A star-powered, sold-out concert in honor of Les Paul, the original guitar hero, turned out to be a lot more exciting than any video game. Slash of Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver, Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and other musical luminaries were on hand Saturday night at Playhouse Square's State Theatre for a salute to Paul. The guest of honor forever changed the sound of popular music when he invented a solid-body electric guitar. It came into vogue in the 1950s, along with a guitar-driven style of music called rock 'n' roll.
Paul, 93, was also there for the show. It put an exclamation point on the 13th annual American Music Masters series, a weeklong Paul tribute presented by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Case Western Reserve University and Gibson Guitar Corp.
Naturally, this night belonged to the guitar players. Two standouts, Gibbons and Barbara Lynn, teamed up for a bluesy duet to kick off the celebration.
Another early highlight was Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's fleet-fingered rendition of "Take the 'A' Train," a nod to Paul's jazz roots.
In a similar vein, Cleveland's Eric Carmen and Steve Lukather of Toto joined forces on "It's Been a Long, Long Time." Carmen made a fine crooner and Lukather's guitar solo was eloquent and intense. Afterwards, Carmen mopped Lukather's brow with a handkerchief.
"How High the Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios" were belted out with verve by Katy Moffatt and Alannah Myles, respectively, with guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group furnishing tasteful accompaniment on both numbers. Those oldies were No. 1 singles in the '50s for Paul and his then-wife, singer Mary Ford. She died in 1977.
Of course, in the right hands, the guitar itself can sing, as Jennifer Batten (a veteran of Michael Jackson's and Jeff Beck's bands) demonstrated with a dazzling re-creation of Paul's hit "Lover." Six-string specialists James Burton, Duane Eddy, Lonnie Mack and Dennis Coffey also wowed the crowd with a series of flashy instrumentals. Ditto the Ventures, who turned in a fun version of their smash "Walk—Don't Run."
Gibbons returned to the stage for a gritty take on ZZ Top's "Just Got Paid," prefaced with a humorous anecdote about spending the afternoon with Paul, in search of Mexican food.
"Let's thank God for this—and thank God for Les Paul," said Sambora, who serenaded us with Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" and dedicated his ballad "Great Hall of Fame" to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers in the house. Besides Paul (who also pioneered multi-track recording), their ranks included Burton, Eddy, Gibbons, Kaye and the Ventures.
Slash put on a one-man guitar clinic, coaxing ecstatic squeals and passionate wails during the moody jam "Vocalise."
The five-piece house band was led by Bobby Wood, a pianist whose ivory-tickling has graced numerous hits, including Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds."
Paul, who still has a weekly gig at the Iridium club in New York City, capped the 3 1/2-hour extravaganza with a set of his own. He was greeted with a standing ovation from 3,000-plus concertgoers.
Perched on a riser, Paul expertly summoned clipped melody lines and bluesy licks from his guitar as he and his backing trio delivered a handful of jazz standards, including a transcendental "Over the Rainbow."
For the grand finale, the entire cast joined Paul for a blues free-for-all in the key of E. It was momentous. And cacophonous. And ultimately triumphant.
"This is a wonderful night for me," a visibly moved Paul said. "Thank you so much!"