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Music, dance and a few laughs

Kennedy Center Honors pays tribute to Guy, Led Zeppelin, Letterman, Hoffman, Makarova

By Rich Heldenfels
Akron Beacon Journal

Kennedy Center Honors

9 p.m. Wednesday, CBS

The Kennedy Center Honors are meant to venerate, to showcase careers that are at once long and distinguished. But one of the interesting things about the latest honors telecast is to see how some of the honorees are not only still vigorous, but competitive.

Pay heed to the expression on bluesman Buddy Guy’s face as others play his music; it seems as if he’s thinking, “I can outplay anyone onstage.” Even as Robert Plant’s band mates appear to enjoy the Led Zeppelin tribute, Plant himself looks coolly analytical, probably assessing how his best chops stand up next to those of his acolytes.

Guy and Led Zeppelin are showcased in the 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors at 9 p.m. Wednesday on CBS, along with David Letterman, Natalia Makarova and Dustin Hoffman.

Edited (and in some cases reorganized) from a live ceremony on Dec. 2 in Washington, D.C., the program adopts a basic rhythm for each performer: introduction by a celebrity friend, a videotaped overview, then some kind of tribute presentation or performance.

It starts slowly, with a surprisingly stuffy tribute to Hoffman. The second segment, with Makarova, includes some lovely dancing but seems dutiful, sort of like enduring the acts you don’t care about on the old “Ed Sullivan Show” while waiting for the Beatles to play. (On Kennedy Center Honors, Letterman is held for the next-to-last slot while the Zeppelin homage closes the show.) Indeed, Jimmy Kimmel – while praising Letterman – dismisses Makarova as just “the ballerina.”

But the Guy tribute is fairly solid, with Morgan Freeman introducing and music from Tracy Chapman, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Beck, Gary Clark Jr., Kim Wilson and others. Things really roll with Letterman, as Tina Fey offers the introduction followed by funny remarks by Kimmel and Ray Romano, as well as a few stilted words from Alec Baldwin. Romano is especially good, with an excellent Stairway to Heaven joke and a nice zing at President Barack Obama, who was in attendance along with wife Michelle.

Jack Black fawns over Led Zeppelin before musical tributes featuring the Foo Fighters, Kid Rock and Lenny Kravitz before the big finish: Jason Bonham, the drummer son of the late LZ drummer John Bonham, with Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, and a choir, doing “Stairway.” It’s all right in its way – Ann Wilson does some marvelous Plant-like vocals – but I would love to know what Plant was thinking.

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