WASHINGTON - For Billy Joel, the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song holds special significance because of the award's namesake.
"George Gershwin was always a hero of mine," Joel said as he accepted the award, adding that he even used Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" to open his historic concerts in Russia. "This is something that is very important to me. I will always treasure this."
After a star-studded tribute concert at DAR Constitution Hall Wednesday night, Joel will have plenty of musical memories to treasure as well.
Tony Bennett delivered a showstopping, jazzy version of "New York State of Mind," complete with powerful high notes. Natalie Maines transformed "She's Got a Way" into an acoustic, country-tinged ballad, while John Mellencamp reworked "Allentown" into a folk protest song. "Bet you didn't know Billy was a protest singer," Mellencamp said. "He was. And is."
The tributes showed how wide-ranging Joel's catalog is -- from a chorale version of "Everybody Has a Dream" to the doo-wop R&B of Boyz II Men's reworking of "The Longest Time." Throughout the night, various presenters discussed how Joel was creating a "new American Songbook" and the varied approaches, especially LeAnn Rimes' stunning twist on "Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)" to include booming high notes as well as understated warmth, showed how.
The most memorable moment, though, was the finale of "Piano Man," with actor Kevin Spacey taking on the harmonica solo and the first verse, before all the artists joined Joel in singing his signature song. Boyz II Men were waltzing. Gavin DeGraw was beaming as he stood between Josh Groban and Bennett. And soon, the entire crowd of Washington dignitaries, were waving their arms and singing along like they were at the corner bar.
Joel's musical director, guitarist Tommy Byrnes, who also served as the tribute concert's musical director, said Joel's set rocked a little harder than usual to balance out all the ballad tributes. "Billy has written some of the greatest ballads ever," Byrnes said backstage. "But he's written some great rocking stuff too."
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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor presented Joel with the Gershwin Prize, the nation's highest honor for the composers of popular music, with previous recipients including Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Carole King. ("I'm flabbergasted to be included in this group," Joel said in a pre-taped interview aired at the concert. "These people who have received the Gershwin Award are the great authors of the American Songbook. I would like to hope that my songs will have that kind of resonance.")
However, Sotomayor couldn't resist a little friendly ribbing. "Tonight, we recognize Long Island's favorite son," she said, adding, "even if he is a Mets fan."
Spacey also threw in a few jokes, adopting his "House of Cards" character's distinctive voice to say, "I think that even a man like Frank Underwood would be excited right now."
The tribute concert will air on PBS stations nationally at 9 p.m. Jan. 2.
SETLIST: Library of Congress Chorale – Everybody Has a Dream / Two Thousand Years // Boyz II Men – The Longest Time // LeAnn Rimes – Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel) // Gavin DeGraw – It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me // Josh Groban – She’s Always a Woman // Natalie Maines – She’s Got a Way // John Mellencamp – Allentown // Tony Bennett – New York State of Mind // Billy Joel – Movin’ Out/Vienna/Miami 2017/You May Be Right // All (plus Kevin Spacey) – Piano Man