I watched the Grammys last night, and it was the most enjoyable Grammy Awards show I’ve seen since Ralph Stanley opened it up a few years ago with an a capella rendition of “Oh Death,” a cold shot of reality from a guy who’s been around long enough to know what’s real. The thing that made this show so enjoyable was this: the big stage productions were at a minimum, and what was maximized was live musicians singing and playing their asses off.
The show opened with Bruno Mars and band doing a number that openly referenced James Brown and Prince: synchronized dance moves (including Brown’s trademark split down to the floor), great singing, and a powerhouse band (with a horn section!) in the great tradition of funky groove merchants going back to the 1960s and beyond. Mars and the band looked great in their gold lame jackets, they played great, and unlike much contemporary urban music, they didn’t need to put 20 nearly naked women on stage shaking butts to get the message across.
Taylor Swift, her ringlet hairdo replaced with straight bangs and pigtails (which look suits her well), dressed in what looked like a knee-length prairie girl dress, opened her number singing and self-accompanied on banjo, joined soon after by a large acoustic band. Like Mars, her and her crew rocked the place with straight-up musicianship (and a few well-placed synchronized moves). The same must obviously be said of Adelle, who took home six Grammies, and served up a killer performance of “We Could Have Had It All” with her and band wearing all their clothes, with not a soul onstage who wasn’t there to sing or play an instrument. The Foo Fighters turned in a tough performance of their latest hit, and Dave Grohl, who powered the drums behind Nirvana in a previous life, told the audience that their latest album was recorded to a tape machine in a garage, and exhorted everyone listening to put down the computer mouse, pick up a guitar, and learn how to play, which was obviously the main theme of the night. Jennifer Hudson’s tribute to Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You,” was deeply moving and brilliantly sung. And I haven’t even discussed the tribute to Glen Campbell, a great musician who’s certain to be included in any comprehensive account of popular music in the 20th century, which included among others The Band Perry, whose singer is plenty good enough for ANYBODY’s band. What a feast!
Katy Perry’s elaborate sets and staging came across as a little kid playing dressup by comparison. Bobby Brown appeared with two male dancers who swirled and twirled along with Brown, to little effect; I can’t even remember his song, and on this night the song was the thing. Rihanna in her number with Chris Martin and Coldplay just sounded weak; I didn’t get the emotional point of what they were doing, and on a night when other performers were shooting out the lights over and over, it wasn’t enough.
It was a night for musicians to show the world that music is first and foremost music, not spectacle, and they did the job. Whatever else you can say about the current generation of popular artists, they know how to sing, play, and write. And what a pleasure it is to see popular music come back to that.