CHICAGO — Jim Irsay puffed on an American Spirit cigarette onstage and belted out covers of Neil Young and the Rolling Stones — and it was actually much cooler than it sounds.
Irsay, the eccentric owner of the Indianapolis Colts, had assembled an all-star band, including blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, REM bassist Mike Mills and singer Ann Wilson to accompany his eclectic, traveling $100 million memorabilia collection — featuring a dazzling array of artifacts from American history, including the realms of music, sports and entertainment — at a stop for an evening on Navy Pier in downtown Chicago.
The band had more than a dozen members, including instrumentalists and background vocalists. As an added bonus, Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, astonishingly spry and vibrant at 86 years old, joined onstage as a surprise guest, playing for an enthusiastic crowd.
Irsay was on stage singing for the opening and conclusion of the show, but stepped aside for a long portion during the middle. The band closed with an impressive rendition of “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones.
The event was free for the public to attend, provided they signed up 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 paradoxically, the 63-year-old Irsay also gives off the impression of being one of the most “normal” people in the pro sports ownership ranks in the sense that he’ll mingle with the average fan, and wants to be liked. Former Colts players, including the uber-popular Pat McAfeespeak very highly of him.
Irsay also has been open about his struggles with addiction. In 2014, he was arrested for DWI and possession of prescription medications. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, entered rehab and was suspended for six games and fined $500,000 by the NFL.
Although Irsay talked during his performance about the “darkness” that grips people in the throes of anguish or addiction, Tuesday night in Chicago was a festive occasion in homage to excellence.
To call Irsay’s collection breathtaking would not do it justice.
Items on display ran the gamut from historical artifacts — such as letters from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth and the Atlantic Charter signed by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt — to pop culture items such as Hunter S. Thompson’s “Red Shark” 1973 Chevrolet Caprice convertible.
The collection had a heavy focus on music history, including instruments such as Ringo Starr’s drum set from the Beatles’ famous appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” John Coltrane’s saxophone and a piano from Elton John. This was the piano he toured with for 20 years; it 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 ones played by Prince, Jerry Garcia, George Harrison, Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Page.
There was also sports memorabilia, such as a bat used by Jackie Robinson and the belt won by Muhammad Ali in his famous bout with George Foreman in Zaire, which Irsay recently bought at auction for $6 million (even though, 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 really it’s about spirituality and human beings being as great as they can, and changing the world with love and strength,” Irsay told a collection 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. Upon follow-up, he said it was priceless, and that if a Saudi sheikh offered him $1 billion, the answer would be a flat no.
Irsay said he had initially approached cities including Nashville and Austin about doing a “public-private partnership” in which he would provide all of the exhibits at no cost while the cities committed to providing the space and upkeep.
Then, he explained, “visions” help him navigate through his life decisions, and it occurred to him that this should be a traveling museum. There was an event at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City earlier this year; a date is set for Indianapolis next month. There are plans for a European tour in the summer of 2024.
Larry Hall, the chairman of the Jim Irsay Collection, who is also the VP of Special Projects and Historical Affairs with the Colts, described part of the intricate process in transporting all of the valuable artifacts.
“We have a lot of high-end shippers that are in specific fields,” Hall said. “Specific piano movers that come recommended by Steinway. Art shippers that do nothing but that. I also hired a guy who worked at the Smithsonian Museum in Indianapolis. And then we have people on retainer like Jim Canary, who’s a paper conservator at Indiana University. He looks after scrolls and literature. We’ll consult Indianapolis Motor Speedway on who they use to move cars. And then we have access to other resources to help us with preservation, control and security factors. Believe me, it’s not a one-man show.”
While Irsay has collected items from across the spectrum of American history, there is a specific emphasis on the 20th century (“We went from horse 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 back on the century and pinpoint it as an outlier era of technological advancement.
Thus, one item which Irsay would covet should it become available is Neil Armstrong’s space suit. Buzz Aldrin’s space suit 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 who hit a six-iron on the moon — but really if it was Neil Armstrong’s suit, I probably would’ve been in on it,” Irsay told reporters. “I try to go at the very best of the best.”
Asked by The Post about the one item from the collection he would save in the event of a catastrophic fire, Irsay had a surprising answer: the manuscript to the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous, 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 that have looked at the 20th century said that … the 12 steps, which has been used in many ways to fight mental health issues, that’s really something that [without it] realistically, half the people in this place wouldn’t be here — and believe me, you’d see a ghost from me up here. I wouldn’t be here right now without that.”