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Grammys on key, but also a bit offbeat

Award shows typically manufacture their "anything can happen" aura, but on Sunday night the 51st annual Grammy Awards delivered the real thing with canceled performances, a star nominee in police custody, a lingering song-theft controversy and the unforgettable sight of British-born star M.I.A., a nine-months-pregnant single mom-to-be, prancing across the stage on her due date.

Oh, and there were some trophies handed out. A leading total of five of those went to the unlikely tandem of classic rock demi-god Robert Plant and country angel Alison Krauss, who paired for "Raising Sand," a mystic-minded journey through American roots music. "Raising Sand" won for album of the year and the evocative track "Please Read the Letter" claimed the prestigious record of the year honor.

Krauss, who came into the night as the leading female winner in the history of the Grammys, brought her career total to 26.

The other top winners were the British band Coldplay and New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne, two of the bestselling artists of 2008. But the fact that the best album trophy went to veterans playing tradition-bound music over younger, edgier artists fits the recent pattern of the Recording Academy voters.

The Grammys have given the album prize to Herbie Hancock and to the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack in recent years. ("O Brother" was produced by T Bone Burnett, who also was the studio architect of "Raising Sand.")

The award for best new artist, one of the most coveted honors in the music industry, went to 20-year-old Adele, the British singer who made her mark with the hit "Chasing Pavements."

The voters might play safe, but the show this year seemed to be walking a tightrope. There was a mad scramble by producers in the hours before the telecast when they got the jolting news that two nominees with key scheduled performances, Chris Brown and Rihanna, would not be coming. The reason for their absence -- an apparent early-morning incident between the romantically linked stars -- became a sizzling topic on the red carpet and during commercial breaks, although for viewers watching the CBS broadcast the cancellation was not mentioned.

In a dramatic twist, Brown, the handsome young hitmaker named the 2008 music artist of the year by Billboard magazine, ended up turning himself in to Los Angeles police instead of attending the Staples Center gala, where he was nominated for two awards. He was booked Sunday night at LAPD's Wilshire Station on suspicion of making felony criminal threats. He was released on $50,000 bail. There was no public word on the whereabouts of R&B singer Rihanna, a three-time nominee herself.

There were other bumpy off-camera subplots. The song of the year award went to Coldplay, known for its earnest, arcing music, and the strings-backed hit "Viva La Vida." Coldplay, which won two other awards, has become a model of steady success in an ailing rock sector, but even that band had some turbulence at this reality-show version of the Grammys; there had been a threat that they would be served with court papers on the red carpet.

That didn't happen, but the quartet must still deal with the claim by guitarist Joe Satriani that "La Vida" plagiarized his 2004 track "If I Could Fly."

Some of the night's surprises did make it into the broadcast. Actor Dwayne Johnson made a crack about Kid Rock earning "community service hours" for appearing on the show, a reference to the country-fried rapper nearly missing the broadcast because of some legal entanglements of his own. The three members of the Southern California pop-punk band Blink-182 announced they are getting back together, big news considering their 2005 breakup ended a run of platinum-selling albums.

The Staples audience greeted the Blink announcement with puzzled silence, but perhaps they just didn't recognize the trio -- the music scene changes faster than ever these days and the fans want stars of the moment. Which explains why Grammy producers embraced a youth movement this year by giving its stage to Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and the Jonas Brothers.

There also were more hip-hop performances on the show, including a notable "Rap Pack" teaming of rhyme stars Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and T.I. They were joined by M.I.A., wearing a black-and-white mesh outfit with carefully placed polka dots that was made all the more jolting by her huge pregnant belly.

Grammy nominee Estelle was stunned and impressed by the due-date bravado of M.I.A., whose "Paper Planes" was nominated for record of the year: "I was like 'Oh, god, she's going to break any minute now!' I have so much respect . . . I love people like that."

The producers of the Grammys had high hopes that, after an intense marketing blitz and two prime-time specials, the franchise could bounce back from poor ratings in recent years. This year featured almost two dozen musical numbers, among them a tribute to the Four Tops and a foot-stamping celebration of New Orleans music.

Such familiar faces as Paul McCartney, Neil Diamond and Stevie Wonder played, while Radiohead, the British band that had declined Grammy invitations through the years, flew in for a performance with the USC marching band.

Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist in the band, said the show's big tent was something to behold, a dizzying exercise in "surrealism." He also wasn't sure if that was a good thing. "Everything I know about pop culture I know from 'The Simpsons,' and they say the Grammys aren't very good."

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mark Medina contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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