No one expected the infamous pundit Bill O’Reilly to introduce a Herbie Hancock tribute in Washington D.C. on Sunday night, but before saying a word about the new honoree at the Kennedy Center’s annual gala, he coyly broke the tension: “I know, I’m surprised too.”
The quip epitomized a night of unlikely hosts and diverse performers who paid tribute to Hancock, pop legend Billy Joel, guitar hero Carlos Santana, cinema darling Shirley MacLaine and opera star Martina Arroyo. The event will be broadcast on CBS on December 29th.
The evening kicked off when actress Glenn Close elegantly greeted the crowd before trumpeter Arturo Sandoval provided the National Anthem. Harry Belafonte followed up by riffing on how Carlos Santana “took [his] job” because of Mexican border control failures. “Thank God I did ‘Day-O’ before his banana boat arrived,” the Calypso singer joked before noting all the iterations of Latin music indebted to Santana’s influence.
As the curtains first rose, a 14-piece Latin band launched into a classic Santana groove, rife with percussion and exceptional guitar work from Orianthi Panagaris, Alice Cooper’s current touring guitarist. Maná’s Fher Olvera initially provided vocals, until Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello stepped onstage with Colombian rocker Juanes to tear into “Black Magic Woman.” Morello kept close to Santana’s style until a particularly cathartic solo culminated in his signature octave-jumping and turntable-mimicry.
Next up was last year’s honoree, blues legend Buddy Guy, whom Santana adores. Guy knocked out Willie Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” with a flair that got Michelle Obama moving in her chair, next to Barack. The tribute took a soulful turn with rich vocals provided by Steve Winwood, whose vintage sideburns evoked the Woodstock era that led to Santana’s initial breakthrough. The segment climaxed when legendary percussionist Sheila E. took a timbale solo so fiery she had to knock over a cymbal and toss her sticks to the ground.
The next recipient, Martina Arroyo, one of the Metropolitan Opera’s first black singers, received an elated introduction from Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor and an impressive performance of “Aida” followed.
Despite his unexpected arrival, O’Reilly gave an entertaining and personal account of Herbie Hancock’s impact, and politics aside, the Fox News host was spot-on when he said Hancock has always been “the coolest man in the room” and still is.
Amid circuit board-inspired scenery, jazz masters Terrence Blanchard, Jack DeJohnette, and Chick Corea proved O’Reilly’s point with a ferocious post-bop band that segued into a grooving, funk-fusion group with Joshua Redman. Bassist Marcus Miller showed up to lead a funkier, hip-hop style set along with Beastie Boys’ DJ Mix Master Mike and plenty of keytar, but it wasn’t until Snoop Dogg rolled up in a velvety tux holding a blinged-out mic that the Kennedy Center crowd really went wild.
So much could have gone wrong, but Snoop kept it classy, meshing lines from his own “Gin and Juice” with lines about Herbie, pulling lyrics from Us3’s Hancock-sampling “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” and throwing in a few call-and-response “heys” and “hos.” As bizarre as it was to see prominent politicians with their hands in the air, it was just as strange to watch Snoop shake O’Reilly’s hand afterward. But it was all in service of the greats.
After actress Kathy Bates offered a few moving words about her dear friend, the charming Shirley MacLaine — oscar-winning star of Terms of Endearment — a cast of young Broadway actors offered up a well-executed round of musical theatre.
Tony Bennett warmed the audience up for the final act of the night, the tribute to Billy Joel. Appearing a bit out of place amongst such heavyweights, Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco still sang a serviceable “Big Shot” with as much cocky bravado as he could muster. Eagles’ singer and drummer Don Henley continued with an earnest, slow take on the classic ballad, “She’s Got a Way.” But the biggest surprise of the night happened when best-selling country artist Garth Brooks took the stage for several Joel tunes. The country legend’s voice was a bit raw on “Only the Good Die Young,” but he nailed the biggest moments of “Goodnight Saigon,” which grew even larger as a host of veterans joined in to repeat “we will all go down together.”
With such a heavy hitter commanding a standing ovation, it seemed the night was surely finished. That is, until songwriter Rufus Wainwright walked out and sang an absolutely gorgeous, showstopping rendition of “New York State of Mind” followed by an immensely soulful “Piano Man,” where he was joined by the veterans once again, along with Brooks, Bennett, Henley, and the bulk of the Kennedy Center’s audience. The piano man himself seemed momentarily overwhelmed by the weight of it all, but the warm, communal grandeur of the finale left everyone, Joel included, feeling alright.