CHICAGO — Jim Irsay pulled on an American Spirit cigarette on stage and pulled out Neil Young and Rolling Stones covers — and it was actually a lot cooler than it looks.
Irsay, the eccentric Indianapolis Colts owner, had assembled a star-studded band, including blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, REM bassist Mike Mills and singer Ann Wilson to accompany his eclectic collection of $100 million traveling memorabilia. dollars—with a dazzling array of artifacts from American history, including music, sports, and entertainment—during an evening stop on Navy Pier in downtown Chicago.
The band had over a dozen members, including instrumentalists and background vocalists. As a bonus, Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, surprisingly lively and dynamic at 86, joined the stage as a surprise guest, performing to a cheering crowd.
Irsay was on stage singing for the show’s opening and ending, but stepped aside for a long part in the middle. The band closed with an impressive rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
The event was free to the public, provided they register before RSVPs reached capacity.
Irsay is an NFL owner of considerable wealth. He inherited the franchise from his father, a man who to this day is still reviled by a contingent of Baltimore diehards for moving the Colts out of town. Somewhat ironically, the 63-year-old Irsay also comes across as one of the most “normal” people in the ranks of professional sports owners in the sense that he’ll mingle with the average fan and want to be liked. Former Colts Players, including the very popular Pat McAfeespeaks very well of him.
Irsay has also been open about his struggles with addiction. In 2014, he was arrested for DWI and possession of prescription drugs. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, entered rehab, and was suspended for six games and fined $500,000 by the NFL.
Although Irsay spoke during his performance of the “darkness” that grips people in the throes of angst or addiction, Tuesday night in Chicago was a celebratory occasion in honor of excellence.
To say Irsay’s collection is breathtaking would not do it justice.
Items on display covered a range of historical artifacts – such as letters from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth’s wanted poster, and the Atlantic Charter signed by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt – to pop culture artifacts such as Hunter S. Thompson’s 1973 “Red Shark” Chevrolet Caprice convertible.
The collection had a strong focus on music history, including instruments such as Ringo Starr’s drums from the Beatles’ famous appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’, John Coltrane’s saxophone and a piano by Elton John. . This is the piano with which he toured for 20 years; he was also played by Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury. It was on stage at Madison Square Garden during John Lennon’s last live performance, a duet with John.
A whole story could be written about Irsay’s guitar collection, which includes Kurt Cobain’s guitar from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video and those played by Prince, Jerry Garcia, George Harrison, Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Page.
There were also sports memorabilia, like a bat used by Jackie Robinson and the belt Muhammad Ali won in his famous fight with George Foreman in Zaire, which Irsay recently bought at auction for $6 million (although, as Irsay revealed to the media, the belt was not adorned with real gold).
“What the show and the collection are about – it’s an eclectic collection, but it’s really about spirituality and being as big as human beings, and changing the world with love and strength,” said Irsay told a group of reporters in Chicago.
At one point in an interview with The Post last week, Irsay referred to the collection’s value as being $100 million. When following up, he said it was priceless and if a Saudi sheikh offered him $1 billion, the answer would be a resounding no.
Irsay said he initially approached cities such as Nashville and Austin to create a “public-private partnership” in which he would provide all exhibits at no cost while the cities pledged to provide space and maintenance. .
Then, he explained, the “visions” help him navigate his life decisions, and it occurred to him that it should be a traveling museum. There was an event at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York earlier this year; a date is set for Indianapolis next month. A European tour is planned for the summer of 2024.
Larry Hall, president of the Jim Irsay collection, who is also vice president of special projects and historical affairs at the Colts, described part of the complex process of transporting all the valuable artifacts.
“We have a lot of high-end shippers who work in specific areas,” Hall said. “Specific piano movers recommended by Steinway. Art senders who do just that. I also hired a guy who worked at the Smithsonian Museum in Indianapolis. And then we have people on warrant like Jim Canary, who is a paper curator at Indiana University. He deals with parchments and literature. We’ll check out Indianapolis Motor Speedway to find out who they use to move the cars. And then we have access to other resources to help us with the preservation, control and security factors. Believe me, this is not a one-man show.
Although Irsay has collected material from across the spectrum of American history, the focus is on the 20th century (“We went from horses and buggies on the road to a man on the moon in 65 years” , Irsay pointed out to The Post). He predicted that future historians will look to the century and point to it as an aberrant era of technological advancement.
So, one item Irsay would covet if it were available is Neil Armstrong’s space suit. Buzz Aldrin’s spacesuit recently sold at auction for nearly $3 million, but Irsay is holding out for Armstrong’s.
“Nothing against Buzz Aldrin – he’s the only one to hit a six iron on the moon – but really if it was Neil Armstrong’s costume I probably would have been in on it,” Irsay told reporters. “I try to go for the best of the best.”
Asked by The Post about the one item in the collection he would save in the event of a catastrophic fire, Irsay had a startling answer: the manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous’s big book, written by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob in the 1930s. , which would evolve into the 12-step program.
“It changed and saved hundreds of millions of lives,” Irsay said. “Historians and philosophers who have looked back to the 20th century have said that…the 12 steps, which have been used in so many ways to deal with mental health issues, it’s really something that [without it] realistically half the people in this place wouldn’t be there – and trust me you would see a ghost of me here. I wouldn’t be here right now without it.