Last night's Kennedy Center Honors was easily the strangest in its 31-year history. In a first, Washington's most glitzy event celebrated a legendary rock act. Along with musicians George Jones and Barbra Streisand, actor Morgan Freeman and choreographer Twyla Tharp, the event gave the honorable nod to the Who.
And the crowd of 2,300 in the capitol's Opera House reflected that odd mix. Dressed in formal black tie, Newt Gringrich, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Madeleine Albright, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Reps. Daniel Patrick Leahey and Patrick Kennedy streamed down the red carpet with Dave Grohl, Jack Black, Rob Thomas, and the Who's Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, who earlier in the day made the traditional visit to the White House for a chat with President Bush. Is George W. a fan? "Let's just say he appreciates them," said a West Wing staffer.
First, Denzel Washington presented a warm salute to Morgan Freeman, a longtime fan of the Mississippi Delta Blues. Onstage, a gathering of legendary blues musicians including Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins arrived, each one shuffling onstage slower than the first. With Koko Taylor taking vocals, the band slipped into "Everything is Going to be Alright" with startlingly crisp, clear sound. Later, looking sagely and stoic, Freeman watched and mouthed the words to B.B. King playing "Let the Good Times Roll" as his wife dabbed her tears. Next up was Lilly Tomlin who celebrated legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp, who has created dances to music of Bob Dylan and Billy Joel and collaborated with David Byrne. Then there was Jack Black introducing the Who.
"When I was 10, I fell in love with the Who," he said. "I saw Tommy and was deeply moved. I wasn't deaf, dumb or blind, but I wanted to be felt, seen, heard and healed. Seriously, I'm not going for laughs here ... When I first heard them in 1979, it hit me like a torpedo in my third eye. It was a collection of ass-kicking songs the likes of which we will never see again. And it's about time they get some sweet-ass recognish."
After a video montage, fellow Brit Joss Stone slinked about the stage in bare feet singing "My Generation." Chris Cornell took on "Won't Get Fooled Again," attempting Daltrey's wild-boy act. Bettye LaVette sang a bluesy "Love Reign O'er Me." By the time Dave Grohl took the stage to rip the hell out of "Who Are You," the volume was high and the speakers were warm. As he thrashed on a blue hollow-body electric guitar, an elderly man nearby grasped his cane and began frowning and shaking his head. How many times do you get to opportunity to sing "Who the fuck are you?" before the President of the United States? Rob Thomas did an anemic "Baba O'Riley" that was saved when the flashing, lighted Union Jack backdrop parted to reveal an army of New York fireman and police men — the same who attended the 9-11 concert that reunited the remaining members of the Who.
Traditionally, the Kennedy Center honorees are recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts, which makes it unique that the first rock band to be celebrated is a U.K. outfit. "This is a great thrill," Townshend told the press earlier. "Since the Who began in the early '60s we have loved American music and audiences and have made deep and lasting friendships with everyone involved in the industry there. Roger and I both feel our work in the United States has been as important as our work at home. Because our medium rock music is quintessentially American music with broad and deep international and multicultural roots, this honor is especially meaningful to we Brits."
"As a teenager growing up in the austerity of post-war England, it was the music I heard emanating from America that gave me a dream to hang my life on," Daltrey said. "To make music and make it there. I am deeply touched at receiving this honor, the warmth and affection I feel from our U.S. audience is humbling indeed. To be added to the list of past recipients of this award makes that dream come true."
After a brief intermission, Laura Bush introduced the George Jones tribute and a who's who of modern country gave tributes, including Brad Paisley, Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and Shelby Lynne. Bush chewed gum and sang along to Garth Brooks doing "The Race is On." Rounding out the evening was Queen Latifah and Glenn Close paying tribute to Barbra Streisand, and Beyoncé emerged from beneath the stage boards to sing "The Way We Were."
The event will be telecast on CBS December 30th at 9:00 p.m. EST.