Sting waved his fists victoriously in the air and grinned from ear to ear when Bruce Springsteen took the stage to pay tribute to the former Policeman at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, broadcast Tuesday night. The other honorees of the evening were Al Green, Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin and ballerina Patricia McBride. Springsteen put a gritty spin on “I Hung My Head,” Sting’s tale of manslaughter and guilt that first appeared on his 1996 album Mercury Falling and was later covered by Johnny Cash. When the E Street Band frontman played a rapid-fire solo just before a gospel choir came out to sing along, Sting just closed his eyes.
Lady Gaga toasted Sting as well, singing and playing piano for a performance of “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” off the honoree’s 1993 album Ten Summoner’s Tales. The platinum-wigged singer gave the song’s middle section some extra bluesy growl, after which Sting wore a blank expression that looked neither happy nor displeased as if he were holding back his emotions. But when she announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Sting!” toward the end of her performance, he couldn’t hold back a laugh.
Another singer who got Sting to break his steely Britishness was Bruno Mars, who performed two Police songs – “So Lonely” and “Message in a Bottle.” The singer gave the former song a reverent performance that didn’t stray far from the original’s rocky skank. For the latter, Mars put down the guitar for some impassioned “Oh yeahs” and welcomed a crew of backup singers, the cast of Sting’s Broadway musical The Last Ship, which drove Sting to tears. By that point, even Steven Spielberg and President Obama were singing along. Gaga, Herbie Hancock and Esperanza Spalding (the latter two of whom played Sting’s “Fragile” earlier) came out and joined Mars onstage, and Meryl Streep and Springsteen came out and joined them for the finale.
Elsewhere in the broadcast, Jennifer Hudson paid tribute to Green with a soulful rendition of “Simply Beautiful,” which drew a smile from the singer. Mavis Staples and Sam Moore sang “Take Me to the River” to each other, while Usher snapped his way through Green’s enduring hit, “Let’s Stay Together.” The latter performance got the audience up and dancing, including the Obamas and the evening’s other honorees.
“The Kennedy Center celebrates five extraordinary individuals who have spent their lives elevating the cultural vibrancy of our nation and the world,” Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein said in a statement prior to the event. Of the two musical honorees, he said, “Al Green’s iconic voice stirs our souls in a style that is all his own; Sting’s unique voice and memorable songwriting have entertained audiences for decades.”
Sting previously performed Springsteen’s “The Rising” at the event in 2009, when the E Street Bandleader was honored. Last year’s musical Kennedy Center Honors recipients included Hancock, Billy Joel and Carlos Santana.