Comedian/occasional rock star Jack Black got right to the point at the 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. He was there to pay tribute to Led Zeppelin, and started his speech by yelling their name, as if he was demanding that a DJ play his favorite Zep jams.
It kicked off a hilarious tribute from the man who once sent a video appeal to Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones to allow a film he starred in, School Of Rock, to use “Immigrant Song” for an important scene. (In reference to that, the house orchestra played “Immigrant Song” as Black took the stage).
Clearly, it was a departure for the Kennedy Center Honors. Now in its 35th year, the ceremony started out by paying tribute to cultural icons like Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams. In recent years, rock has been represented more and more at this prestigious event, with Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen all collecting the Kennedy Center medallion. But past ceremonies probably never got as loud as this year’s.
Of course, Led Zeppelin were the event’s headliners. The show kicked off with a tribute to legendary actor Dustin Hoffman, who was feted by his Wag The Dog co-star Robert DeNiro (a Kennedy Center honoree in 2009). DeNiro deadpanned that “Dustin Hoffman is a world class, colossal… pain in the ass. He inspired me to be a pain in the ass too,” noting that Hoffman’s perfectionism may not have made things easy for filmmakers, but it did result in better films.
“What Dustin did for all of us, he made it OK to be a character actor and a movie star,” noting that he has played more iconic roles than anyone, and joked that he’s waiting to see new remakes of those films: “Psy in ‘Death Of A Salesman, Gangnam Style,’ Lindsey Lohan in ‘Tootsie Roll’ and Justin Bieber in “The Under-Graduate.’”
“Dustin Hoffman is one of the best actors to hit the stage and the movie screen. You made me proud to be an actor and proud to be your friend.”
Ballet icon Natalia Makarova was next; 1999 Kennedy Center Honoree dancer/choreographer Judith Jameson recalled, “When I first saw her, I said, ‘Now that’s a ballerina!'” A tribute by some of the world’s foremost dancers followed.
Ballet and the blues don’t often share a stage, but after the dancers left, Morgan Freeman, wearing a fedora, strutted out to talk about Buddy Guy.
“The first time I heard the blues I was on my grandmother’s porch in Mississippi. They used to call that area ‘gutbucket.’” Looking up at Guy in the balcony, he said, “Here’s what you did: you mastered the soul of gutbucket. You used that music as your starting point, you found a new music that no one ever heard before. Without the Internet, without YouTube or even FM radio. You made a bridge from roots to rock and roll.”
He continued, “How important is this? It’s still just the blues right? Wrong. With Buddy Guy it’s never just the blues. It’s the blues. Usually playing the blues is not what you would call a great career choice. But there’s Buddy. Sitting up there with the best. So when you hear the blues, you really don’t think of it as black or white or yellow or purple or blue. Buddy Guy, your blues brought us together. I think that’s something to sing about.”
First was young gun Gary Clark Jr. (who played for the President earlier this year, along with Guy, in a tribute to the blues at the White House) with Jimmie Vaughan for “The Things That I Used To Do.” Tracy Chapman then took the stage to sing “Hound Dog,” the song that Big Mama Thornton performed before Elvis Presley popularized it (Guy backed Thornton on a version of the song, which might explain why it was used in the tribute).
One of Guy’s biggest disciples, Jeff Beck, then took the stage with singer Beth Hart. As was the case when he played the White House’s tribute to the blues earlier this year (along with Guy, Clark and others), he still has an aversion to sleeves, even when playing for the President Of The United States. Attire aside, Beck and Hart did the Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind,” a song which has also made it into Guy’s repertoire. Bonnie Raitt then took the stage, asking “How about Beth Hart?” before going into “My Time After Awhile.” Then Clark, Vaughan, Beck, Chapman and Hart returned to the stage for “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Tina Fey then got on the mic, and the proceedings began to take on the air of a roast. “Good evening. David Letterman began his career as a choreographer and black opera singer in the early 1950s just so he could qualify for this award,” she joked. But she recalled watching Letterman’s morning TV show in 1980 with her mother. “She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. A morning show that was making her laugh! She had found this weird gem. Was he a parody of talk show hosts or just a goon who was a little bit ‘off.’ Thirty years later, time has proven… that there’s just really no way of knowing!” She noted his lack of phoniness, saying that “He doesn’t ‘fake-like’ anybody… you fantasize that he might like you.” She also pointed out that his return to the airwaves after 9/11 led the way for other comedians to get back to work.
Alec Baldwin, Jimmy Kimmell and Ray Romano all pitched in with their own stories about Letterman (all commenting that Dave probably hates the idea of being celebrated at a ceremony) and then ended up comparing notes: “Does he talk to you during commercial breaks?”
And then it was time to rock. Jack Black took the stage with the bold statement: “Led Zeppelin is the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Better than The Beatles! Better than the Stones! Even better than Tenacious D (referring to his own band). That’s not opinion, that’s fact! If you don’t agree you never did the Led Zeppelin marathon,” he said, saying that all “true fans” have to do it: listen to all of Zeppelin’s albums in a row.
He also noted the band’s wide appeal, spreading from famously liberal film director Oliver Stone to recent Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. “They say that Led Zeppelin sold their souls to Satan,” possibly the first time such a reference was made at the Kennedy Center. Looking up at them in the balcony, he chided, “Come on guys, you know you did! There’s no other way to explain your ungodly talent! I just want to say ‘thank you,’ because while you’re in hell, the human race will cherish your heavenly jams until the end of time! It’s a small price to pay. We love you.”
Black’s pals the Foo Fighters then took the stage. Two months after frontman Dave Grohl declared that the band was taking a break, they were back, paying tribute to Zep. Grohl stayed behind the drums, though, letting drummer Taylor Hawkins take the mic for “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll.” Hawkins, who fronts his own band (Taylor Hawkins and The Coattail Riders), strained to replicate Robert Plant’s vocals; but then, so do most singers.
That was also an issue for Kid Rock, who followed with “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” and “What Is And What Should Never Be.” But things really picked up when Lenny Kravitz took to the stage to sing “Whole Lotta Love.” While Kravitz usually plays guitar on stage, he just kept to the mic, concentrating on doing Plant’s vocals justice. After that, John Bonham’s son, Jason Bonham, who played with Zeppelin at their 2007 reunion concert recently released as the Celebration Day live album and DVD, got behind the drums, wearing a bowler hat (which his father often used to wear).
Heart sisters (and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees) Ann and Nancy Wilson, longtime Zep disciples, closed the show with an epic version of “Stairway To Heaven,” complete with a string section, backing singers and a choir (all wearing Bonzo-esque bowlers).
Throughout the performances, Page beamed, and he, Plant and Jones seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. Tonight (December 3), they will appear together alongside a fellow honoree when they guest on Late Show With David Letterman. It’s the last scheduled event that the three will appear at, leading fans to wonder if it will be their final bow. If it is, the Kennedy Center Honors helped to provide a great last hurrah for the group dubbed by Jack Black as the “Best! Band! Ever!”
The Kennedy Center Honors will air nationwide on CBS on Wednesday, December 26 at 9 pm ET/PT.