President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and a host of celebrities, elected officials, dignitaries and major donors gathered last night for the 35th Kennedy Center Honors. The evening was a celebration of the artistic careers of this year’s five honorees: Buddy Guy, Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Natalia Makarova and Led Zeppelin. Through the generosity of the good people at CBS (the network television home of both Indiana’s finest gap-toothed son and, on December 26th, the event itself), Weeping Elvis attended this auspicious — and uncharacteristically rocking — event.
The crowd was treated to an all-star extravaganza of stars paying tribute to the influence and legacy of the musical honorees, Buddy Guy and Led Zeppelin, who were seated with the President and First Lady in the President’s box. Morgan Freeman, a 2008 honoree, inducted Buddy Guy into this rarefied echelon with a moving tribute that traced Guy’s journey from Louisiana sharecropper’s son to the embodiment of Chicago electric blues.
After a short biographical film summarizing Guy’s career, Gary Clark, Jr. and Jimmy Vaughn took the stage and wowed the crowd with their scorching rendition of his blues classic “The Things I Used To Do.” Tracy Chapman followed with a deeply soulful version of the Big Mama Thornton song, “Hound Dog,” immortalized by Thornton and Guy in a classic 1965 London performance. Then, Jeff Beck and vocalist Beth Hart knocked out an incendiary version of the Etta James / Chess Records classic, “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Bonnie Raitt further elevated the demeanor of the notoriously staid Kennedy Center crowd, getting everyone up on their feet dancing to a rollicking juke joint performance of “Sweet Home Chicago,” the Robert Johnson song Guy made his own and which epitomized his “gutbucket” electric blues style.
Next up was the induction of David Letterman, fêted by Tina Fey, Jimmy Kimmel, Alec Baldwin, and Ray Romano.
The house lights then dimmed, and NPR’s Carl Kassell announced over the house PA, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Jack Black.” The comedian launched into a passionate case for the worthiness of Led Zeppelin as not only Kennedy Center Honorees, but as “the greatest rock band … EVER!!!” It was the dissertation on Zeppelin’s preeminence made countless times by metalheads’ in high school smoking/parking lots, and it set the tone for the explosive musical performances that followed.
Following a biographic review of the Brit band’s rise to stardom, the screen lifted to reveal an elaborate set that suggested a medieval castle and moat. Reminiscent of their famous Wembley Stadium performance featuring Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, (with Dave Grohl pounding out time on the skins and drummer Taylor Hawkins wailing on lead vocals), the Foo Fighters took the stage and threw down with the Zep classic, “Rock and Roll.” Strangely, they were followed by Kid Rock who offered up barely serviceable renditions of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Ramble On.” (One wondered what the three surviving members must have been thinking during that performance, and what the Foos thought of opening for Bob Ritchie). One staging note–whoever at the Kennedy Center thought that pointing half a dozen massive strobe lights directly into the audience and timing them to the beat should be forever banned from ever going near another live event. While I’m all for taking an audience out of their comfort zone, sending them (not to mention the Secret Service) into epileptic fits is a bit much.
Lenny Kravitz then appeared and electrified the crowd with a bone-crushing rendition of “Whole Lotta Love.” For the grand finale, Jason Bonham, son of original Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, was joined onstage by Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson for a soaring, angelic version of “Stairway to Heaven,” aided by not one, but two (!), choirs. It was a night for the ages, one made all the more special because it occurred five years to the week that Zeppelin played their solitary reunion concert at London’s O2 Arena. (This Weeping Elvis correspondent had the good fortune to attend that show).
As the evening transitioned into an elegant dinner, (in The Great Hall of The Kennedy Center, under the oversize bust of President John F. Kennedy), your correspondent found himself climbing a stairway as John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page descended from up on high. Making eye contact and continuing apace, I nodded and offered up my congratulations as The Golden God acknowledged the moment with a corresponding nod back and smile. A “Stairway to Heaven,” indeed.