WASHINGTON (AP) — A heartfelt Patti Labelle pays tribute to her lifelong friend Gladys Knight. Sean Penn called U2 “the four downbeat Dublin punks”. The ballerinas are performed by the conductor and composer Tania Lyon. Matt Damon teased his friend George Clooney — a lot — while Sheryl Crow delivered a moving rendition of “Baby Baby” to Amy Grant during the Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday.
Knight, Clooney, Grant, León and U2 were all celebrated at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which annually honors a select group of people for their artistic influence on American culture. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, their spouses, and members of the Cabinet and Congress attended the meeting.
One audience member from the political world — Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — drew some attention. He is recovering from a brutal attack at the Pelosi’s home in San Francisco in October. The couple received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Usually, performers like U2 or Knight headline such a show, but during a Kennedy Center event, the honorees sit in the balcony and watch as their peers pay tribute and perform.
On the red carpet, Clooney, with his wife Amal by his side, joked that after seeing friends like Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts in the audience, he was worried his tribute would be more “roast.” And it was a bit like that, although his friends and family clearly showed respect.
Roberts set the tone by appearing on stage in a dress adorned with portraits of Clooney. After an introduction that alternated between funny and heartfelt, she turned to a collection designed to look like a smoke strip—the kind Clooney might enjoy. The actor’s father, Nick Clooney, wowed the crowd with stories of young George, including the time the 7-year-old — grieving over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 — gave his father all his toy guns.
Damon took the funny route, joking about how Clooney once stole then-President Bill Clinton’s stationery and wrote notes to fellow actors about it. Cheadle highlighted Clooney’s philanthropic work. But Clooney’s father was probably the one with the strongest praise, telling the audience and his son, sitting on the porch between Leon and Bono U2, “George’s best and most important work is still ahead.”
Standing on a stage lit up by a huge banner that read “Gladys,” Labelle called Knight her “everything,” saying they had been friends for six decades and had seen each other through laughter and tears. “We do everything together,” Labelle said. “It is my honor to honor you tonight.”
Actor and hip-hop star LL Cool J said that whenever Knight sings, she connects with people. “I once heard Gladys sing the ABCs and I think I was in church,” he said.
Knight — usually with her backup singers, The Pips — has recorded dozens of albums with classic songs like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The challenge of singing that classic fell in front of the woman made famous by country music superstar Garth Brooks, a Kennedy Center honoree in his own right. He cited Knight’s “roots in country music” before venturing into classical music.
Each artist was introduced through a video compilation featuring snippets from their lives. At Grant, her children talked about the influence their mother had on them. Crowe has spoken of Grant’s influence on her as a young college student.
“Amy also taught me that it is possible to be fun, irreverent, and Christian at the same time,” Crowe said.
Five ballet dancers took to the stage to honor composer and conductor Tania Leon, who left Cuba as a refugee in 1967; Her passport had “Cancelado” stamped when she left the country. The cast was from the Harlem Dance Theater, which Leon had helped find when she eventually made her way to New York City. She also founded the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series and in 2021 received a Pulitzer Prize for her work “Stride,” inspired by women’s rights champion Susan B. Anthony.
How do I convey the extent of your musical genius? asked actress and playwright Anna Devere Smith. Pianist Jason Moran, singer Alicia Hall Moran, and cellist Sterling Elliott played one of Leon’s creations, “Oh Yemania”.
The last tribute tonight was U2. In a video recorded Saturday, U2’s guitarist The Edge noted that a group of four “Irish boys” have been honored for their contributions to American culture and said there is a truly inexplicable link between the group and America.
Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam sang “U2 and One”. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought his alter ego Borat to the stage as part of a U2 tribute, pretending to mistake Biden for former President Donald Trump. Singers Brandi Carlisle, Hozier, and Jamala—from the United States, Ireland, and Ukraine, respectively—closed the show with an emotional version of “Walk On.”
U2 Bono is also known for its philanthropic work to eradicate poverty and raise awareness about AIDS. Jamala, whose country Ukraine was embroiled in a bloody war nearly a year after the Russian invasion, touched on this history of social activism when she performed the final song for the night.
“It is appropriate that they use their pulpit again to spread a message of peace at night. Honestly, to be here in this warm, bright hall this evening is really something unusual for me, when there is so much darkness in my native Ukraine,” she said.
The honorees took to the stage from a White House reception where Biden hailed them to a star-studded crowd calling him an “extraordinary group of performers.”
“Thank you for showing us the power of the arts and We the People,” Biden said.
AP White House correspondent Zeke Miller contributed to this report. Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.
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