The sheer appeal and wide influence their music can be seen in the wide-ranging top-name artists who come to pay tribute and perform their songs on the special “Elton John and Bernie Taupin: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” (PBS, 8 p.m., check local listings).

I got to go the event last month at the DAR Constitution Hall, where the first performance of the night, for logistical reasons only, was Metallica, of all people, slashing and burning through “Funeral for a Friend / Loves Lies Bleeding” (that may have left ears of the Congressional guests bleeding). It contrasts mightily with the frailer tones of, say, 80-year-old Joni Mitchell,  declaring “I’m Still Standing,” albeit aided by cane and high profile backup singers in Annie Lennox and Brandi Carlile.

Mitchell, who won the Gershwin Prize last year (and whose broadcast earned an Emmy) isn’t the only past winner in the mix. Garth Brooks, the 2020 prizewinner, doffs his black hat and crooned two tunes, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and “Daniel.” 

Few of the artists seem willing to stray far from the original arrangements of the songs by John, 76, and lyricist Taupin, 73. In winning the prize named after George and Ira Gershwin, the two are the third team to be so honored, after Bacharach and David in 2012 and Emilio and Gloria Estefan in 2019; and only the second and third Brits — after Paul McCartney in 2010.

Still, both effusively praise the American music that inspired them both. “It’s been responsible for everything that I love in my musical life,” John says. 

For most of the evening the two got to sit in the front row and bask in the performances of their songs by others.

Of them,  Lennox gives a strong gospel undergirding to “Holy Moses”; country’s Maren Morris provides a reverent reading of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” Juilliard grad and Elton neighbor Charlie Puth approaches  “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” like a recital, pausing dramatically before it begins to take the moment in.

It’s left to Carlile, who had been omnipresent at last year’s event, as part enabler of Mitchell’s impressive comeback from a stroke, to pick the deepest cuts — from the”Daniel” B-side “Skyline Pigeon” to the title track to 1973’s “Madman Across the Water.”

The least well-known performer, Jacob Lusk of the group Gabriels, a 2011 American Idol finalist, has an elaborate gospel start to “Benny and the Jets” that gets the lugubrious crowd on its feet throughout. 

And while Broadway’s Billy Porter, plagued with technical difficulties, tended to stumble as a host — having to start over most of his introductions for the subsequent broadcast, he succeeds in blazing through “The Bitch is Back” in dress and heels as if it were his own. 

Except for Metallica, each of the acts were backed by Elton John’s own band, led by a pair of 50-year members in guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson. 

“This is the first time in my life where I have sat in the audience and listened to my band,” John says. “And I know they’re good, but they’re amazing.” Indeed, keyboardist Kim Bullard had to learn accordion to accompany a couple of songs. 

“t’s great seeing people play your songs, because you’re so used to singing them yourself,” John says. “And you listen to Metallica and you think, Christ that’s not easy and they’re playing it so well.”

What exactly was the Metallica connection? Well, John had contributed to a version of their “Nothing Else Matters” for a 2021 Metallica tribute album and effusively praised the song since.

“It’s great that he’s a fan, because we’re all huge fans ourselves,” Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett told me on the red carpet. “To get that kind of mutual appreciation going, it’s huge. bro.”

Plus, for all his balladry, Elton has always been a rocker, Hammett said. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve rocked out to his music.”

As for Mitchell’s performance, it didn’t have the magic or precision of last year’s event. But it was heartening to think that after her performance at the Grammys this year, she may be performing more frequently. 

She was the only artist to switch some of Taupin’s lyrics in a song for the occasion — “the most Joni Mitchell thing you can do,” Carlile admired. Still, there seemed some mismatch through her jazz phrasing in the the chorus’s “Yeah yeah yeah” refrain. 

As is the event tradition, the honoree caps the night with a few songs, showing everyone how it’s done.

Hobbling because of a recent knee replacement, he made his way to his own red lacquered grand piano (or a very good facsimile)  like stepping into his own race car after seeing other people drive it all night — and delivers a few final songs with the kind of mastery that belied the kind of career capping event these shows can be, with a strong voice and playing for “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” “Saturday Night’s Allright for Fighting” and the closing “Your Song,” with Taupin standing piano-side to consider the wistful, innocent words he had written more than a half century earlier. 

One measure of the team’s deserving to win were all the songs that weren’t performed, from “Rocket Man” and “Crocodile Rock” to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Candle In the Wind.” There was no mention of songs John had written with others like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” or that Taupin had — including the notorious “We Built This City,” on some lists as the worst song of all time.  

The Gershwin Prize for Popular Song can be an odd duck — it doesn’t seem like it will ever make sense until Bob Dylan is in, frankly. But these things are dependent on availability and acceptance of the honorees. Still, as clips are shown of past events to fill time for stage changes, you have to wonder what John is thinking, seeing Lionel Richie got in before he did. On the other hand, he was deeply in his own farewell tour at the time and now has feigned retirement (though a new record is hinted). 

If the Gershwin Prize event truly is “bipartisan karaoke” that brings together a fractured capital, as Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden opines, it doesn’t show. There is a touching moment when the sister of Ryan White, the young AIDS victim John had befriended, reads a letter the rock star had written decades after the boy’s death that all could applaud. But when Congressional representatives take the stage for the award ceremony, as is tradition, Democrats and Republicans couldn’t even stand on the same side of the stage with each other, lest they contract cooties.

In his acceptance speech, John overlooks all that in favor of praising the cultural significance the country has had on him and noting his longtime partnership with Taupin and their unusual working relationship — never sitting together in the same room to create.

“if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. He gives me the lyrics, and I write the song,” John said of Taupin. “Without the lyrics I’d be working in Walmart or something like that. Except we don’t have Walmart in England…”