With the televised Grammys crammed ever more full of musical performances, many categories have been sent across the road: Dozens of golden gramophones are distributed at the Nokia Theater before the main event at the Staples Center begins. NARAS has renamed this pre-show gala “The Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony,” but the vibe remains the same. On a stage with sci-fi pillars and disco lighting, seemingly revived from the Olivia Newton-John film Xanadu, 74 awards were handed out at blitzkrieg speed in a three-and-a-quarter-hour show, covering genres ranging from opera to Latin jazz.
Although the Nokia was close to full (at least at the beginning – by the end, there were only a handful of people left), most of the biggest names didn’t show up. Famous winners who were absent (or represented by a collaborator) included Pharrell Williams (Best Urban Contemporary Album), Beyoncé (Best Surround Sound Album and Best R&B Song, in collaboration with seven others including the also-absent Jay Z), Eminem and Rihanna (Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, plus Best Rap Album for Em), Kendrick Lamar (Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song), Jack White (Best Rock Performance and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package, for a Paramount Records retrospective), Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga (Best Traditional Vocal Album), Christina Aguilera (Best Pop/Duo Group Performance, with A Great Big World), Tenacious D (Best Metal Performance), Aphex Twin (Best Dance/Electronic Album), Paramore (Best Rock Song), St. Vincent (Best Alternative Music Album), Toni Braxton and Babyface (Best R&B Album), Ziggy Marley (Best Reggae Album), John Williams (Best Instrumental Composition), Carrie Underwood (Best Country Solo Performance), and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam (Best Recording Package), although Ament did send along the message “The best art in this life comes from collaboration.”
Posthumous Grammys went to Johnny Winters (Best Blues Album, accepted by his brother Edgar) and Joan Rivers (Best Spoken Word Album, accepted by her daughter Melissa Rivers, who noted that her mom loved getting anything, and that she would have not only been honored to have won her first Grammy, she would have had it copied and on the air at QVC by 11).
Actually showing up: “Weird” Al Yankovic for his Best Comedy Album Grammy. “Please, please sit down,” he told the already seated audience. “I signed my record contract in 1982 – it ended up being a 14-album deal,” he said. “Mandatory Fun was my 14th album. In just 32 short years, I was able to fulfill my contractual obligations.”
Rosanne Cash, also present, won three Grammys, for Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song. “The last time I won a Grammy, Reagan was president,” she said. “There are second acts in American lives.”
Proving that maxim, Cosby Show actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner won a Grammy for best traditional R&B performance (with Lalah Hathaway and the Robert Glasper Experiment), and said a few words.
Most surprising was the appearance of the press-shy Max Martin, who showed up to collect his Grammy for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, but almost left it on the podium by mistake.
For most of those in attendance, the vibe was nervous but enthusiastic: A large percentage of the audience was up for awards and didn’t know if the day would prove to be a career highlight or just a passing encounter with the red carpet. Even if they didn’t win, they got to take photos of their names on the big video screens and see an endless parade of effusive speeches, plus a half-dozen live performances, of whom the best were passionate Latin rapper Ana Tijoux, blistering blues singer Angie Fisher, the amped-up folk of Old Crow Medicine Show and country singer Hunter Hayes, who played some hot blues guitar.
Hayes, who is 23 years old but looks 14, was joined in Grammy-distributing duties by six nominees of various genres, including Rosanne Cash, producer Jimmy Jam (“I’m happy to get this to whoever,” he said when yet another famous act didn’t come onstage), disco queen Gloria Gaynor and film director John Waters, who wore an extremely loud jacket and expressed his desire to start a rap career in collaboration with Justin Bieber.
The French directors of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video made sure to take a selfie when they got onstage. The funniest moment of the afternoon may have been when Beck’s Morning Phase won in the category of Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical: Nine different engineers were credited, and when a gaggle of them headed for the podium, they appeared to be meeting for the first time and introducing themselves to each other. The single most moving moment, however, was the young children of the late Gil Friesen accepting the Best Music Film Grammy for 20 Feet from Stardom on their producer father’s behalf.
Lesser-known winners provided their share of quotable moments. Carlos Vives (nominated for Best Tropical Latin Album) said, “I apologize, my English is not good. My music is much better.” Angelique Kidjo (Best World Music Album): “For me, music is the weapon of peace.” Neela Vaswani (Best Children’s Album): “This is the craziest thing that has ever happened to me.” Cory Smythe (Chamber Music, Small Ensemble Performance) perhaps summed it up best by saying, “Thanks to the Academy for making this probably the greatest day in my mom’s life.”