Every year, D.C.’s Kennedy Center toasts five people or groups for their important contributions to American culture. These ceremonies always include some of the greatest artists of our time, and this year’s event was no exception, celebrating a class that includes Sting, Rev. Al Green, Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin and ballerina Patricia McBride.
Stephen Colbert served as a nimble host to an audience of 2,000 that included President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle as well as U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer, Rand Paul and Patrick Leahy. The future Late Show star noted that the ceremony is the one night Washington puts “arts above politics: No matter what party you belong to, everyone wants a selfie with Tom Hanks.”
Seated with the Obamas in the Presidential Box at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the honorees give no acceptance speeches or performances, nor do they know who is paying tribute to them in advance. “Allow us to love you,” Colbert said. “I’ve heard with Sting, that can take up to 30 hours.”
Sting, who goes on tour with Paul Simon in March, seemed to have no trouble focusing once Meryl Streep began his induction. “If you want to see some of the most fun I’ve ever had, you should look at the love scenes I had with Sting in Plenty,” said the Oscar winner.
Lady Gaga, in a platinum pageboy wig, platinum pantsuit and even platinum eye shadow, kicked off Sting’s musical tribute with a dramatic reading of “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” changing the final words to “If I ever lose my faith in you/oh, it would sting, how it would sting,” as she gazed up at the Police frontman, seated in the first row of the mezzanine.
Esperanza Spalding and pianist Herbie Hancock followed with a rendition of “Fragile” that was as delicate as Lady Gaga’s performance was brash, and Bruce Springsteen, whom Sting honored at the same ceremony in 2009, transformed western ballad “I Hung My Head” from a remorseful tale to a defiant one, adding a pair blazing guitar solos. Bruno Mars, whose 2012 hit “Locked Out of Heaven” recalled the Police’s reggae-rock fusion, ended the tribute with a medley of “So Lonely,” “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle.”
Prior to Sting’s segment, the classy evening – even the stage hands wore tuxedos – had opened with a tribute to soul pioneer Green. Earth Wind & Fire delivered a funked-up version of “I Can’t Get Next to You” (an R&B hit for Green one year after the Temptations took it to the top of the pop charts in 1969) and the organ-drenched “Love and Happiness.” Earlier, on the red carpet, lead singer Philip Bailey praised Green’s approach. “He’s very unique as a singer,” Bailey told Rolling Stone. “It’s where he puts everything within the bar, the syncopation and how he expresses himself.”
A stunning Jennifer Hudson hushed the crowd with her soulful, stirring “Simply Beautiful,” before Usher brought the audience to its feet with “Let’s Stay Together.” Green’s contemporaries, Mavis Staples and Sam & Dave’s Sam Moore, took the audience to church with by performing “Take Me to the River” with a choir behind them.
After his performance, Usher joked to Rolling Stone that he wasn’t sure if he was more anxious about singing in front of Green or in front of the president, who once performed a portion of the song at a fundraiser in 2012. “I was a bit nervous at first,” he admitted. “Look who I’m up against!”
Ardent music fan Hanks (who was honored by David Letterman, Steven Spielberg, Martin Short and others) told Rolling Stone of his love for both Green and Sting: “Look, I’m from Oakland, California, a funky town. And we had one of the greatest soul stations in the world, KIDA, Lucky 13. Al Green, ‘So Tired of Being Alone,’ ‘Let’s Stay Together,’ it goes on and on and on.” Hanks said he wasn’t as familiar with Green’s gospel works, but that was about to change. “When I get back to my laptop, I’m going to download. I want to be able to tell Al Green, ‘I’ve got all your records, including the gospel stuff.'” As far as his friend Sting. Hanks admits, “I wanted to play an upright bass just to look as cool as he did in the video of [‘Every Breath You Take’].”
Other participating musicians included a cappella quintet Pentatonix, who recreated the Wonders’ “That Thing You Do” from the Hanks movie of the same name, and Reba McEntire, who helped salute Tomlin, her co-star in the short-lived 2012 ABC comedy, Malibu Country.
The full event will air December 30th on CBS.