WASHINGTON (AP) — A heartfelt Patti LaBelle praised her lifelong friend Gladys Knight. Sean Penn called U2 “four rowdy Dublin punks”. Ballet dancers performed for conductor and composer Tania León. Matt Damon playfully teased his friend George Clooney — often — while Sheryl Crow gave Amy Grant a heartfelt rendition of “Baby Baby” during Sunday’s Kennedy Center Honors.
Knight, Clooney, Grant, León and U2 have all been celebrated at the 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 and their respective spouses were in attendance, as were members of the President’s Cabinet and Congress.
One listener from the political world – Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – attracted some attention. He is recovering from a brutal attack at the Pelosis’ home in San Francisco in October. The couple received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Normally, artists like U2 or Knight would headline such a show, but during the Kennedy Center event, the honorees sit on the balcony and watch their peers praise them and perform their works.
On the red carpet, with his wife Amal alongside him, Clooney joked that after seeing friends like Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts in attendance, he was concerned his tribute would be more of a “roast”. And it was a bit like that, although his friends and family showed obvious respect.
Roberts set the tone by taking the stage in a dress adorned with photos of Clooney. After an introduction that alternated between funny and heartfelt, she turned to a set meant to look like a smoky bar – the type Clooney might like. The actor’s father, Nick Clooney, delighted crowds with stories about a young George, including the time the 7-year-old – heartbroken over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968 – gave all his toy guns to his father.
Damon took the funny route, joking about how Clooney once stole then-President Bill Clinton’s stationery and wrote notes to other actors on it. Cheadle highlighted Clooney’s philanthropic work. But it was Clooney’s father who probably had the greatest praise, telling the crowd and his son, sitting on the balcony between U2’s León and Bono: “George’s best and most important work is yet to come.
LaBelle stood on a stage lit by a giant sign that read “Gladys” and Knight called her “everything.” She said they have been friends for six decades and have 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 when Knight sings, she connects with people. “I heard Gladys sing the ABC once and thought I was at church,” he said.
Knight – usually with their backup singers The Pips – has recorded dozens of albums featuring such classic hits as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The challenge of singing this classic to the woman who made it famous fell to country music superstar Garth Brooks, himself a Kennedy Center Honoree. He cited Knight’s “country music roots” before beginning the classic.
Each artist was introduced through a video compilation showing snippets of their lives. At Grant’s, her children spoke about their mother’s influence on them. Crow spoke 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,” Crow said.
Five ballet dancers took the stage to honor composer and conductor Tania León, who left Cuba as a refugee in 1967; Her passport was stamped “Cancelado” when she left the country. The performers were from the Dance Theater of Harlem, which León co-founded when she eventually made her way to New York City. She also initiated the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series and received the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for her work “Stride,” which was inspired by suffragette Susan B. Anthony.
“How can I convey the extent of your musical genius?” asked actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Jazz pianist Jason Moran, singer Alicia Hall Moran and cellist Sterling Elliott performed one of León’s creations, “Oh Yemanja”.
The last winner of the evening was U2. In video captured on Saturday, U2 guitarist The Edge noted that a group of four “Irish lads” were being honored for their contributions to American culture and said there’s a connection between the group and America that can’t really be explained .
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sang U2’s “Elevation” and “One”. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought his alter ego Borat on stage as part of the U2 tribute, pretending to confuse Biden with former President Donald Trump. Singers Brandi Carlile, Hozier and Jamala – from the US, Ireland and Ukraine respectively – ended the show with an emotional version of “Walk On”.
U2’s Bono is also known for his philanthropic work to eradicate poverty and raise awareness of AIDS. Jamala, whose native Ukraine was locked in a bloody war for almost a year following the Russian invasion, touched on this story of social activism as it introduced the evening’s final song.
“It is fitting that they once again used their platform to spread a message of peace on the night honored in their honor. Honestly, to be here in this bright, warm hall tonight is really something extraordinary for me when there is so much darkness in my home country Ukraine,” she said.
The honorees arrived at the theater from a White House reception where Biden hailed them as an “extraordinary group of performers” before a star-studded East Room audience.
“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.