The Pre-Grammy Gala, fueled by inertia and starpower in equal amounts, is the annual party thrown by legendary record man Clive Davis the night before the Grammys. Once a label-sponsored showcase for the likes of Whitney Houston, for the past five years it has evolved into an official if largely pointless Grammy event, where top acts do brief sets for a well-connected crowd (of roughly a thousand) in a hotel ballroom, and Davis proves that even at age 81, he can call in a lot of favors. Performers at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills last night included Imagine Dragons, Lionel Richie, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, A Great Big World, R. Kelly, John Fogerty, Jennifer Hudson, the Foo Fighters, Miley Cyrus, Pharrell Williams, T.I., Robin Thicke, Lorde, and Fantasia. All gave professional performances, but few of them gave any more than that.
Imagine Dragons opened the three-and-a-half-hour show with acoustic versions of “It’s Time” and “Radioactive,” during which drummer Daniel Platzman appeared to be playing a large box. “A lot of you don’t know who we are – that’s perfectly fine,” singer Dan Reynolds told the audience. “We’re just grateful to be here.” He mentioned one perk of the evening: He got to meet Dave Grohl.
Recording Academy president Neil Portnow spoke for seven minutes (approximately six minutes too long, and typical of the evening’s pacing). He read a dictionary definition of “icon” in praise of Lucian Grainge, the CEO of the Universal Music Group. In recent years, the Gala has been rebranded as the “Salute to Industry Icons,” which means that every year, a record-company president gets a President’s Merit Award from the Recording Academy.
Before Grainge got his award, an exuberant Lionel Richie, looking as ageless as the bust in the “Hello” video, performed “Easy” and “All Night Long.” Then the video screens played a short film that showed off Grainge’s clout while making a joke of it: various Universal stars (Sting, Jon Bon Jovi, Katy Perry, U2) made cameos in which they pretended to blow off Grainge when he called them to ask if they would appear in his award video. Rod Stewart blew a hairdryer into the phone and claimed to be on a plane to Peru, while Taylor Swift put Grainge on hold and painted her nails. (Also making appearances: Elton John, Irving Azoff, Ari Emanuel, Lionel Richie, George Lucas.)
After Grainge accepted the award, Jimmy Iovine gave a short speech about getting fired from his first job as a producer (for Foghat) before rebounding with the Patti Smith Group’s Easter. He then introduced Davis, who hosted the rest of the evening. Davis’s time at the microphone had three principal thrusts: (1) Reminding everyone that they were on a musical journey. (2) Chiding rowdy members of the audience (“I’m going to ask for table 10’s attention,” “I’m going to ask the gentlemen in the middle to sit down,” and in a twofer, “If you’ve enjoyed the musical journey, I’m going to ask each of you please to take your seats”). (3) Naming many of the famous people in attendance. Receiving shoutouts (often with lengthy descriptions of their careers): Quincy Jones; Jane Fonda; Taylor Swift; Joni Mitchell; Metallica; Rihanna; Smokey Robinson; Rod Stewart; Gladys Knight; Alicia Keys (weakly serenaded by the crowd for her 33rd birthday); David Foster; Richard Perry; Joan Collins; Jackie Collins; Olivia Harrison; Jared Leto; Berry Gordy; Cyndi Lauper; Neil Diamond; Robbie Robertson; Russell Simmons; Tim Cook; Nile Rodgers; Earth, Wind & Fire; Kris Kristofferson; Paul Shaffer; and Kathy Griffin. These digressions generally felt like Davis was killing time during a commercial break – despite the show not being televised.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis gave energetic performances of “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.” “I don’t think I’ve ever performed in a room with seventeen chandeliers,” Macklemore said. “I’m going to eat some dessert – I’m going to enjoy this moment.” Ian Axel of A Great Big World performed “Say Something” at a grand piano while the music-industry audience chattered and networked. R. Kelly did his Nelson Mandela tribute, “Soldier’s Heart,” marching through the crowd surrounded by dancers in African garb.
John Fogerty did a longer set, showing that he was spry enough to dance on the grave of his longtime nemesis Saul Zaentz. After truncated versions of “Born on the Bayou” and “Centerfield,” he paused to thank his family and to chat with Taylor Swift, telling her, “You’re probably going to win that thing tomorrow night.” (“Shut up,” she replied affectionately from her seat.) Fogerty followed with “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and “Bad Moon Rising,” and then recreated two duets from his recent Wrote a Song for Everyone album: Jennifer Hudson came out to do “Proud Mary” in an Ike-and-Tina mode, and the Foo Fighters joined him for the evening’s highlight, a burning version of “Fortunate Son.”
Miley Cyrus performed in a short white dress and what appeared to be a pink fake fur. Realizing the audience was not her core fanbase, she eschewed twerking for a Dolly Parton cover (a fine version of “Jolene”). She also sang “Get It Right” and “Wrecking Ball,” saying “This song made my year.”
Pharrell Williams, wearing a bulbous brown hat, larked his way through “Happy” and was joined by Jennifer Hudson and rapper T.I. for “I Can’t Describe (The Way I Feel)” (Hudson’s new single, which he produced). Then, to the surprise of exactly nobody, Robin Thicke joined him onstage to perform “Blurred Lines.” Thicke spent most of the song walking through the audience with a wireless microphone, spurring fears that he was seeking out Cyrus so he could recreate their twerking moment from the VMAs.
Lorde did two songs, including “Royals.” Depending on your point of view, the song’s contempt for music-world royalty was rendered meaningless when she sang it as a command performance for the industry’s upper crust, or the Beverly Hilton ballroom was the perfect context for it. The live music ended with Fantasia Barrino doing a clipped reading of Lena Horne’s “Stormy Weather” from the Broadway musical revue After Midnight.
The show wasn’t over, although much of the audience was leaving: Davis declared, “I’m the keeper of the flame of Whitney Houston,” and said that he had been listening to her concert performances to compile a live album. He closed the show with a ten-minute video of Houston singing on the American Music Awards in 1994 – just in case anyone in the audience didn’t have YouTube access.