A veritable army of rock stars descended on the Fonda theater in Hollywood, September 16th, for the second annual Above Ground benefit concert. In what may well be the best live rock performance of the year, Dave Navarro and Billy Morrison gathered their friends for a night of heartfelt jamming.  The event was organized by the pair of rock guitar gods to raise awareness and funds for the treatment of mental health, with the proceeds being donated to MusiCares.  As Navarro and Morrison would elaborate on, while bantering with the crowd, they have lost many of their friends to suicide or addiction-related deaths. Navarro in particular shared his own battles with depression that led him to the brink of suicide. For fans of the mercurial guitarist his return from that brink is a cause for celebration. In that spirit, the pair led a rotating line up in a genuinely celebratory night of music. The musical evening was divided into two sets, the first dedicated to covering the Stooges’ self-titled debut album which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Morrison’s bandmates Billy Idol and Steve Stevens joined the line up for a rock drenched version of the first song from The Stooges album, “1969.” That rendition alone would have been worth the price of admission. Juliette Lewis followed  singing a pair of  Stooges covers, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “No Fun.”Lewis often lends her vocal skills to benefit concerts in Los Angeles and did a commendable job channeling the energy of Iggy Pop adopting his erratic dance style. The singer would flail about the stage bouncing off the band members like a ping pong ball.

Navarro then brought the tempo to a crawl with a moody speech reminding everyone what the purpose of the event was all about. Then as he laid prostrate on a smoke covered stage, Navarro invited audience members to participate in a chant he learned from a 17-year-old boy who he “talked off the ledge.” Then an eerie ceremony took place with scantily clad dancing girls having metal hooks inserted into their skin by mysterious figures in black robes. At last year’s Above Ground concert, female performance artists swung on giant slings suspended by hooks in their skin. Then towards the end of the show, Navarro himself was suspended by hooks in his skin while playing guitar. Whether this years hook inserting ceremony was just symbolic or whether there was some technical difficulty in suspending the participants wasn’t clear.

The evening turned back to high energy rock when the band welcomed veteran guitarist Wayne Kramer of MC5 to sing and play guitar on the Stooges “Real Cool Time.” Billy Morrison took over lead vocal duties next on “Ann,” joined by Dave Kushner of Velvet Revolver on guitar. Kushner played a wailing guitar solo before ending the song by dropping his guitar on the stage leaving it to feedback like an old Pete Townsend antic. Donovan Leitch joined the band next to sing “Not Right.” The former leader of Camp Freddie is the son of English folk-rocker Donovan (Yes that Donovan). He did the best job of channeling Iggy Pop’s dance moves. Al Jourgensen, the lead singer of Ministry, provided a truly riveting performance of the last song from the Stooges album “Little Doll.” The charismatic singer appeared high as a kite, hanging on to his microphone stand for dear life. But he had no problem belting out the vocals in his trademark growl. Jourgensen stuck around to sing the final song of the first set, the Stooges classic “Search and Destroy,” which wasn’t on the first album. The tune was the most intense heavy rock jam of the night, with the addition of Billy Duffy guitarist of The Cult and heavy metal bassist Twiggy Ramirez. The pair brought a whole new hardcore sound to the jam.

Wayne Kramer

An extended intermission followed featuring a guitar and rock-related art auction. The auction was curated by Dr. Drew and the event’s host, comedian Tom Arnold. The funds raised went to MusicCares, a charity of the Recording Academy that was established to safeguard the health and well-being of all music people.

The second set of the night featured a rendition of David Bowie’s classic album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.” Morrison took over vocal duties on the first tune, “Five Years.” That was followed by a cover of “Soul Love” sung by Franky Perez, the vocalist for Deadland Ritual. He was joined by Mat Schumer performing a moving saxophone solo. Schumer stuck around for the next tune “Moonage Daydream,”  but vocals were taken over by Billy Idol for his second appearance of the night. Steve Stevens also returned for the jam.

Navarro next announced that his good friend Gavin Rossdale of Bush flew in to join the festivities. Rossdale took over vocals for a cover of “Starman.”  Mixi Demmer of the band Stitched Up Heart, looking a bit like Lady Gaga in a sparkly dress offered up vocals on “It Ain’t Easy.” Singer Laura Mace sang lead vocals next on a soulful version of  “Lady Stardust.” Female guitar god Orianthi came out and sang “Star” joined by Billy Duffy playing a maniacal guitar lead. Navarro then invited  his fellow band members from Jane’s Addiction, including Perry Farrell, Etty Lau Farrell and Chris Chaney along with drummer Brad Wilk to perform both “Hang on to Yourself” and “Ziggy Stardust.” The charismatic Farrell has a magical way of engaging the audience when he performs, and he was at the top of his game for the pair of Bowie classics.

Few performers could upstage Farrell but the next performer to take over lead vocals gave his best irreverent try.  Jack Black appeared on stage to sing lead vocals on “Suffragette City.” Clad in a colorful tie-dye beach outfit, complete with a water bottle and a mini backpack, he brought his usual humorous take on heavy metal to the concert. As he slammed down his water bottle and began to shake his booty, he was joined onstage by towering drag queens, launching into an over the top strike a pose dance routine. It was pure entertainment befitting an irreverent rock star. Guitar wizard Steve Vai joined the fray bringing his jazz-rock skills into the intense jam. The night ended with the final song off the album, “Rock n Roll Suicide,” with Franky Perez returning to take over lead vocals and Steve Vai sticking around for an even more intense guitar solo. While the poignant song underlined the theme of the night, a multimedia show flashed on a giant movie screen behind the performers, showing images of the many artists lost to suicide or addiction. It was a bittersweet finale reminding us all of the frailty and importance of life. Well done boys and girls. Will there be an Above Ground 3?

Juliette Lewis

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