The Grammys, live . . .
8:55 p.m.: The Grammys saved the most fascinating performer for one of its final performances, and the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch finally received a Grammy tribute, albeit a brief one. First, to introduce Frank Ocean, Juanes declared him one of today’s “more compelling singer-songwriters.” He gave a performance that lived up to that bill, although it may not widely expand his fan base.
Ocean’s “Forrest Gump” began with a striking guitar solo, which gave way as Ocean appeared onstage. He played his keyboard behind a screen that made it look as if he were running in slow motion, fitting, as Ocean’s songs sometimes unfold as if in slow motion. This was, admittedly, an odd song choice for the Grammys, as it’s Ocean at his most intimate, most stark.
It was a risk, and no doubt some of those tuning into Ocean for the first time tonight left a little confused. But the fact is that this was the only performance of the night that was a major gamble, and Ocean, even in his young career, isn’t shying away from challenging his audience. He has other songs, including the nominated “Thinkin Bout You,” that have a bit more of a beat, but here he buried himself in his keyboard and let the atmospheres wash over him, and he sang as if he’d rather be whispering the lyrics to the listener one-on-one.
Many considered Ocean the favorite to win album of the year. He’s long had the support of the industry -- he’s worked with everyone from Jay-Z to Justin Bieber -- and his music is leading a changing of the guard at mainstream R&B. Yet the Grammys went with the tried-and-true, giving its top prize to folk-rockers Mumford & Sons. It was also the popular choice, as Mumford’s “Babel” was the top-selling album among the album of the year crop, having moved more than 1.6 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
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Heading into the award, though, it seemed like it was shaping up to be a win for the Black Keys, which earlier bested Mumford & Sons in the rock song category. Even Marcus Mumford expressed surprise. “We didn’t think we were going to win anything, because the Black Keys were sweeping up all day,” he said.
Yet the Grammys have a tendency to favor old-fashioned stylings over the unexpected, and the final performance of the night -- a hip-hop mash-up featuring host LL Cool J, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, DJ Z-Trip, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker -- drove that point home.
There was, for instance, no hip-hop represented in the album of the year category. The LL Cool J “Whaddup” was an energetic sparkplug, even containing a shout-out to the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” but even more shocking was the fact that it featured a legend who has never won a Grammy. Public Enemy, despite a string of scathing, socially conscious early hip-hop records, is Grammy-less. It’s a category with some of the best company in pop.
8:15 p.m.: The album of the year is Mumford & Sons' "Babel."
8:11 p.m.: The Grammys’ in memoriam segment served further to highlight how puzzling it was that the show earlier gave a major tribute to Bob Marley. Nothing for the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch? Before a speech from Recording Academy chief Neil Portnow -- as well as an appearance from Ryan Seacrest -- jazz was given a few seconds of air time courtesy of Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Kenny Garrett, who paid tribute to Dave Brubeck.
Then came the all-star tribute to the Band’s sweet-voiced drummer, Levon Helm, and this was certainly a moment to look forward to heading into the show. It was a massive bill, with Elton John, Mavis Staples, the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, Mumford & Sons and country good ol’ boy Zac Brown. It was a joy to hear Staples and Howard on the same stage. In fact, it’s a joy to hear Staples any time she’s onstage, as the sound of her lived-in soul is a rare treat indeed. “The Weight” is a song built for a singalong, and the moment didn’t exactly disappoint, but if there’s a quibble, it’s this: The performance should have been more focused to give more vocal time to the contrast between Staples and John.
7:49 p.m.: Carrie Underwood, despite looking like she was ready to get married, sang her two Miranda Lambert-inspired rock songs -- “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs.” The latter, rightfully, got more air time, as it’s a little tougher, a little more eerie. The strings were overkill, but the Grammys must buy them in bulk. Odder still were the light effects on Underwood’s dress, which made it look like neon serpents were crawling out of her legs.