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Lots of people collect things. But imagine having the resources to collect anything that interested you. Pop culture. American history. Musical instruments. Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, has those resources. He has amassed a stunning collection of pop culture memorabilia, American history artifacts, and musical instruments including an incredible array of rare and historically important guitars.

But here’s the difference with Jim Irsay and other collectors. Others might hide these rare pieces from public view. Locked away, only to gather dust with the pleasure coming from just the ownership of the items. Irsay chooses to take his on the road for everyone to see. A traveling museum, if you will. And it’s FREE. On January 11, 2024 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, thousands of attendees got to see letters from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair. Jackie Robinson’s bat. The list goes on. And on. And on.

The true highlights of the exhibit were the legendary instruments. Multiple guitars owned by the Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney. Ringo’s drum kit played on the Ed Sullivan Show. A piano played by The Beatles during Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Elton John’s piano. An acoustic guitar played by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd on "Wish You Were Here". Next to that guitar was a space for Gilmour’s legendary The Black Strat which was played on “Comfortably Numb.” But that guitar was missing. But many, many more were on display to see. Clapton, Hendrix, Prince, Van Halen, Dylan (acoustic and electric) were just some of the big names with axes presented.

The Jim Irsay Band is something of a collection of Jim’s as well. Just as he shows great taste in his choice of instruments and memorabilia, the band is a powerhouse all-star line-up and total pros. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, guitar and vocals, Mike Mills of R.E.M., bass and vocals, Kenny Aronoff, drums, Tom Bukovac, guitar, Mike Wanchic, guitar, Michael Ramos, keyboards, Danny Nucci, guitar, sax, vocals, and Billy Branch on harmonica. Rounding it out on background vocals; Alaina Renae, Staci McCrackin, Stephanie Allen-Stevenson, and Renée Michelle Merrifield. This is a collection (there’s that word again) of talent capable of performing almost any rock and roll classic.

Before the performance started, the was an introduction of former Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James. He waved to the crowd and if rock and roll fans don’t follow football, they should know this: He was as good as it gets and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

With that over, the band took the stage and the night’s de facto master of ceremonies, Kenny Wayne Shepherd announced that Jim Irsay was ill and wouldn’t be performing. (A note here. Jim Irsay usually sings and plays guitar with the band. To see and learn more about the band and Irsay, watch the November 2023 episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.) Shepherd strapped on his Stratocaster and kicked in to his own “Down for Love.”

Then it was time for the guest stars to come out. As good as the players in the band are, the real draw to these shows are the guest performers that are invited to play. The first: Legendary bluesman, Buddy Guy. His influence on generations of guitarists cannot be overstated, including as mentioned by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jimi Hendrix. Buddy did the title song from his 1991 comeback album, Damn Right, I've Got the Blues. After performing “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” and “She’s Nineteen Years Old,” Guy gave KWS a hug and exited the stage.

Shepherd then performed “Can’t Hold Out,” “Watch Yourself,” and “Blue on Black.”

On the other side of the stage, Mike Mills took the lead with energetic performances of “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” and “Superman.”

Then it was back to Shepherd. Remember David Gilmour’s missing The Black Strat from the Collection exhibit? It was now in Kenny’s hands as he explained that Jim Irsay believed that the great thing about appreciating musical instrument like this is that they are meant to be used and not just looked at. And played it was. A fine take of Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar” with Danny Nucci on vocals was followed by an incendiary version of “Comfortably Numb,” complete with a Pink Floyd-esque light show. Gilmour’s two solos on that song appear on most lists of the greatest guitar solos of all time and Shepherd did the music and Black Strat justice.

The Black Strat was then retired for the evening and out stepped another legend. Ann Wilson of Heart possesses one of the all-time great voices, male or female. She did a cover of The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” and Heart’s own “Barracuda.” This was the point where it really seemed like the band started having fun on stage. Shepherd and Bukovac joined Wilson in the middle of the stage, trading licks from the iconic song.

Next up was Kevin Cronin, lead singer of REO Speedwagon. Cronin sang and played acoustic guitar on “Take It On the Run” and “Keep On Loving You.” Once Cronin put the acoustic aside, he was free to roam the stage on rockin’ versions of “Ridin’ the Storm Out” and “Roll With the Changes.”

Just when it seemed like Cronin’s energy couldn’t be topped, out came singer Peter Wolf of The J. Geils Band fame. Wolf entered the stage dancing and never stopped moving through versions of “Hard Driving Man,” “Just Can’t Wait,” “Centerfold,” “Love Stinks,” and “Lookin’ for a Love.” Wolf was an on his knees-spinning-everywhere-presence, leading the audience in a sing-along of “Love Stinks.”

But wait, there’s more. To close out the show, along came the Sharp Dressed Man himself, Mr. Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top. The hirsute wonder was smiling through his beard as he played a three-song set that included “Sharp Dressed Man,” the Texas-boogie, “La Grange,” and a bluesy “Going Down.”

Throughout the evening, most of the performers made mention of Jim Irsay’s generosity, thanked him, and wished him good thoughts for a fast recovery. Irsay is a man who has battled his well-documented demons, but at the same time is known for a giving heart. That heart was there for everyone to see in the items showcased in his collection and in the performances on stage. It was a night of legendary musicians and one-of-a-kind artifacts presented absolutely free to the public.

Daniel Gray

Photojournalist - Los Angeles

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