Grammy Awards: Barbra Streisand stars at MusiCares concert, R. Kelly stars at Clive Davis’ party


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“Can it be that it was all so simple then?” Barbra Streisand, one of the two most compelling performers to appear during the two best-known gala events leading up the Grammy Awards, intoned that signature line before a hushed audience gathered to pay tribute to her. This year’s MusiCares person of the year sipped tea from a cup that matched her lacy black gown and reflected upon what music does.

Music elevates the moment, she said during the speech preceding her short, night-closing set, and it reflects the time it helps make beautiful. It’s no coincidence, Streisand said, that today’s hits have titles like “Grenade” and “Dynamite.” Her comment pointed to a truth: In 2011, music’s time is one of explosive flux countered by a nascent longing for tradition, a search for constancy and grace under fire.


That mood characterized both the Friday night Streisand event and Clive Davis’ annual Saturday party at the Beverly Hilton, old-school, star-studded variety shows focusing on what has conventionally produced pop’s “Wow” factor: big, glorious voices operated by glamorous, exceptional talents, serving songs written to last.

The Streisand gala included veterans such as Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder and Barry Manilow, sensible choices like Herbie Hancock, mainstream figures in mid-career like Faith Hill and Seal, and newcomers or moderate left-fielders (Nikki Yanofsky, Diana Krall) whose work focuses on the old-school musicality instead of rockish rebellion or beats-inspired abandon. (One fun exception: the video for “Barbra Streisand,” the club hit by the DJ super-duo Duck Sauce, was the night’s hipster nod.)

The biggest contribution came from the cast of “Glee.” Streisand’s heir apparent, Lea Michele, her fellow Broadway vets Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison, and current show favorite Darren Criss (a little wobbly surrounded by his Warblers) embodied today’s renewed interest in traditional pop. [For the record: A previous version of this post misspelled Lea Michele’s last name.]

Nobody made a cross-genre leap. This critic’s dream of Streisand and Eminem, the two most charismatic figures performing on Sunday’s Grammy telecast, coming together for some kind of Borscht-and-Rust Belt hybrid was not to be. Streisand’s songbook was instead celebrated by artists who made perfect sense. Stevie Wonder was about as distant as the evening got from cabaret pop.

The evening’s one odd combo, actually a threesome of Lee Ann Rimes, Bebe Winans and Jeff Beck performing “Come Rain or Come Shine,” was a soul-music throwdown that didn’t quite fit, though it provided some energy. Sincerity worked best: Hill’s calm, heartfelt “Send in the Clowns,” Michele’s earnest “My Man,” Wonder’s blissful, inventive “People.”

None, of course, could top the evening’s honoree, who conquered an apparently cold-blemished throat to work her unassailable genius. In Streisand’s hands, a song becomes a vehicle for powerful introspection, a way to play (to quote a song she sang from the album she’s currently recording) among the windmills of your mind. Streisand’s 30-minute set transported the crowd to a place where trends and chart numbers mean little, where pop is an intimate grammar instead of an industry.

R. Kelly, the star of Clive Davis’s party, also transported the fancy crowd he faced — though more violently. The evening’s entertainment was wide-ranging, with standouts including newcomers Janelle Monae and Mumford & Sons; Mary J. Blige tackling Joni Mitchell in honor of “Industry Icon” award-winner David Geffen; and a gale-force Jennifer Hudson finally getting closer to her full potential. (Whitney Houston’s unstable duet with her beautiful, dignified elder cousin Dionne Warwick was not a highlight.) But nothing came close to Kelly’s intervention. The unpredictable soulman bounded toward the stage singing the national anthem (no kidding!) and stomped and soared through an appearance that was one of the hottest this party has ever seen.

Kelly is a single-bound kind of leaper who dips into everything from soft porn to opera in his music. His supreme chutzpah, a quality he shares with Streisand, allows him to feel secure within pop’s traditions while taking them wherever he pleases. He made Davis’ musical program, which at times got lost amid the chatter of the A-list crowd, come alive. It was all so simple then: an instant when one of pop’s key traditional elements, that determination to wow, took on new dimension in the hands of an expert.

-- Ann Powers