Earlier this month, Eddie Vedder, Melissa Etheridge, John Mellencamp, Ben Harper and Sting brought the songs of Bruce Springsteen to an unlikely venue: Washington, DC’s opulent Kennedy Center. The full Kennedy Center Honors aired on CBS last night, giving fans the opportunity to see the New Jersey legend sitting beside President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama as a cavalcade of artists professed their admiration for his life and music. Caroline Kennedy described Springsteen as “a rocker from the Jersey shore who created his own musical universe and across America and the world became ‘The Boss,’ ” at the top of the show. (Read our on-the-scene report from the Kennedy Center Honors, which also paid tribute to Robert DeNiro, Dave Brubeck, Mel Brooks and Grace Bumbry.)
“I am not a music critic. Nor historian, nor archivist,” Jon Stewart began his introduction to Springsteen’s tribute. “I cannot tell you where Bruce Springsteen falls in the pantheon of the American songbook. I can not illuminate the context of his work or his roots in the folk and oral history traditions of our great nation. But I am from New Jersey,” Stewart joked, “and so I can tell you what I believe, and what I believe is this: I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby. And they abandoned this child on the side of the road, between the exit interchanges of 8A and 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike. That child is Bruce Springsteen,” he said as Springsteen erupted in laughter in the balcony.
“When you listen to Bruce’s music, you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem … about losers,” Stewart continued. Before a montage that traced Springsteen’s Jersey roots, Stewart referenced Springsteen’s work ethic and heart: “He empties the tank, every time. He empties that tank for his family, he empties that tank for his art, he empties that tank for his audience and he empties that tank for his country.”
Ron Kovic, the author of Born on the 4th of July, next related a story about meeting Springsteen and being moved to tears when Bruce dedicated “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to him at a San Francisco concert.
John Mellencamp kicked off the musical tribute with an acoustic version of “Born in the U.S.A.” that exploded into a full-band rock out. Ben Harper and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles took the stage for a countrified duet on “I’m on Fire.” Melissa Etheridge next turned in a traditional take on “Born to Run” that brought the crowd to its feet, and Eddie Vedder did an intimate take on The Rising‘s “My City of Ruins” with a gospel chorus. Sting arrived onstage last to massive cheers for a performance of “The Rising” that was so intense that even the Obamas — along with the rest of the audience — stood and swayed.
The Kennedy Center Honors also featured Aretha Franklin paying tribute to Grace Bumbry, calling the mezzo-soprano singer “the hallmark of the true diva.” A tribute to Mel Brooks featured Jack Black singing in the Robin Hood role of Mel Brooks’ Men in Tights, as well as Harry Connick Jr., Frank Langella, Martin Short, Glee‘s Matthew Morrison and Matthew Broderick taking on selections from Brooks’ hilarious songbook. The sounds of Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” filled the auditorium as Herbie Hancock explained how the jazz great inspired him. And Ben Stiller interrupted his speech for Robert DeNiro to stare in awe at Springsteen, chanting “Bruce!” with his fist in the air.
• Eddie Vedder, Jon Stewart Pay Tribute to Bruce Springsteen at the Kennedy Center Honors
• Springsteen’s Dream Tour in Photos
• Springsteen’s Epic Decade: Bruce on “The Rising” to the “Dream”