs to sing on the album and she was the person to do it. Even more thrilling, the next special guest was none other than pianist Mike Garson, who was literally a Spider From Mars when this album was released. The two performed “Lady Stardust” and “Star,” making for one of the highlights of the evening.
Closing out the album was a pair of songs featuring Navarro’s Jane’s Addiction bandmate and lead singer Perry Ferrell. Also on stage with the two bandmates was Ferrell’s wife Etty Lau. They did “Hang On To Yourself” and “Ziggy Stardust,” the latter easily being the most recognizable and oft-covered song on the album. Jack Black and a couple of drag queens performed “Suffragette City” to great effect, getting the crowd moving more than any song before it. The night concluded on a fitting note with “Rock ‘N Roll Suicide,” with images of musicians and actors that died from mental-health related causes like suicide and drug addiction.
All Photos by Brett Padelford