WASHINGTON (AP) — A heartfelt Patti LaBelle praised her lifelong friend Gladys Knight. Sean Penn called U2 “four scrappy Dublin punks.” Ballet dancers performed for conductor and composer Tania León. Matt Damon playfully teased his friend George Clooney — often — while Sheryl Crow gave a heartfelt rendition of “Baby Baby” to Amy Grant at Sunday’s Kennedy Center Honors.
Knight, Clooney, Grant, León and U2 were all celebrated at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which annually honors a select group of people for their artistic influences on American culture. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their respective spouses were in attendance, as were members of the Presidential Cabinet and Congress.
An audience member from the political world – Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – attracted some attention. He recovers from a brutal attack at Pelosis’ San Francisco home in October. The couple received a standing ovation from the audience.
Normally artists like U2 or Knight would headline such a show, but at the Kennedy Center event, the honorees sit on the balcony and watch their peers praise them and perform their work.
On the red carpet, Clooney, with his wife, Amal, beside him, joked that after seeing friends like Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts, he was afraid his tribute would be more of a “roast.” And it was kind of like that, although his friends and family clearly showed respect.
Roberts set the tone by taking the stage in a dress with pictures of Clooney on it. After an introduction that alternated between funny and sincere, she turned to a set designed to look like a smoky bar — the type Clooney might like. The actor’s father, Nick Clooney, regaled audiences with stories about a young George, including the time the 7-year-old – heartbroken over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 – his father gave all his toy guns.
Damon took the funny route and joked about how Clooney once stole then-President Bill Clinton’s stationery and wrote notes on it to fellow actors. Cheadle highlighted Clooney’s philanthropic work. But it was Clooney’s father who probably had the most praise, telling the crowd and his son, sitting on the balcony between León and U2’s Bono, “George’s best and most important work is still ahead of him.
Standing on a stage lit by a huge sign that read “Gladys,” LaBelle Knight called 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. “I am honored to honor you tonight.”
Actor and hip-hop star LL Cool J said that when Knight sings, she connects with people. “I heard Gladys sing the ABC once and I thought I was in church,” he said.
Knight — usually with her backup singers, The Pips — has recorded dozens of albums of classic hits like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The challenge of singing that classic in front of the woman who made it famous fell to country music superstar Garth Brooks, who is a Kennedy Center awardee in his own right. He cited Knight’s “roots in country music” before embarking on the classic.
Each artist was introduced through a video compilation of excerpts from their lives. At Grant’s, her children talked about their mother’s influence on them. Crow talked about Grant’s influence on her when she was a young 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 in honor of 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 came from the Harlem Dance Theater, which León helped found when she eventually went to New York City. She also founded the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series and received the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for her work “Stride,” inspired by women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony.
“How do I convey the magnitude 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 honoree of the evening was U2. In a video recorded Saturday, U2 guitarist The Edge noted that a group of four “Irish lads” were being honored for contributions to American culture and said there is a bond 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 to the stage as part of the U2 tribute, pretending to mistake Biden for former President Donald Trump. Singers Brandi Carlile, Hozier and Jamala – from the US, Ireland and Ukraine respectively – closed 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 about AIDS. Jamala, whose homeland of Ukraine has been embroiled in bloody warfare for nearly a year after the Russian invasion, spoke about that history of social activism as she introduced the evening’s final song.
“It is fitting that on the evening intended to honor them, they once again used their platform to spread a message of peace. Honestly, it is really something extraordinary for me to be here tonight in this bright, warm hall, when there is so much darkness in my home country of Ukraine,” she said.
The honorees came to 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 the arts and ‘We the People,'” Biden said.
AP White House correspondent Zeke Miller contributed to this report. Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.