As always is the case at the annual Kennedy Center Honors, music translates best. Of course, beginning last night’s telecast by paying tribute to Soul Man No. 1 Al Green meant triggering a celebration was all but inevitable.
As with all Honors ceremonies, the performances are tributes with the honorees separated from the action and forced to bask in the glow of admiration from box seats next to President Obama.
Initial performances to Green by Earth, Wind & Fire (Love and Happiness), Jennifer Hudson (Simply Beautiful) and Usher (Let’s Stay Together) were, respectively, groove-centric, dramatically stoic and purely serviceable. But having elders Mavis Staples and Sam (Sam & Dave) Moore turn Take Me to the River into a full gospel-esque tent revival complete with choir was a joy.
The surprise, though, was the evening’s only other exclusively musical segment, a show-closing tribute to Sting. A proven pop songsmith, Sting has taken on an air of celebrity in recent years that has made him increasingly unappealing. Even in an otherwise gushing introductory speech by Meryl Streep, the singer was noted, despite all his commercial success for his “scowling.”
Yet the music, once you got past Lady Gaga’s overblown, self-involved take on If I Ever Lose My Faith in You, was wonderful. Bassist/singer Esperanza Spaulding, accompanied by Herbie Hancock on piano, quickly found the lovely but brittle of delicacy of Fragile while Bruno Mars, the only performer in the segment to dig into the honoree’s early music with The Police, sounded eerily like the young, rock/reggae-fied Sting of the late ‘70s.
But the killer was the Boss. In the evening’s runaway highlight, Bruce Springsteen pulled out a Sting obscurity, a ballad of murder and remorse called I Hung My Head. The chiseled drama Springsteen delivered made the song sound as though the Boss had penned it during his Nebraska days.
In between were segments devoted to three mostly non-musical honorees – a wildly convoluted tribute to Tom Hanks, a celebration of Lily Tomlin that was far simpler (ending with Jane Lynch, Reba McEntire, Jane Fonda and Kate McKinnon all blowing raspberries to the artist) and a lovely dance tribute to ballerina Patricia McBride.
Host Stephen Colbert had little to do except oversee brief opening and closing segments. He also snuck onstage beside David Letterman (the man he will replace as host of The Late Show in 2015) as the latter was set to pay tribute to Hanks. Colbert was dismissed playfully with two words by Letterman. “Not yet.”