WASHINGTON (AP) — The candid Patti LaBelle has praised her longtime friend Gladys Knight. Sean Penn called U2 “four badass Dublin punks”. Ballet dancers performed in front of the conductor and composer Tanya Leon. Matt Damon playfully teased his friend George Clooney – many times – while Sheryl Crow heartily performed Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby” during Sunday’s Kennedy Center Awards.
Knight, Clooney, Grant, Leon and U2 have been featured on John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which annually honors a select group of people for their artistic impact on American culture. the president Joe BidenDeputy President Kamala Harris their spouses were present, as were members of the president’s cabinet and Congress.
One audience member from the political world – Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – has garnered some attention. He is recovering from a brutal attack at Pelosi’s home in San Francisco in October. The couple received thunderous applause from the audience.
Normally, performers like U2 or Knight would headline a show like this, but during an event at the Kennedy Center, honorees sit on the balcony and watch their peers praise them and perform their work.
On the red carpet, Clooney with his wife Amal joked that after seeing friends like Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts, he was worried that his tribute would be more “roasted”. And it was a bit like that, although his friends and family showed clear respect.
Roberts set the tone by taking the stage in a dress adorned with pictures of Clooney. After an intro that alternated between funny and heartfelt, she turned to a smoky bar set, the kind Clooney might have liked. The actor’s father, Nick Clooney, entertained the public with tales of young George, including a seven-year-old heartbroken over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, he gave his father all his toy pistols.
Damon went down a ridiculous path, joking about how Clooney once stole then-president Bill Clinton’s stationery and wrote notes on it for fellow actors. Cheadle emphasized Clooney’s philanthropic work. But Clooney’s father probably received the most praise, telling the crowd and his son, seated on the balcony between U2’s Leon and Bono, “George’s best and most important work is yet to come.
Standing on a stage lit by a massive “Gladys” sign, LaBelle called Knight “everyone”, saying they had been friends for six decades and had seen each other through laughter and tears. “We do everything together,” Labelle said. “I am honored to honor you tonight.”
Actor and hip-hop star LL Cool J said that whenever Knight sings, she connects with people. “One day I heard Gladys sing the ABC and I thought I was in church,” he said.
Knight – usually with her backing vocalists The Pips – has recorded dozens of albums with such classic hits as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia”. The task of singing this classic in front of the woman who made it famous fell to country music superstar Garth Brooks, himself a Kennedy Center honoree. He mentioned Knight’s “country music roots” before moving on to the classics.
Each artist was presented with a video compilation showing snippets of their lives. At Grant’s, her children spoke of their mother’s influence on them. Crowe talked about Grant’s influence on her when she was a young college student.
“Amy also taught me that it’s possible to be funny, irreverent, and Christian at the same time,” Crowe said.
Five ballet dancers took to the stage to pay tribute to composer and conductor Tania Leon, who fled Cuba as a refugee in 1967; her passport was stamped “Cancelled” when she left the country. The performers were from the Dance Theater of Harlem, which Leon helped found when she eventually made it to New York. She also established the Brooklyn Philharmonic Society’s concert series and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for her work Stride, inspired by women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony.
“How can I convey the extent of your musical genius?” asked actress and playwright Anna Deaver Smith. Jazz pianist Jason Moran, singer Alicia Hall Moran and cellist Sterling Elliott performed one of Leon’s pieces, “Oh Yemanja”.
The last winner of the evening was U2. In a video filmed on Saturday, U2 guitarist Edge noted that the group of four “Irish Boys” had been awarded for their contributions to American culture and said there was a connection between the band and America that could not be explained.
Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam sang the U2 songs “Elevation” and “One”. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought his Borat alter ego on stage as part of a U2 tribute by pretending to mistake Biden for former President Donald Trump. Singers Brandi Carlyle, Hozier and Jamala from the United States, Ireland and Ukraine respectively ended the show with an emotional version of “Walk On”.
U2’s Bono is also known for his charity work to end poverty and raise awareness of AIDS. Jamala, whose home country, Ukraine, has been embroiled in a bloody war for nearly a year since the Russian invasion, touched on this story of social activism by introducing the last song of the evening.
“It is fitting that on the night dedicated to them, they once again used their platform to spread the message of peace. To be honest, being here in this bright warm hall this evening is really something extraordinary for me when there is so much darkness in my home country of Ukraine,” she said.
The awardees arrived at the theater from a reception at the White House, where Biden praised them in front of a star-studded East Room crowd as “an exceptional group of performers.”
“Thank you for showing us the power of art and We the People,” Biden said.
AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller contributed to this report. Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.