One of the biggest risks a performer can take is covering someone else’s work, particularly the work of an icon. The risk is that the audience will recoil from the interpretation and criticize the artist for daring to interfere with perfection. But in taking the risk, a potential reward also lurks. Those of us who caught the Kennedy Center Honors this past week saw what happens when someone takes the risk and reaps the reward.
Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler stole the show and the audience’s heart with his rendition – in front of the composer, Paul McCartney, no less – of the spectacular Abbey Road medley “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End.” McCartney was being honored for “enriching, inspiring and elevating the cultural vibrancy of the nation and the world” at the annual event in Washington.
When the spotlight turned to Tyler and his scarf-laden microphone, I was already steeling myself for something I was sure would end in tears, and not the good kind. In seconds I was disabused of that notion as he proceeded to blow everyone’s mind for nearly four minutes. “Do it,” he commanded his band, and then made each component of the medley his own in a wild ride of unbridled enthusiasm for the material and for McCartney. He was a man in the zone; how could he fail?
Making it more special for the home and online viewing audience was seeing the reactions of the guests and McCartney himself throughout the performance. I believe in England they call it “gobsmacked.” I’ve long considered the concluding Abbey Road medley to be a highlight of that latter-day Beatles album, but it was an unexpected choice for the ceremony. Judging by the exultant faces in the audience and Paul’s look of pleasure, it was a sterling confirmation that “the love you take is equal to the love you make.”