With due respect to the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, this night, this year, was as much about the Obamas as it was the Eagles, James Taylor, Mavis Staples, Al Pacino and pianist Martha Argerich.
Which speaks volumes about the love in the room Sunday night (Dec. 4) for the outgoing President and First Lady. The 39th annual tribute was one of the best-ever incarnations of the event, over which the Obamas have presided from the balcony for eight consecutive years. Spot-on tribute pairings, breezy pacing and vibrant set designs combined in a show that played beautifully at DC’s celebrated performing arts center and is more ready than ever for prime-time.
The Honors will air Dec. 27 on CBS, and through a new extended broadcast agreement with the network will remain on the their network home through 2025.
“The White House has given us a leader who is passionate, intelligent and dignified,” host Stephen Colbert said in his opening monolog, which drew an elongated standing ovation and a wave from the President before Colbert joked, “Sir, I don’t know why you stood up, I was talking about Michelle.”
Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein later presented the First Couple with a golden ticket to attend any Kennedy Center event in perpetuity, “though parking’s extra,” he quipped. Though the jokes were plentiful, nostalgia and reverence danced around a night that saw extended standing ovations directed toward the balcony, and admiration both onstage and on the red carpet.
Nostalgia also encircled the tribute to the Eagles, who’ve sold more than 120 million albums worldwide, including Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) ruling as the top-selling album in the U.S. of the 20th century. Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit were called for recognition last year but postponed in hopes that Frey, who by then was in a fierce battle with colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and pneumonia, would recover. Frey passed away in January; his wife Cindy and children were on hand to receive his rainbow lanyard last night.
“We miss him terribly and it’s only fitting that we went ahead and did this,” Timothy B Schmit told Billboard. Calling the Honors “a Cinderella night,” Schmit added, “To culminate the year by being here and being honored, meeting the Obamas… The whole thing is a great ride – from the moment I joined the band until its end. It was kinda a roller coaster ride but overall a joyful one, and I’m one of the luckiest people I know.”
Frey’s longtime friend Bob Seger showed up to pay homage to the band and 47-year friendship with Frey, noting his upcoming album – which he’s wrapping this week – features a song he wrote for Frey that carries the line, “When I think about you I always smile.”
Asked whether he would return to the Kennedy Center Honors under the Trump administration, Seger carefully demurred with an, “Oooooh… I’ll say no comment to that.” For this year’s performance, he said, the plan was to “just going to give it my all and leave it all out in the stage for my friend Glenn.”
That he did, infusing “Heartache Tonight” – which he co-wrote with Frey, Don Henley and JD Souther – with a hearty helping of Seger soul that brought the audience to its feet. Also feting the Eagles were Kings of Leon, who adeptly channeled the band’s harmonies on “Take It Easy”; Vince Gill, who laid down pristine vocals on “Peaceful Easy Feeling”; and Latin rocker Juanes, who did “Hotel California” proud, accompanied by guitar virtuoso Steve Vai.
Former President Bill Clinton kicked off the evening’s tributes with a soaring segment that honored Taylor’s music and artistic fortitude. Then Darius Rucker took the stage to ascend with a compilation of “Sweet Baby James” and “Carolina on My Mind,” Sheryl Crow delivered a pristine ”Fire and Rain,” and “Garth Brooks brought the love on “Shower the People” before he was joined by the ensemble to kick it up for “How Sweet it Is.”
Staples, the last living member of the Staples Singers, at 77 is still a singing and touring dynamo who hit the road this past summer with longtime friend Bob Dylan. She told Billboard the Kennedy Center accolade is “the best honor. Zero. No hire. And this is the history-making year because this is the last time it’ll happen with this President so I’m really honored. I made it, baby.”
“I grew up loving the Staples Singers,” Elle King, who commanded attention with a powerful rendition of “Respect Yourself, told Billboard before the show. “She’s just the brightest light and warmest person ever, and I hope she feels all the love everyone feels for her.”
Also feting Staples were Bonnie Raitt and Andra Day, who were tone-perfect delivering “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Freedom’s Highway,” one of many Civil Rights-themed songs the group honed after patriarch Pops Staples developed a deep friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King.
Pacino received heartfelt orations from Sean Penn, Bobby Cannavale and Scent of a Woman co-star Chris O’ Donnell, but it was Kevin Spacey’s three-step tutorial on how to nail the national pastime of imitating Pacino that stole this portion of the show.
Placido Domingo, Itzhak Perlman and Jeff Goldblum were among those honoring Argerich. Domingo, who has served as director of the Kennedy Center opera house and honored in 2000, said, “I’m thrilled. I’ve not worked with her, I’ve only admired her – she is one of the great pianists of the world. “
As well as the artist honorees, L.A. club the Troubadour was also in the spotlight by association. The legendary singer/songwriter hangout figured prominently in the tributes to Taylor – who last year helped induct Carole King – and the Eagles, whose Honors documentary video segment was narrated by Linda Ronstadt. Ronstadt introduced Frey and Henley when they joined her backing band, clocking many hours at the club.
Also looming large was another President – John F. Kennedy, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday next May. The Center is gearing up for a yearlong celebration of its namesake. Three Kennedy grandchildren took the stage to promote the continuation of Kennedy’s support for the arts and give a shout out to our current commander in chief, with John Schlossberg “offering a special thanks to President Obama for showing us all politics can still be a noble profession.”