the kennedy center honors go blue

The 2012 Kennedy Center Inductees. Back row: John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and David Letterman. Front row: Buddy Guy, Natalia Makarova and Dustin Hoffman.

The Kennedy Center Honors are being telecast tonight. It’s traditionally one of the finer arts entertainment specials to be found on network TV after Christmas. In truth, it’s one of the more enjoyable programs of its type to found on the air all year.

This year’s lineup is an intriguing and deserving – the seminal actor Dustin Hoffman, champion talk show host and wisecracker David Letterman and the landmark Soviet-born ballerina Natalia Makarova.

The music honorees, however, are both monsters, each keenly indebted to the other.

The surviving members of Led Zeppelin – Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – represent a sound that had to have scared the living daylights out of every parent of an eager, curious teenager in 1968. To call the music primal is being coy. To call it sensuous is being timid. Led Zeppelin was the embodiment of all that was seemingly fearsome in rock ‘n’ roll with a thick, bludgeoning psychedelic sound that was new to most ears. But at heart it was the blues. The bawdiness, the rumbling grooves, the sheer desperation – it was all blues. Led Zeppelin simply defined it in terms a new generation of listeners could appreciate. That is what all great pop artists have done. And in almost all cases, the blues and/or R&B have served as source material.

The other musical entry is Buddy Guy. Now we’re really talking the blues. Guy is perhaps the greatest living embodiment of the blues tradition outside of B.B. King – and in many ways, Guy is still the victor. King was always the revue-style bluesmen. And he excels to this day in the role. Guy was far and away the wilder artist. He forged a brilliant roadhouse soul-blues sound with Junior Wells but then matched all the great Chicago inspiration that fueled his music with the growing rockish intensity of the younger blues and rock bucks around him. And if his guitarwork didn’t grab you, the riotous gospel intensity of his singing surely did. You better believe the Zeppelin gang spent more than a few hours listening to Guy. But you also can count on the fact that Guy was tapping into all of the youthful contemporaries and protégées that surrounded him.

Sure, it will be very cool to see Dustin and Dave get awarded. But the real treat at tonight’s Kennedy Center Honors will be watching the blues get their due.

The Kennedy Center Honors will air at 9 tonight on CBS-TV. The network will also offer a rerun at 11:35 p.m. of The Late Show with David Letterman featuring the host’s interview with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

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