All hail Kendrick Lamar, who walked into an already stellar Grammy bash last night and blew it so wide open, the buzz didn’t fade the rest of the night. He was the unquestioned king of the night. His performance began in a jail cell with “The Blacker The Berry,” as another prisoner played sax, then blew up into “Alright” with pyro and African dancers. He ended by debuting a new song, his final close-ups in stark white light (very Bowie circa the Station to Station tour) with jittery camera angles to match the fury of his voice, with a line about Trayvon Martin: “On Feburary 26th I lost my life, too.” The final image onscreen: a map of Africa labelled “Compton.” Not a soul watching this was imagining a single dragon.
Kendrick was the highlight of an awesomely chaotic Grammy show – the only thing missing was live footage of Adele beating the sound guy to a bloody pulp. Ever since LL Cool J took over as host, it’s become the only award show that clicks every year. They figured out the secret: skipping the whole “giving out awards” part of an awards show, to focus on live music. It wisely took the emphasis off the actual trophies, which nobody over the age of 11 cares about. Somebody out there was hearing the name “Lemmy” for the first time, just as I was hearing Andra Day, James Bay and Sam Hunt for the first time (and in the later two cases, laaaast).
The whole Hamilton-to-Kendrick block was such a rush, nothing could ruin it – not even the fact that Seth MacFarland was inexplicably allowed to talk in the middle. “Alexander Hamilton” was a shockingly fierce moment, especially for those of us finally getting an earful of this Hamilton thing after hearing about it forever from our theater friends. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rapped speech (while somebody waved a Puerto Rican flag) was one of the night’s peaks. Taylor Swift began with an excellent “Out of the Woods,” also looking very Bowie in an astronette glitter suit, as if she was heading to a party in space, though she got right back down to business in the front row, snuggling with Selena Gomez. They posed together all night like metaphorical gin and juice. Swift won Album of the Year and paused on her way to the podium to embrace Kendrick Lamar before giving a superbly shameless feminist speech. (With maybe a tone or two of Kanye shade, you think?) Courtney Barnett dodged a bullet by not winning Best New Artist – Meghan Trainor took the award and cried a lot. The godawful Carrie Underwood/Sam Hunt duet was enough to give plain white T-shirts a bad name.
The Lionel Richie homage happened on a very 1985 set with a giant neon pastel Lionel face, which is how every stage set should be decorated. LL introduced it by singing everybody’s favorite Lionel proverb: “Life is goooood, wiiiiild and sweeeet.” (Too bad he didn’t add, “I had a dream. I had an awesome dream.”) Demi Lovato did right by “Hello,” though John Legend is too nice for the bitchiness of “Easy” – where was Mike Patton? – and Tyrese’s “Brick House” was stuck in hour six of a Long Island wedding reception. Lionel sat in the audience listening to other people do his songs, with a look on his face that said, “Wait, they know I’m actually here, right? This isn’t a memorial montage?” But once he got up for “All Night Long,” everything was easy like Sunday morning. The Lionel jam also had the best audience sing-along shots of the night: George Clinton sang along to “Brick House,” while Dave Grohl got his fiesta-forever on to to “All Night Long.”
“Many of us play rock & roll, but very few of us are rock & roll,” Grohl said in his warm salute to Lemmy. (Who has been mentioned before on the Grammy Awards when exactly?) He also threw in a very gracious mention of the other recently deceased Motorhead warrior, Philthy Animal Taylor, and quoted Lemmy’s wise words: “The pleasure is to play.” The tribute featured the Hollywood Vampires: Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp, Joe Perry, GNR’s Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum. (As Alice said on the red carpet, “It was either this or the Muppets.”) The Vampires did the inevitable “Ace of Spades” and nothing can kill that song, except maybe Robin Thicke joining in, which somehow fortunately didn’t happen.
Stevie Wonder honored the late great Maurice White by singing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” a cappella (with a group called Pentatonix, who I guess are a thing). Stevie did his beloved “the envelope’s in braille” gag, and hey, bless him for that. So many memorial tributes – Bonnie Raitt did her guitar homage to B. B. King along with Gary Clark Jr. and Chris Stapleton. The Eagles paid a very unsentimental deadpan tribute to Glenn Frey with “Take It Easy” with Jackson Browne, though nobody can step to Joe Walsh, who might be the Grammys’ favorite person. (Who can forget him jamming with Paul McCartney to Side Two of Abbey Road in 2012?) Not a second of Ornette Coleman’s music all night, a very strange oversight.Watch Adele’s “All I Ask” performance at last night’s award ceremony.
Adele’s “All I Ask” showed why live performances are a gamble – the sound got screwed up, which makes sense, since all she did in the past year was pay the tab for every goddamn microphone in the building. But it was worth it to see her horrified look during her technical difficulties. Let’s face it, triumphing over technical difficulties is what she’s all about, and her performance remained one of the high points on sheer bravado. (As she explained afterward, “Shit happens.”) She deserved a do-over – too bad she didn’t bumrush the Gaga Bowie tribute to ad-lib a version of “Life On Mars?”.
The Weeknd’s solo spot made more sense with the explanation that Lauryn Hill didn’t show, and let’s just say that not feeling one’s face is a theme we all can relate to. (Rihanna was also a late-breaking cancellation, for medical issues.) Justin Bieber, Skrillex and Diplo performed, though no Bieb-tears this time. Miguel, presenting Best Rock Song, sounded a little confused why he was giving a speech about Michael Jackson. Alabama Shakes did “Don’t Wanna Fight,” with Brittany Howard doing a lot more to explain what guitars are for than Tori Kelly and James Bay could. (Way down in the fine print, the Grammys gave out an award for Best Rock Album – apparently Muse are still at it.) Pitbull did the final medley with Sofia Vergara dressed as a taxi, although the moment Thicke appeared, the producers desperately ran the credits and pulled the plug.
The most controversial moment of the night? Gaga’s Bowie tribute, which began with her in Aladdin Sane close-up, doing a brief snippet of “Space Oddity.” Then she began a hectic medley of Bowie songs with Nile Rodgers, rushing through nine or 10 of the man’s hits, sometimes doing little more than singing the title. Gaga evoked the spirit of his immortal 1975 TV duet with Cher, where they took the same irreverent approach to a crazed oldies medley. It was a blasphemous mess, yet that’s just what made it a worthy Bowie tribute. And as for the side of Bowie that Gaga didn’t have time to cover – the raging, intense, visionary, dangerous, fearless side – you could just go back and re-watch Kendrick.