One my favorite bits of post-Christmas holiday TV viewing occurs tonight with CBS-TV’s presentation of the 36th Kennedy Center Honors. It’s an awards program, of sorts, that celebrates career achievement in nearly every avenue of the performing arts.
Since it’s done with recipients announced ahead of time and performed in the company of the President of the United States, the usual industry hoopla is absent. What we are left with is a card of five honorees with extended and well-conceived tributes. The later is split between a sort of career highlights reel and a live performance tribute.
The performance section tends to be a tricky matter, especially since the honoree has to be content to sit in the audience and watch what others make of their work. Sometimes the results are a frightful mess, like a Bruce Springsteen tribute two years ago that hammered home the fact that no one matches the fervency of the Boss’ work better than the Boss himself. But some have been nothing short of transcendent, like Bettye LaVette’s torch song reinvention of The Who’s Love Reign O’er Me that left Who mainstays Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey visibly slack jawed.
This year’s recipients are vanguard jazz/pop instrumentalist Herbie Hancock, stage and screen actress Shirley MacLaine, rock/pop pianist/composer Billy Joel, guitarist/bandleader Carlos Santana and opera legend Martina Arroyo.
Musically, the Hancock and Santana tributes hold the most promise. Steve Winwood and Buddy Guy have been announced as participants for the latter’s tribute (the show was actually taped in Washington on Dec. 8) while Joel’s salute will likely enlist high profile help that includes Garth Brooks, who earned one of his early hits with a cover of Joel’s Shameless.
But look for the presenters to be become the true surprises of the evening. Tony Bennett saluting Joel? Bill O’Reilly honoring Hancock? Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor praising Arroyo? That’s the scheduled lineup. Not even Hollywood could have conceived of a roster that wild.