A little over a year ago I read an article on the Jim Irsay Collection. Being a huge football fan I knew Jim Irsay as the owner of the Indianapolis Colts and knew that he was a collector of vintage instruments, but I had no idea what the Collection truly entailed. I reached out to the Collection and arranged an interview with guitar curator Marc Johnson (you can listen to that here) and learned more about this amazing Collection and accompanying concert. This incredible event is now making its 10th tour stop in Boston, MA and I had to see it for myself.
Before I go any further, I have to point out that everything, the Collection and the incredible concert that follows, is 100% free. Yes, free, it doesn’t cost anything for this unique experience. The evening began with a tour of the Collection, which is divided into 3 parts, music, pop culture, and history. The media tour was guided by Larry Hall, Chairman of the Jim Irsay Collection. Larry was incredibly knowledgeable about every artifact and explained the historical significance of everything.
The music section was stunning. Ringo’s bass drumhead from the Ed Sullivan Show, Dylan’s electric guitar from the Newport Folk Festival, pianos used by John Lennon and Elton John, as well as guitars from Prince, David Gilmour, and many others. It’s not just instruments, you can see the document that dissolved the Beatles, Jim Morrison’s notebook, and countless handwritten lyrics.
The pop culture side includes movie memorabilia, sports archives, and rare literary works. According to Irsay, one of the most important pieces in the entire collection is the original copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. Perhaps the most impressive part is the historical section. Handwritten letters from Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, a copy of the Declaration of Independence commissioned by John Adams, the Declaration of the First Thanksgiving, and more. These are the documents that shaped our country, being able to see George Washington’s handwriting is absolutely incredible.
Following the tour was a press conference with Jim Irsay himself. Not only was the entire concert band on hand for the conference, but a litany of legendary Colts and Patriots football players. Players included Joe Andruzzi, Vince Wolfork, and Brandon Meriweather from the Patriots and Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, and Tarik Glenn of the Colts. Tying the two rivals together was Adam Vinatieri who starred for both teams.
Next up was the concert. Just like the Collection, the concert was totally free. The show is led by an all-star band assembled by Irsay. The band featured guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, legendary drummer Kenny Aronoff, Billy Branch on harmonica, Tom Bukovac on guitar, Danny Nucci on guitar and sax, Michael Ramos on keys, Carmella Ramsey on guitar, mandolin, and vocals, and Michael Wanchic on guitar. The band was joined throughout the night by Irsay on vocals and featured special guest sets by Vince Gill, Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, and J Geils frontman Peter Wolf.
The 3- hour concert itself was one of the great musical events of the year. It had the look and feel of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony (having attended every induction since 2012, I can honestly say this was even better than some of them). Irsay more than held his own when singing classics by Warren Zevon (“Lawyers, Guns, & Money”), Bob Dylan (“Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”), and Johnny Cash (“Hurt”)
The first part of the show featured mini-sets by two of the legendary band members. Mike Mills took the mic for R.E.M. classics “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” and “Superman”. It was a treat to see the Hall of Fame bassist back on stage and seeming to enjoy every minute of it. Next Shepherd took the spotlight with “Blue on Black”, “Talk To Me Baby”, and “Down For Love”.
There was a brief intermission when Irsay came out and introduced all the NFL greats in attendance. Each of them threw autographed hats out to the audience. The second part of the show saw special guest, and Country Music Hall of Fame member Vince Gill join the band. The band ran through a set of four of Gill’s biggest hits, including a blistering “Liza Jane”.
Special guest number 2 was REO Speedwagon frontman Kevin Cronin. While energy was already high, Cronin and company took it to a new level. The five songs had the crowd on their feet and singing along. Switching from his traditional Strat to a sunburst Les Paul, Kenny Wayne Shepherd looked just as comfortable tearing through classic rock cuts as blues jams.
Described by Cronin as “a local boy made good”, J Geils frontman, and Boston legend, Peter Wolf hit the stage like a whirlwind. Accompanied by Duke Levine, guitarist in his solo band, Wolf led the all-star band through six Geils’ classics that made it impossible not to get up and dance. At 77 years old, Wolf had the energy of someone a fraction of his age as he pulled out all the stops.
As the packed Garden caught its collective breath, Irsay returned to the stage for the final run of the night. Actor and musician Danny Nucci took the mic for Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar” before the highlight of the night. Irsay led the band into “Comfortably Numb” which featured Kenny Wayne Shepherd playing the actual black Strat that David Gilmour used on the original recording for a solo that literally blew the roof off the Garden. After 3 packed hours of music, it all came to a finale with the Stone’s classic “Gimme Shelter”.
I can’t emphasize enough what a fantastic experience this was. Everyone involved in the Collection seems to love what they do, and most importantly, loves making sure every person that walks through the Collection or sees the concerts has the time of their life. The generosity of Jim Irsay is unparalleled. His charity Kicking The Stigma is talked about throughout the event and is the beneficiary of any and all donations made throughout the evening.