A generation of acolytes including Jack Black, the Foo Fighters, Kid Rock, Lenny Kravitz and Heart paid hard-rocking tribute to Led Zeppelin in Washington D.C. Sunday night as the band received the Kennedy Center Honors in the annual gala tribute, to be broadcast on CBS December 26th. Other honorees included blues trailblazer Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarove, David Letterman and Dustin Hoffman.
Zeppelin's three surviving members, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, sat down the row from President and Michelle Obama in the balcony, next to the other honorees, all wearing the rainbow-colored sash and medal that had been given at a White House ceremony hours earlier. The Zeppelin tribute, the night's longest, was saved for last, though the rock gods' presence was noted throughout the evening, as when Ray Romano opened his tribute to Letterman by acknowledging his nerves.
"As a performer, the last thing you want to do is bomb in front of Led Zeppelin," he said. "I lost my virginity to the first two minutes of 'Stairway to Heaven' and spent the next 11 minutes of it apologizing."
The tributes opened with Robert DeNiro calling Hoffman a "world-class, colossal, spectacular pain in the ass" for raising the bar for actors everywhere with stellar performances in Death of a Salesman, The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, among other films, before adding, "You make me proud to be an actor." Liev Schreiber, poet Billy Connelly and Naomi Watts, each of whom had worked with Hoffman, also offered tributes.
After the tribute to Makarova, which included several ballet performances, Morgan Freeman came out to praise Buddy Guy, saying he "made a new music that no one had ever heard before." Gary Clark Jr. and Jimmie Vaughan played Guy mainstay "The Things That I Used to Do," and Tracy Chapman did the bruising, bluesy version of "Hound Dog" that Guy played with Big Mama Thornton when they toured together.
Next Jeff Beck stepped out in signature sleeveless sequined shirt, red pants, and white kerchief. Looking around at the black-tie audience featuring members of Congress, Charlie Rose, Steven Colbert, Denzel Washington and Caroline Kennedy, he said, "We've played in some fancy venues, but I think this one takes the biscuit." He went on to thank Guy "not only for the career you forged for me, but for helping me get out of the auto industry as a paint sprayer." Beth Hart joined Beck to sing on "I'd Rather Go Blind," before Bonnie Raitt came out for a spot-on cover of "My Time After Awhile." All the performers came out for a predictable, but no less fun, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-style jam on the bluesman's classic, "Sweet Home Chicago."
Not surprisingly, the Letterman tribute, featuring Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jimmy Kimmel and Romano drew the night's biggest laughs. Fey began by recalling that her mother was one of the early fans of Letterman's daytime TV show and, when he moved to late night, "never feel asleep anywhere except the couch." She said she learned she could be weird and funny by watching Letterman, and that that she could mercilessly bash NBC on her show without getting fired.
Kimmel, who said he had a Late Night birthday cake and vanity plates when he was 16, suggested that he learned everything from Letterman, and that everyone in the audience, "with the possible exception of the people who came to see the ballerina" love Letterman – as the camera cut awkwardly to stone-face Makarova.
Finally, Frank Black took the stage, describing Led Zeppelin as "the greatest rock and roll band of all time" and noted his completion of the "rock & roll haj" – listening to all nine Zep albums back-to-back. He described how Derek Skanky gave him a Zeppelin mixtape in high school and the combination and power and beauty moved him and changed his life forever, as did the wide-ranging lyrics about "love, Vikings, Vikings making love and The Lord of the Rings."
Then an appropriate stony castle backdrop emerged and it was time for the performances. The Foo Fighters, with Dave Grohl on drums and Taylor Hawkins on rather strained vocals, took "Rock and Roll." Kid Rock, in gold-sequined cowboy shirt and chaps, did a better job on "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Ramble On." Next was Lenny Kravitz doing a spot-on Plant impression on "Whole Lotta Love." Finally, Jason Bonham, son of original drummer John and the drummer for the band's 2007 reunion show, joined Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart for a show-ending version of "Stairway to Heaven" that gradually grew to include a string section, a horde of backup singers and the Joyce Garrett Youth Choir.
Through it all Page and Jones grinned with what seemed to be genuine pleasure, while Plant occasionally looked slack-jawed at the proceedings. At one point, between songs of the tribute to their band, the three huddled together in discussion. One can only wonder what they were talking about and hope against hope that the show gave them the urge to get back onstage with those songs and give the world what it wants: a Led Zeppelin reunion tour.