Written by Josh Jackson
Each year the Grammy Awards are one of the most watched, most loved AND most hated television programs of the year. For those who only like one type of music it can be frustrating to watch and walking the line to makes sure several formats get represented in the performances and awards is always a daunting task for the producers. This was my third year behind the scenes of the show and as I always like to do, here are my notes on this year’s show.
Soul singer Aretha Franklin is one of the most celebrated performers in Grammy history. After her recent battle with illness, it was suggested that there be a salute to her in this years program. I’ll admit I liked the idea, but wasn’t sure at first that it was a good way to open the show. However, once I heard the first demo, I was hooked. The voices of the ladies (Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Florence Welch, Martina McBride & Yolanda Adams) went together well and while I initially thought it was going to end up being a ‘sing-off,’ everyone gave their best performance without over doing it. It was a thrill to sit in the dressing room with Music Director Greg Phillinganes right before dress rehearsal and watch the last pieces of the performance come together. I even got to throw in an ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ as a ‘back ground’ singer, which Greg got a kick out of. I just couldn’t help myself. I had never met Florence Welch or Christina Aguilera before and was pleased that Yolanda Adams remembered me from a BET show I did in New Orleans last year, Sunday Best. Martina was her always-pleasant self and Jennifer Hudson had her 2 year old with her. He was running around with a toy mic singing and dancing to Michael Jackson tunes. The medley went off without a hitch and ended up being a great start to the show.
The 2nd performance of the show was by the ever brilliant, Lady Gaga. Did I say brilliant? Yes, I did. Love or hate her she has an incredible PR machine behind her, all who have shaved their heads and drunk the Kool-Aid. To them Lady Gaga is the solution to all the world’s problems. How she gets people to believe in her so much, I have no idea, but they truly think her music is going to change the world. That said, the performance was quite a letdown for me. Besides shocking everyone by showing up to rehearsals in a plexi-glass coffin and coming down the red carpet and onto the stage in her ‘egg,’ it was a plain , regular dance number. And the new single that is supposed to change the world? Save your money, dig in the closet and dust off your old version of Madonna’s ‘Respect Yourself.’ I did have a run-in with Gaga after the show. We were gathered near her dressing room to see what kind of fiasco would ensue as she left. As she was quickly escorted by us, she reached out and shook my hand. I heard someone say, ‘I wouldn’t wash that hand for a week,’ but all I could think about was immediate disinfection.
As Monty Python said… “And now for something completely different.’ After bagging a truckload of CMA’s this past year, Miranda Lambert’s performance was anticipated by many. The song, ‘House That Built Me,’ showcased the easy-going side of Miranda. It was a beautiful song with a sparse set look, but not sure the acoustic balled won over any new fans from outside the genre.
I have been interested in the band Muse for quite some time now. The first time I saw them was at the Curiosa Festival in the parking lot of Starwood Amphitheater when they opened for The Cure. I liked them so much that I used some contacts to weasel into the well over sold-out show they played at Mercy Lounge in Nashville just a couple of months later. So, I was very eager to see them perform once again. As in the past, they did not disappoint. As one of the only ‘rock’ bands in the show, they made sure to bring the glitz and volume, doing both well. Towers of media rained from the rafters as they pounded through their song, ‘Uprising.’ Complete with 20 or so ‘protesters’ that took over the stage, it was a performance that in my opinion set a standard for the rest of the show.
While it is a problem for some people, the one thing I personally love so much about the Grammys is the diversity. And the next group of performers, while similar, all brought their own styles to an entertaining medley. Bruno Mars, B.o.B and Janelle Monae have all found success in the past year and having them perform together was a great way to showcase their talent. Starting with a stripped down version of the catchy pop hit ‘Nothin’ On You,’ the trio quickly transformed into an incredible re-imagining of the Bruno Mars song ‘Grenade.’ Taking the 50’s rock n roll vibe so far as to even change the telecast to black & white, might have seemed distracting to some, but Mars performance was so strong that there was no denying the talent of this young man. The trio finished with Monae’s song, ‘Cold War.’ While I felt it was the weakest of the three songs, the energy was amazing and with Monae belting the lyrics, B.o.B now on guitar and Bruno Mars on the drums, the trio’s talent was confirmed even further.
Four short years ago, Usher discovered a young Canadian singer and suddenly 12 year old girls around the world were struck with ‘The Fever.’ Bieber Fever that is. The phenomenon that is Justin Bieber has long perplexed me, but seeing him live and in person is a little different. Is he the best singer? No. The best dancer? Not even close. But then again, he’s a 15 year old kid – and like so many top-level entertainers, there is just ‘something’ about him. Pair him with one of the hottest singer-dancers on the planet, Usher, and you have a fun performance. Justin started, performing an acoustic snippet of his hit ‘Baby.’ He then segued into a full-fledged production number, ‘Never Say Never,’ with Jaden Smith jumping in to rap. The two were surrounded by a colorful, multi-level stage complete with martial artists and fire-breathers before exiting to give way to Usher for his hit, ‘OMG.’ This was a REAL dance number. I’m sure Lady Gaga was rolling over in her casket backstage as Usher commanded the stage, leaving many to wonder if he could possibly be the Michael Jackson of this generation. I don’t think he comes near to having the universal appeal of someone like MJ, but he is a super-talented performer. Bieber came back to the stage to end the performance with Usher as they sang and danced in sync. I can’t say that I have ‘the Fever,’ but I will say I will likely not be so critical of Mr. Beiber in the future. Plus, he was nice enough to give me his autograph for my two daughters. Can you say ‘Dad of the Year?’
‘Rhythm Rock’ was the theme for the next trio of acts. While fairly new to the scene, both Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers gained popularity in the last year and I’m sure both groups were thrilled to be sharing the stage with none other than Bob Dylan. Heck, it was a thrill of mine just to stand on the stage and watch this number come together. With Bob being Bob, it was really kind of ‘as is,’ being performed differently almost every time they rehearsed. What else would you expect from Bob Dylan? There were certain aspects that had to be planned so the performance would work technically and I found Seth Avett very kind, walking me through the number, which helped us better prepare to capture them for the telecast. I had so many people tell me afterwards how bad Dylan sounded and every time I answered the same. ‘When has Dylan ever sounded good?’
With good reason, Lady Antebellum have become the darlings of the music scene the last couple of years. While there is nothing fancy about them, they do what they do well and have been recognized greatly for it. Further displaying their knack for wonderful harmony, the trio performed a cover of the Teddy Pendergrass song ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ along with two of their hits, ‘American Honey’ and ‘Need You Now.’ They finished the night winning a multitude of awards. It is always nice to see Nashville ‘represent’ and I have to wonder just what will come next for this young group.
Up next was perhaps the most talked about performance of the evening. For obvious reasons, I haven’t been a fan of the Cee Lo Green song known as ‘Forget You,’ but could not deny the catchy nature of the song. Add to the hook Cee Lo’s outrageous ‘peacock’ outfit, Liberace’s piano, the Jim Henson Company Puppets, super star actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and a set right out of a cartoon – and you have a spectacle. As Cee Lo exited his dressing room in full costume (a total surprise to all of us) I immediately started laughing. I was able to meet him the day before when he rehearsed and as he walked to the stage, he saw I was amused and came over to give me a ‘fist bump.’ It was obvious this whole performance was going to be outrageous and fun, and it was.
Known for her up-tempo dance numbers, Katy Perry appeared on stage with only a piano player for the ballad, ‘Not Like The Movies.’ Sitting on a swing, she rose above the stage and the train of her dress became a screen with projected images of Katy’s own wedding. As she descended back to the stage, the song came to an end, revealing a Valentine themed stage complete with dancers and a full band for the all out dance number, ‘Teenage Dream.’ I have always found Perry’s recordings much stronger than her live performance and this was no exception.
Dolly Parton has long been an icon in music, so it was no surprise that NARAS chose to present her with one of their Lifetime Achievement awards. In additional honor, Norah Jones, Keith Urban and John Mayer joined forces for an acoustic presentation of Dolly’s classic, ‘Jolene.’ Even though it was a simple number, Norah sounded fantastic (and looked cute as a button) and both Keith & John were easily able to display their guitar skills.
Highly nominated artist Eminem was next. The first song performed was actually on Rihanna’s latest album, ‘Love The Way You Lie (Part 2)’ He was joined by Rihanna (obviously) on vocals and Adam Levine from Maroon 5 on piano and guitar.
The second part of the performance featured virtual unknown, Skyler Grey. It seems not many people knew who she was and while she has appeared with Eminem, Rihanna & TI on past recordings, she is known more as a member of Duncan Shiek’s band and a part of the acoustic folk/rock scene. The performance also included the much-anticipated return of Dr. Dre. While not a huge fan of rap, it was a powerful performance. One interesting observation was the paranoid nature of Eminem’s crew. They shuffled him through the halls at a near sprint pace and even as he accepted awards and returned to his dressing room, he never smiled.
Even though it was a very small part, Esperanza Spalding and several other jazz performers underscored NARAS President, Neil Portnow’s speech. In a huge surprise, Miss Spalding won Best New Artist this year, upsetting Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence+The Machine & Mumford & Sons. Before the awards I was telling some people that I had worked with her before and thought she was extremely talented. I even went as far as to say she could be a contender. Good guess!
What can you say about Mick Jagger that hasn’t already been said? He took a bare stage, performing a 4 minute song with the same 3 words repeated over and over (I Need You) and turned it into the performance of the night. I was privy to some rehearsal footage before hand and was amazed at how he worked the stage in an empty rehearsal hall. Then, the way he opened it up on the show stage was truly a lesson for all the other performers in the house.
Barbara Streisand was the NARAS Music Cares Person of the Year and was offered a slot on the show. While not for everyone, there is something about Streisand’s voice, especially with a live orchestra that is chill bump inducing. It was also interesting to watch the way her rehearsal went down. Streisand and her camp were very particular when it came to the arrangement of the song, the camera angles chosen and even the way the lyrics looked in the teleprompter. I always find it interesting to see which artists are going require the most attention on a show!
Rihanna featured the rap stylings of Best New Artist nominee Drake in her hit ‘What’s My Name’ and it was next on tap. The highlight for me was getting to meet Rihanna’s guitar player, Nuno Bettencourt, of EXTREME fame. My inner 80’s rock n roll geek really came out on that one! The performance was catchy, but really wasn’t for me. I wanted to delve into a discussion with Nuno about his past and now current musical status and how they meld together. While I did have a chance to talk with him briefly, we weren’t able to delve into a super deep conversation. He did seem happy that I singled him out for a picture, though.
The band Arcade Fire ended up being the surprise winner of Album of the Year after losing Best Alternative Album and Best Rock Performance to the Black Keys earlier in the evening. Their performance, which sprawled across both stages and included BMX bikers equipped with helmet cams, can only be described as chaotic. It wasn’t my favorite performance and I heard many people saying, ‘Who is Arcade Fire?’ To me, their placement and win on the show are proof perfect that there is music that people enjoy beyond the grasps of FM radio and MTV. Some of their other selections aren’t near as random and I plan on checking them out further.
So that’s it. The 53rd Annual Grammys in a nutshell. There were other highlights of the night including meeting actor Seth Rogen and basically just traveling up and down the halls of the Staples Center taking in the sights and sounds. But the main attraction is and always will be the performances and grandeuer of ‘Music’s Biggest Night.’
Written by Josh Jackson
Tags: 53rd Grammy Awards, Barbara Streisand, blog, Bob Dylan, Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, concert blast, Dolly Parton, Eminem, Esperanza Spalding, Florence Welch, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Hudson, John Mayer, Josh Jackson, Justin Bieber, katy perry, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga, Martina McBride, Mick Jagger, Miranda Lambert, Muse, NARAS, Norah Jones, Nuno Bettencourt, Rihanna, Seth Rogen, The Arcade Fire, Usher, Yolanda Adams