"This is really a big, big night for our band," said lead singer Bono, in a leather jacket and white cowboy hat. "There's always the possibility with rock music that it might just amount to a little more than entertainment, on occasion, and you might be able to communicate some honest feelings."
The Grammy for album of the year, for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was U2's first win in that category since 1987's The Joshua Tree. It's no coincidence the two have a few things in common. Atomic Bomb, with its earnest themes and guitar-driven songs, is a return to the straight-ahead rock that brought U2 to stardom in the early '80s.
Other multiple winners last night included Mariah Carey, for her comeback album The Emancipation of Mimi, and hip-hop artist Kanye West, for his sophomore effort, Late Registration. Both artists took home three Grammys but were shut out of the major categories.
Newcomer John Legend, who had played piano for West and others on hit albums, scored with his own album. Legend won the best new artist Grammy, and his debut, Get Lifted, won for best R&B album. Legend admitted that his music didn't sound like anything else on hip-hop or R&B radio. "It was just me on the piano, and it worked," he said.
The other major award of the night, record of the year, went to the pop-punk group Green Day, for "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" from the American Idiot album, a spirited critique of the Bush administration.
Politics were largely kept out of the Grammy telecast. The lone protest came from Bruce Springsteen, who after performing his Grammy-winning song "Devils & Dust," said, "Bring 'em home!" The reference to U.S. troops in Iraq drew a standing ovation from a significant portion of the crowd.
One big winner last night was Kelly Clarkson, who in 2002 rocketed to fame as the winner of the first season of American Idol. Clarkson won two Grammys last night: best pop vocal album for Breakaway and best female pop vocal performance for "Since U Been Gone," an infectious hit from that album.
Clarkson is the only Idol winner to truly break out as a major star. Breakaway has sold 4.7 million copies, and Clarkson was quick to thank her fans - and her mom - last night. Through tears, she said, "I'm sorry I'm crying again on national television. You have no idea what this means to me."
Best alternative album went to the drums-and-guitar duo of the White Stripes for Get Behind Me Satan, while the Grammy for best country album went to Alison Krauss and Union Station for Lonely Runs Both Ways.
The five Grammy wins were undoubtedly significant for U2. The band members will enter their third decade together this year. U2 formed in 1976 in Dublin, Ireland, when its members were still in high school. They've come a long way since then. Lead singer Bono was named a Time magazine co-Man of the Year last year for his work on debt relief for third-world nations.
"I think they're doing some great work and tying that with a lot of the political stuff they're doing, I think that keeps them relevant and current," said Jimmy Rosemond, CEO of the artist management firm Czar Entertainment. "You don't know how to explain how these guys lasted so long, but one aspect is having great records that are timeless."
U2 outshone Carey and West throughout the evening. West won for rap solo performance, rap album and rap song. Carey, though she performed last night, received all three of her awards - contemporary R&B album, R&B song and female R&B vocal performance - off-stage before the show began.
The Grammys, broadcast from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, began with Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys singing Wonder's classic "Higher Ground" in memory of Coretta Scott King, who was buried in Georgia on Tuesday. Wonder picked up two early awards, including male pop vocal performance.
The telecast focused more on performances than awards, with the lion's share being handed out off-camera yesterday afternoon. The performers last night included Paul McCartney, who had never before performed at the Grammys.
"It's the first time I've ever played the Grammys. I finally passed the audition," McCartney deadpanned. "So I want to rock a bit." He played "Fine Line," a nominated song off his new album, and the Beatles classic "Helter Skelter."
U2 also played two songs, and other performers included Madonna, British rockers Coldplay and the country trio Sugarland.
Taking three classical Grammys - best classical album, best choral performance and best classical contemporary composition - was a Naxos recording of William Bolcom's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience," conducted by National Symphony Orchestra music director Leonard Slatkin.
The telecast included a tribute to storm-ravaged New Orleans, featuring homegrown legends Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and Irma Thomas, known as the "Soul Queen of New Orleans." The tribute also included Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen and The Edge from U2.
Sun classical music critic Tim Smith contributed to this article.