No one will ever use the word “breezy” to describe the 3 ½-hour Grammy telecast the other night, but I must say, it definitely delivered the goods, with a whopping 24 live performances, many of them top-notch.
As for the awards themselves, what can you say? We predicted long ago that Genius Loves Company was headed for a virtual sweep. How could it lose? It had all the ingredients Grammy voters love: a courageous legendary singer, fighting cancer, gives his all one last time in a series of duets with some of the music industry’s biggest stars. We have talented artists from many different genres, scads of different musicians, engineers and studios. Let’s face it, half the Grammy voters probably worked on the album! (Okay, that’s a gross exaggeration.) The fact that this was clearly not Charles’ best work–frankly I find a lot of the album difficult to listen to, he sounds so tired and weak–is irrelevant; Grammy voters just wanted to show Brother Ray some love. S’cool.
And the actual tribute to Charles late in the show, with Bonnie Raitt and Billy Preston playing a quiet version of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” couldn’t have been more poignant. That’s the type of thing the Grammys does very well. But then pairing Bonnie with Gary Sinise–star of the hit CBS show CSI: Tulsa! (Or is it Indianapolis? Phoenix?) to give out the Album of the Year trophy was one of those class-meets-crass moves the networks are so bad at. Even if Sinise is in some lame band. At least Adam Sandler, who appeared earlier (to promote his new movie) has a little rock cred, having recorded his hilarious Chanukah anthems and even singing “Werewolves of London” on the recent Warren Zevon tribute album.
What else was cool? Well, lotsa things. The opening salvo, which interspersed performances by the Black Eyed-Peas (performing the inescapable “Let’s Get It Started”), Gwen Stefani (definitely aided by a backing vocal track) and Eve, Los Lonely Boys (crooning on a mini-stage in the audience), Maroon 5 and Franz Ferdinand (whose lead singer looked like he had been squeezed into Pee-wee Herman’s suit), was quite a jumble of styles, but also pretty exciting. By the end, everyone in all the bands was playing at the same time–sort of in the neighborhood of “Let’s Get It Started”–but it was pretty messy. Oh well, I appreciated the effort.
One thing I will hate until my dying day, however: juiced up crowd noise playing under the performances. I’ve been to hundreds, maybe thousands of concerts, and I’ve never heard one that sounds the way TV shows like the Grammys (and the Super Bowl half-time show) always mix the crowd: sweetening it with high pitched screaming or bogus excited crowd walla. The Rolling Stones do it on their HBO specials, too; producers everywhere do it. And it’s fake; that’s the bottom line. You can see how the crowd is reacting (or not reacting) and it never looks the way they make the crowd sound. It’s probably some deep-seated insecurity: we have to pump up the excitement so the viewers at home get whipped into a frenzy. But it’s unnecessary. It intrudes on the music and it’s as lame as a laugh track. (And if someone tells me they’re not juicing it–which I wouldn’t believe for a second–then they’re mixing it terribly. I say, let the music play!)
Queen Latifah was a genial host, casual but enthusiastic. Her intros weren’t over-wrought or over-written. Basically she just kept things moving along pleasantly, exactly what the Grammys needs. The first emotional peak was hit by Alicia Keys, looking gorgeous in a long white dress and playing a white piano–she just oozed soul and sensuality. She’s the real deal; no doubt about it. She’s got gospel pipes and a jazzer’s swing; definitely happenin’. And so is Jamie Foxx, who came out after Keys’ number and dug into “Georgia” with her and the band/orchestra. Rather than doing his Ray Charles schtick, though, he stepped outside that character and showed that he’s got pretty incredible range himself. I hear he’s working on an album for Clive Davis’ label–look for that to be hot, assuming Clive doesn’t saddle him with a bunch of middlin’ R&B material by the usual suspects; always a danger with Clive.
U2 had me teary-eyed with their stirring version of Bono’s song about his father, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It Your Own.” I heard a few people complain they would’ve rather heard “Vertigo.” Great song, of course, but this felt more special, more real. And I liked the un-hyped presentation: simple white screen, close-ups on the band instead of lots of effects and phony hysteria.
Throughout the show there were little mini-tributes (we’re talking one minute, tops) to all sorts of artists who were being honored with lifetime achievement awards–everyone from blues pianist Pinetop Perkins to Jerry Lee Lewis to Jelly Roll Morton to Led Zeppelin were feted; a motely crew, to be sure, but I thought it was nice touch that connected the current generation of musicians to past ones.
Hey, what was up with J.Lo and her boyfriend Marc Anthony parading around an elaborate bedroom set and singing some song in Spanish? Jeez, guys, get a room! Oh, I guess that was the room. Well, at least it wasn’t J.Lo singing with Ben Affleck. She did look fine, too, in her green silk nightgown.
The middle hour of the show featured one great performance after another, beginning with a segment that could’ve been botched badly–a tribute to Southern rock by contemporary country singers backed by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Yikes! Scary. So there was the lovely Gretchen Wilson warbling “Freebird,” Keith Urban, joined by Elvin Bishop (who played some wicked slide) doing “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” (technically a Bay Area song, but Elvin’s a Southern boy), Tim McGraw sounding pretty average helping Allman Brothers co-founder Dickey Betts on “Ramblin’ Man,” and then everyone rockin’ through “Sweet Home Alabama.” It was raucous and a little ragged, but it was totally in keeping with the spirit of Southern rock, and light years from the spit-polish sound of contemporary Nashville. If I’d had a lighter I woulda lit it in tribute!
Green Day, who made what should have been the Album of the Year, were at their ass-kicking Clash-like best doing “American Idiot.” Great to see some punk energy and social commentary emanating from a network TV show. I hope lots of people were offended...but they probably weren’t. Seems as though almost everyone likes this band now.
The gospel segment was a real barnburner, too: Mavis Staples sliding through a simmering version of “I’ll Take You There”; Kanye West–the guy I’d never heard until that night–rapping confidently and quite musically amidst a faux Baptist church congregation (I dug him!); and the Blind Boys of Alabama, hands laid on a funeral coffin, singing some deep, chilling, traditional a capella gospel. The segment ended with a reprise from Kanye in which he was lifted up by the “church” parishioners to reveal his giant angel wings! Whoa! Amen!
Finally, in that second hour, teenage phenom Joss Stone–be still my heart!–showed what she’s made of when she roared through a version “Cry Baby” as a part of a tribute to Janis Joplin. She didn’t sound like Janis especially, but she captured her spirit amazingly well, and her delivery was fearless. She made me a Joss Stone fan; very impressive. And then that song led right into Melissa Etheridge’s spellbinding take on Janis’ signature tune, “Piece of My Heart.” Bald from chemotherapy sessions, but still beautiful and bright eyed, Etheridge tore up the arena with her gritty vocals; and she really did seem like she was channeling Janis. Stone sang backups on that tune, and when they finished together, side by side, the amount of power emanating from these two women was overpowering. It was a truly magical performance.
In the third hour, John Mayer played his song “Daughters” in an intimate trio setting. Now, based on songs I’d heard on the radio, I used to think Mayer was Bland City. But then I saw him perform an extended set of tunes on PBS (I think) one night and his guitar playing really knocked me out–I had no idea he could play like Stevie Ray Vaughan! So ever since then I’ve kind of liked him a little, and watching his song on the Grammys I wasn’t paying much attention to the song, which was inoffensive, if a tad on the dull side, but I was listening for the little Strat filigrees he’d thrown in between verses and at the end. I dug it enough that I wasn’t even hideously bummed when “Daughters” won Song of the Year. I mean it wouldn’t even approach the Top 200 of my choices for Song of the Year, but what the hell...could be worse–like anything by 50 Cent or Lil’ John.
The all-star version of “Across the Universe,” designed raise funds for tsunami victims through instant downloads on the ‘Net, was better in theory than execution. What a cast: Bono, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, Norah Jones, Tim McGraw, Alison Krauss, Velvet Revolver as backup band (with Slash playing oh-so-tastefully). But it had a slightly half-baked, under-rehearsed quality to it. At the time I was hearing it I was wondering if perhaps there was a better rehearsal version that they could offer as a download, ‘cause this one was pretty shaky, if wonderfully intentioned. (I especially liked the touch of having Norah Jones, Ravi Shankar’s daughter, singing the “jai guru deva” refrain first time through. And Stevie Wonder can always be counted on to give it 150 percent.)
As the show inched its way toward the three-hour mark, Usher blew me away with his smoov moves and gymnastic vocals. This guy is the total package–no wonder the ladies in the Mix editorial department would swoon every time his name came up at a meeting! What a dancer! And it was fitting that at the end of his segment, he was joined by septuagenarian soul god (father) James Brown for a little funky back-and-forth singin’, dancin’, gruntin’ and takin’ it to the bridge! It was electric!
The big awards were, as usual, mostly mystifying and disappointing. The majority of the categories I cared about were dealt with long before the telecast. All night long those early winners were flashed on the bottom of the screen, and you know what–I didn’t read one of ‘em! I’m sorry, but I refuse to multitask while I’m watching a music show. It’s bad enough that the CNN lower screen crawl has insinuated itself all over television. We don’t need it on awards shows. I was content to read to results in the paper the next day, and save my groans about the inevitable miscarriages of justice for the morning breakfast table.
But all in all a fun way to spend a Sunday evening in mid-February.
Hey Oscar, Don’t Diss the Sound Guys!
Perhaps you’ve heard that Gil Cates, the producer of the past 12 Academy Award telecasts, has indicated that he wants to try something new on this year’s program (which airs February 27). He’s talked about breaking down the barriers between the audience and the stage at the Oscars (how Samuel Beckett!), perhaps having some groups of nominees already be up on the stage when the results are read, and...here’s the controversial one...having presenters actually walk into the audience and hand the trophies to some winners at their seats. These, presumably, would be the “little” categories–anything technical that might not play “sexy” (metaphorically speaking) on TV. The sound categories have long been the unfair butt of jokes from hosts and presenters through the years (even Johnny Carson mercilessly mocked the great effects wizard Alan Splet when Splet wasn’t there to accept his Oscar many years ago), and now it looks as though Cates wants to marginalize the tech folks to the point where the public will barely see (or hear from) the winner. Of course every year there’s lip service paid to streamlining the always bloated show, but of course no one would ever consider trimming a pointless dance number, a tedious parade of the same old “classic” clips, or an endless tribute to someone the Academy has foolishly snubbed for decades.
Well, the sound folks are, understandably, pissed off about this potential development. Over the past couple of weeks, a flurry of emails by some of the biggest names in post–including Oscar winners and nominees such as Bob Beemer, Walter Murch, Tom Fleischman and others–have been sent to Cates protesting the move. Here is the text of Murch’s letter:
“Dear Gil Cates:
As a member of the Academy for over thirty years and a nine-time nominee and three-time winner, I would like to protest in the strongest terms possible your decision to not allow ‘technical’ crafts on stage to receive their Oscars.
Every craft in film, directing, acting, editing, sound, and on down the line, is a mixture of technical and artistic. This is the Academy, not the Golden Globes, and it is celebrating all the crafts that go to making American cinema the successful art form and business that it is.
To apply some kind of PMI (People Magazine Index) to the nominees and make this the criterion for whether they get to go on stage or not and speak to the Academy, is disgraceful to the Academy and to all of the people who work in film whether they are members of the Academy or not.
With great concern,
Go get ‘em, Walter! Let’s hope these words (and similar ones from other sound greats) don’t fall on deaf ears. But I’m not optimistic. Cates hasn’t shown much in the past decade to give us cause for hope.