The Kennedy Center Honors are among the most prestigious awards in arts and entertainment, but the annual TV show long ago became formulaic and staid. The show desperately needed a makeover. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the producers to make some changes.
Because of COVID regulations and best practices, parts of the show were shot outdoors, parts were shot in a semi-covered pavilion, parts were shot indoors. The result, which aired Sunday on CBS, was the most enjoyable installment in years, much fresher and less static. The changes provided more than just a change of scenery. They reinvigorated the show, now in its 43rd year. (At least something good came out of this long ordeal!)
Here are the 10 best musical moments from this year’s Kennedy Center Honors.
10. Yo-Yo Ma, a 2011 honoree, performed J.S. Bach’s “Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1” in tribute to current honoree Midori. Yo-Yo Ma was one of two past honorees who were enlisted this year as performers. The other was James Taylor, a 2016 honoree, who performed Garth Brooks’ 1992 hit “The River” as part of the show-closing tribute to the country superstar.
9. Grammy winner Sturgill Simpson performed “House of the Rising Sun” in tribute to Joan Baez, who covered the traditional folk song on her 1960 debut album.
8. Current Tony nominee Aaron Tveit (Moulin Rouge! The Musical) and three-time Grammy winners Pentatonix teamed to perform “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” from the 1968 film of the same name. This was part of the tribute to the ageless Dick Van Dyke, who starred in both films.
7. Grammy winner Rhiannon Giddens with fellow fiddler and banjo player Dirk Powell paid tribute to Baez by performing “Silver Dagger,” the opening track from her 1960 debut album.
6. Tony winner Anika Noni Rose performed “Out Here on My Own,” the plaintive, Oscar-nominated ballad from Fame. This was part of the tribute to Debbie Allen, who portrayed dance teacher Lydia Grant in the 1980 film and went on to play the same role on the 1982-87 TV series and serve as the series’ principal choreographer.
5. Vanessa Hudgens performed the Oscar-winning title song from Fame, also part of the tribute to Allen. The rousing Dean Pitchford/Michael Gore song was inspired by the hits of the era by Donna Summer. This number would simply not have been as effective if Hudgens and company were confined to a stage. The song was made to be performed outside (as it was in the original film). Hudgens was joined in her performance by the rest of the company from the Allen segment: Rose, Ariana DeBose, Vivian Nixon, Tiler Peck, Demond Richardson and the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.
4. Jimmie Allen excelled on two of Brooks’ early hits: “The Thunder Rolls” and “Friends in Low Places.” It’s never easy to cover another artist’s signature song, and “Friends in Low Places” has been that for Brooks pretty much since he released it in 1990. The Dewayne Blackwell/Earl Bud Lee song was letter-perfect for Brooks’ persona. Turns out, it suited Allen pretty well too.
3. Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter paid tribute to Baez by performing three songs long associated with the singer, including the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” (from Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2, 1963). Harris and Carpenter also performed the title song (which Baez wrote) from her 1975 album Diamonds & Rust and Steve Earle’s “God Is God” (the opening track from Day After Tomorrow, 2008). Harris is overdue to be a Kennedy Center Honoree. In a rarity, the Baez segment did not include her biggest hit, a 1971 cover version of Robbie Robertson’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
2. Kelly Clarkson performed “The Dance,” the standout ballad from Brooks’ 1989 debut album. It’s a given, after a couple of years of “Kellyoke” segments, that Clarkson can sing anything. But she can really soar when she tackles a superb song like this Tony Arata ballad. The first minute or so of her performance was a cappella, before a pianist joined to provide still-spare accompaniment. She’s good.
1. Gladys Knight closed the show by performing “We Shall Be Free,” which Brooks co-wrote with Stephanie Davis and released in 1992, when its live-and-let-live stance regarding gay rights was considered much more controversial than it is today. Knight excelled on the song. She has long bridged the gap between soul and country, having a hit with Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” in 1972 and teaming with Vince Gill on the opening track on the Rhythm, Country & Blues album in 1994. Memo to the Kennedy Center Honors selection committee: Knight, a star since 1961, really deserves to be an honoree. They don’t call her the Empress of Soul for nothing.
The next Kennedy Center Honors will presumably be staged, and air, in December as the show returns to its normal schedule. (This show was the one that would normally have aired in December 2020.)
At the end of the show, Gloria Estefan, a 2017 honoree who was hosting for the second time, said that next time they would probably be back in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The producers might want to think twice about that. As Sheryl Crow, another likely future honoree, once sang, “A Change Would Do You Good.”