Awards handed out Sunday before the evening Grammy Awards telecast sometimes set the stage for what happens during the national TV broadcast. This year, the Black Keys got the momentum rolling by having a hand in three awards early on, including rock album for “El Camino” and rock song for “Lonely Boy.”
In a broader sense, since instituting the ceremony in 2004 to salute the vast majority of musicians not featured on prime-time TV, the Recording Academy has used the pre-telecast event in pursuit of an unspoken goal: letting the world know that the 70 categories not highlighted on television -- mostly classical, jazz, regional music and technical awards -- also matter.
This year, the early ceremony took another step toward that goal, moving for the first time across the street to the Nokia Theatre from Staples Center. Each winner’s name was announced from the stage by award presenters Janis Ian, Jimmy Jam, Kaskade, Britt Nicole, Manuel Valera and Radmilla Cody. Winners also were given the chance to deliver acceptance speeches in front of an audience of several thousand onlookers and the show’s host: actor, comedian and Grammy nominee David Alan Grier.
The pre-telecast event was streamed live on the Grammy website and further afforded another batch of performers a chance to play. Those included Americana album nominee John Fullbright, world music practitioner Krishna Das, San Francisco-based big band the Larry Batiste Orchestra, veteran South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Chicago experimental classical-rock hybrid group eighth blackbird and R&B singers Tyrese and Elle Varner.
There was a brief moment of overlap between the pre-broadcast show and the glossier ceremony set to get underway a short time later at Staples when Taylor Swift showed up to collect a Grammy for song written for visual media for “Safe and Sound,” thanking her collaborators on the song: the Civil Wars and producer-songwriter T Bone Burnett.
“I think it’s appropriate that Taylor Swift thanks us,” Civil Wars member John Paul White said, “because we’ve been carrying her for a while, and we’re getting tired.”
The pre-telecast show remains a more casual affair, in many ways. Unlike the evening show, where each nominee's whereabouts is precisely mapped out for camera operators and telecast directors, presenters at the afternoon event didn’t necessarily know which winners would be on hand to accept their awards. Several times, presenters scanned the theater after announcing a winner’s name to see whether anyone would step forward to accept. In many case, no one did, and the presenter said the Recording Academy would accept on their behalf.
Knowing their time in the spotlight was not going out on national television also seemed to give some winners a greater feeling of freedom at the lectern. “Holy [expletive],” veteran R&B singer-bandleader Billy Vera said after his name was called as the winner for the album notes he wrote for the Ray Charles collection “Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles." “This is my fourth nomination; I thought I was getting too old to win.”
The early awards also brought a first to the Beach Boys, which had never won a performance Grammy previously, only receiving a lifetime achievement award last year in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the group’s first chart hit in 1962. The “Smile Sessions” box set released at the end of 2011 won for historical album.
Beach Boys creative leader Brian Wilson accepted with a reference to his “Smile” lyricist collaborator Van Dyke Parks and his own 2004 solo reconstruction of "Smile" that preceded Capitol’s subsequent release of the original Beach Boys recordings. “Van Dyke Parks and I knew we were ahead of our time in 1965; in 2004, we released it. Good.”
Folk troubadour-activist Woody Guthrie was saluted by extension with the Grammy for boxed or special limited edition package going to “Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection.”
Veteran folk-rock singer and songwriter Ian delivered one of the best comedic lines of the evening upon receiving the Grammy for spoken word album for her recording of her book “Society’s Child: My Autobiography” in a category that also included recordings by former President Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow and comedian-talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
“To say this is an upset is an understatement,” Ian said. “I keep thinking there’s a punchline in here somewhere: 'An ex-president, the First Lady and three lesbians walk into a bar….' ”
And there were several testimonials to music itself, as expressed by Lila Downs in picking up a trophy for her “Pecados & Milagros” in the regional Mexican music album category, “The power of music can transform and move mountains, as we say in Mexico.”
“I wanna thank all of you from the hottom of my bart [sic],” New Orleans rock and funk veteran Dr. John said in his signature twisted syntax on collecting the Grammy for blues album for his “Locked Down” collection produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
“Wow, I was not expecting this. I have enough, but thank you,” said Bonnie Raitt, collecting her 10th career Grammy for her “Slipstream” album in the new Americana album category, for which she added, “They try to put us in a box; we will not be put in a box, we just make good music.”
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