Ranking the Kennedy Center Honors Performances (Tributes to Santana, Billy Joel, Herbie Hancock)

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Last night’s Kennedy Center Honors blended virtuosity, tenderness, and schmaltz — pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Along with veteran actress Shirley MacLaine (who looked a bit out of place beside all those musicians), the Center honored opera singer Martina Arroyo, jazz/fusion legend Herbie Hancock, singer-songwriter extraordinaire Billy Joel, and guitar icon Carlos Santana, using a combo of cornball career-overview narratives and mostly interesting musical tributes.

Santana (Worst to Best)

It’s easy to forget just how incredible of a musician Santana is, especially when you catch one of his gag-worthy collaborative singles (like “Why Don’t You and I” with the Nickelback guy) on the radio. Thankfully, this tribute focused on Santana’s excellent ’70s work.

This segment kicked off with a medley of two Santana classics, though both were marred by lackluster vocal performances.

First, Colombian vocalist Juanes sucked all the life out of “Black Magic Woman,” perhaps the most seductive rock song ever written. Thankfully, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello was there to rescue the performance with his blistering guitar rock — which paid homage to Santana’s distinctive bends and runs while also showcasing Morello’s trademark octave pedal blips.

“Oye Como Va” fared a little better, though Juanes’ vocals (and sloppy guitar solo) still distracted from the hypnotic groove. The highlight was Morello’s infamous guitar-as-turntable explosion, which got a huge laugh from Santana (and Barack Obama, who — thanks to the director — was shown on camera roughly every four seconds throughout the evening).

Buddy Guy was up next, tackling Willie Dixon’s blues classic “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.” Not a whole lot to say here: Guy can play a geet-tar like a champ.

Finally, the best Santana tribute was saved for last. The unlikely trio of Steve Winwood, Shila E., and Orianthi really brought the thunder.

Winwood remains one of the greatest vocalists to ever open his mouth, and his effortlessly soulful singing (along with some tasty B-3 organ) really got the crowd moving. (Also, kudos on those incredible sideburns!) Shiela E. held down the groove with some explosive percussion, and guitar virtuoso Orianthi matched her passion with a handful of brain-melting wah-wah fills.

Herbie Hancock (Worst to Best)

Herbie Hancock is one of the most inventive composers and keyboardists in the history of recorded music. Snoop Dogg is — wait is it back to Snoop Dogg now, or is he still on the reggae thing?

Anyway, the rapper’s anticlimactic tribute to the jazz great was undoubtedly the low-point of this segment. I admire the intention: Snoop tackling Us3′s “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” was a clever choice, showing Hancock’s massive influence on hip-hop. But after thrilling tributes from a spread of jazz-fusion masters, this felt boring and stale.

More impressive were jazz greats like Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and Jack DeJohnette, who honored Hancock with their tasty hard-bop chops.

But the most impressive performance was the big-gang jazz-funk finale medley, which peaked with the masterful “Chameleon.” Bassist Marcus Miller was up there somewhere, along with Beastie Boys turntablist Mix Master Mike and basically every musician in the tri-state area. That’s funk so deep, it burns your eardrums.

Billy Joel (Worst to Best)

Ughh, who invited Don Henley? (Seriously, this dude is allergic to smiling.) Taking on “She’s Got a Way,” one of the blandest offerings in the Joel songbook, the dapperly dressed Eagles frontman went into full-on balladeer mode. Except he forgot to emote. This performance was awkward from the get-go, and his throaty vocal veered off-course a few times. Not even an impromptu “Boys of Summer” could’ve saved this sinking ship.

I wasn’t expecting Garth Brooks to crash this party, but I’m kinda glad he did — at least for his spirited take on “Allentown.” It’s remarkable how well his voice suited this track. His take on “Goodnight Saigon,” however, was less impressive: Joel’s best songs are his liveliest, and this ain’t one of ‘em — but the “Let’s bring out a bunch of war veterans and have them stand on-stage” climax was kinda nauseating, even if the intention was sweet.

In one of the evening’s biggest curveballs, Panic at the Disco frontman Brendon Urie tackled Joel’s upbeat rocker “Big Shot.” Most people in the audience didn’t seem to know who the hell Urie or Panic were, and Joel himself even seemed a bit confused, like “Why is this emo chump on my stage?” But Urie’s glammy, goaty vibrato actually fits the cocky bravado of this Joel classic. An unexpected treat.

No contest: Rufus Wainwright’s powerful, emotive performance of “New York State of Mind” was the best Joel tribute of the night. It was basically the anti-Henley, full of expressive dnyamics and heartbroken drama. “Piano Man” was pretty great, too, though they should have led off with that one.

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