Washington D.C.’s elite rubbed elbows with rock & roll royalty Sunday night as Eddie Vedder, Ben Harper, John Mellencamp, Sting and Melissa Etheridge paid tribute to Bruce Springsteen, one of five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors at an elaborate tribute show. Robert DeNiro, Mel Brooks, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and opera soprano Grace Bumbery were the other honorees at the ceremony, which will air December 29th on CBS.
President Barack Obama and Michelle sat alongside the honorees in the balcony at D.C.’s Kennedy Center as colleagues and friends paid loving tribute. Meryl Streep, Martin Scorcese, Harvey Keitel, Ed Norton, Sharon Stone and Ben Stiller started the night with recollections and praise for DeNiro — although Stiller frequently yelled out “Bruuuuce!” and also said hello to “the Nobel Peace Prize guy” and Brooks, who he described as “the Barack Obama for short, funny Jews.”
Next up, Herbie Hancock explained just how pivotal Dave Brubeck was in his career, suggesting that the pianist “is the reason I don’t have a day job.” Then Carl Reiner offered a hysterical, rambling tribute to his onetime comedy partner Brooks, before stars including Matthew Broderick, Martin Short, Harry Connick Jr., Jack Black and Jane Krakowski participated in a medley of songs from the funny man’s movies and plays (although swastikas were notably absent during the “Producers” portion — likely a nod to decorum and the presence of the Commander-in-Chief). Aretha Franklin appeared in a resplendent aqua blue sari to pay tribute to Bumbery, who she defined as “a genuine diva.”
Jon Stewart came onstage to begin the tribute to Springsteen, and defended his credentials, saying that even though he isn’t a musician or a critic, “I am from New Jersey.” The Daily Show host talked about going to see Springsteen in 1978 at the Capital Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, during the Darkness at the Edge of Town tour and explained how, growing up in central Jersey, he instantly connected with the music. “When you listen to Bruce’s music, you aren’t a loser,” he said. “You are a character in an epic poem about losers.”
Springsteen, sitting between Michelle Obama and Grace Bumbery, wearing a black shirt and black suit (no tie), with the multi-colored Honor ribbon — which Stewart referred to as a “rainbow dreamcatcher” — around his neck, looked alternately moved and embarrassed, as the tributes rolled in. Ron Kovic, author of Born on the 4th of July, talked about meeting Springsteen at a hotel in Hollywood and the singer telling him how moved he was by the book.
John Mellencamp appeared next, talking about buying The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle in a head shop for $3.99, before dedicating a somber version of “Born in the U.S.A.” to the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Next, Ben Harper did his take on “My Father’s House” from Nebraska. Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland upped the energy with a rousing “Glory Days,” before she and Harper collaborated on “I’m on Fire.”
Melissa Etheridge rolled out in leather pants next for a high-energy “Born to Run.” Then Eddie Vedder and a gospel choir did an acoustic version of “My City of Ruins.” Finally, Sting came out and was soon joined by a much bigger gospel choir for “The Rising,” which got all of the tuxedo-and-gowned masses out of their seats and ending the evening in an uplifting, change-the-world mode, as only Bruce’s music can.