Last night’s Kennedy Center Honors show was a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll — and a little bit Oprah. Sir Paul McCartney and Merle Haggard were feted along with the daytime talk queen, dance impresario Bill T. Jones, and Broadway composer Jerry Herman. Willie Nelson, Dave Grohl, Sheryl Crow, Steven Tyler, Norah Jones, Kid Rock and No Doubt all performed at the Washington, D.C. gala, which will air on CBS December 28th.
President Obama and the first lady sat next to the five honorees at the event, which celebrates individuals who have made significant contributions to American culture.
After the night’s first half — in which Julia Roberts, Sidney Poitier, John Travolta, and Barbara Walters payed earnest tribute to Oprah, and Bill T. Jones and Jerry Herman were honored — Vince Gill came out to briefly praise his “old friend and lifelong favorite” artist Merle Haggard. “Hag tells it like it is,” Gill said. “He is the poet of the common man.” Kris Kristofferson and Miranda Lambert performed Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” and Gill and Brad Paisley delivered a juiced-up version of “Workin’ Man’s Blues.” Haggard — who was wedged between Jerry Herman and Oprah, and looked a little stiff in his tux — noticeably perked up at the performance. He was even more riveted by Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow performing “Today I Started Loving You Again.” Nelson then called out “a couple buddies of mine” — Kid Rock and Jamey Johnson, whose slick baritone sounded eerily like Haggard’s — to play “Ramblin’ Fever.”
Alec Baldwin kicked off the tribute to Paul McCartney. “It’s a miracle he made it this far,” Baldwin quipped. “He labored in the Quarrymen, Johnny and the Moondogs, the Silver Beetles, and finally, the plain old Beatles.” Striking a more serious note, he then said that McCartney “married rock and roll to beauty, and forever raised the bar for musicians and songwriters.”
After a brief video, the curtain went up to reveal a colorful, McCartney-themed backdrop straight out of the swinging Sixties. No Doubt, who wore mod-like gray suits, gave a faithful performance of “Hello Goodbye,” then reworked “All My Lovin'” and “Penny Lane” ska-style. Dave Grohl and Norah Jones paired up for a smoky version of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which climaxed with Grohl giving a punky howl.
Steven Tyler appeared in his usual black cloak (and with his scarf-festooned mike stand). “I’ve done a lot of things in my time,: he declared, “but I’ve never been prouder than to stand here at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Abbey Road.” His versions “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End” (all from Abbey Road) were somewhat sloppy, but clearly impassioned.
James Taylor stepped out to perform the obvious McCartney closer, “Let It Be.” When Mavis Staples joined Taylor for the second verse, McCartney and Haggard exchanged pleasantly surprised looks across Oprah’s lap. And of course, there was a big finale, with all of the performers returning to the stage and ushers distribute glowsticks to the crowd, which was swaying them and chanting, “Na, na, na, na-na-na-na.” McCartney simply beamed at the spectacle.
Afterwards, on the way to his table with Taylor and Barbara Walters, McCartney was greeted by well-wishers, including a woman who says she had a Paul doll growing up (“What did you do with it?” he asked) and a man who wanted to know, “What’s next?” “Tomorrow night,” he replied without missing a beat, “same thing.”