LOS ANGELES - Admirers from Elton John and Sting to Mumford & Sons and John Legend paid homage to Bruce Springsteen in the language they all understand: his songbook.
Springsteen, 63, was treated to an all-star revue of his musical resume at the annual MusiCares gala Friday night in the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Chosen as the 2013 Musicares Person of the Year for his artistry and philanthropy, Springsteen joked that he'd received the honor under false pretenses.
"Whatever philanthropy I've ever done usually involved playing the guitar," he said. "I was going to play the guitar anyway."
And he did. But not before a parade of A-listers took their turns tackling his material. And they had to wait until Springsteen was satisfied with the live auction results.
When producer David Foster, serving as auctioneer, didn't seem to be hustling up enough dough for a mint 1952 Telecaster, even after soliciting signatures from Sting, Tim McGraw, Katy Perry, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young, Springsteen strolled onstage to goad buyers.
He first added a free one-hour guitar lesson, then a ride in the side car of his Harley Davidson.
"So dig in, you one-percenters!" Springsteen said.
Next he sweetened the pot with the promise of eight tickets to any of his upcoming shows plus a backstage tour "conducted by me."
The final perk: "Lasagna made by my mother!"
A New Jersey woman forked over the final bid of $250,000.
The ecstatic audience, a record crowd of 3,000, seemed to share the sentiments of The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, who said he accepted the invitation to host the gala because Springsteen "is awesome and I love him."
His passion started early. Driving home after working in a dive bar in New Jersey, a young Stewart listened to Springsteen tunes and told himself, "I am not a loser. I am a character in an epic poem about losers."
Springsteen sat at a table with family members, including wife Patti Scialfa and his mother, Adele Springsteen, 87. Sean Penn, J.J. Abrams and Conan O'Brien attended, along with previous honorees Natalie Cole, Tony Bennett and Bonnie Raitt.
Springsteen is a deserving honoree "because he lives his life in such an exemplary way," Raitt said before the gala. "He's committed to his art. He's a good family man. He's a real inspiration for how to give back. I couldn't fault him in any aspect of his life."
The night's entertainment focused more on Springsteen the songwriter than the rockin' Boss, with artists leaning toward midtempo, reflective material. There were exceptions. Alabama Shakes kicked off the program with a mighty Adam Raised a Cain. Tom Morello and Jim James ripped off the roof with a rough-and-tumble Ghost of Tom Joad. Ken Casey of Dropkick Murphys turned American Land into a punk reel. And Neil Young and Crazy Horse threw some bruising blows into Born in the USA.
Natalie Maines and Ben Harper sang Atlantic City with Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. Zac Brown and Mavis Staples took My City of Ruins to church. Elton John submitted a dramatic reading of Streets of Philadelphia. Colombian rocker Juanes revised Hungry Heart with Spanish verses. Tim McGraw and wife Faith Hill entwined voices on Tougher Than the Rest. A backlit Mumford & Sons delivered an elegiac I'm on Fire.
Also on tap: Kenny Chesney's acoustic One Step Up, Jackson Brown and Morello collaborating on American Skin (41 Shots), John Legend's solo piano version of Dancing in the Dark and Sting's Lonesome Day.
Introducing Because the Night, Patti Smith explained how she and Springsteen collaborated on the song about her late husband, guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith.
""When I sing it, and I've sung it a million times, I always think about the composer as well as the muse," she said.
After the performances, an ebullient Springsteen said, "It's kind of a freaky experience. This is the huge Italian wedding Patti and I never had.
"I had one of the loveliest nights of my life ...John Legend made me sound like Gershwin. Neil Young made me sound like the Sex Pistols. What a night."
He talked about the power and magic of music, adding, "The Taliban will never win, not now or ever, by banning music and dancing. The minute you do that, you label yourself a tyrant and your cruel days are numbered."
He thanked MusiCares for its role in caring for musicians with financial and medical needs.
"We are bad with our money," he said, laughing. "We love too many and the wrong people. We are the wrong people."
Addressing the players, Springsteen said, "Thanks for taking care of my songs tonight. You made me feel like the person of the year. Now give me that damn guitar!"
With that, he charged into We Take Care of Our Own, followed by rowdy versions of Thunder Road and Born to Run, ending the set with an all-star finale of Glory Days. While it may have been Springsteen's shortest show ever, it had all the heart and fire of his familiar marathons.