At the awards, a variety show breaks out

Times Staff Writer

THE best thing about the Grammy Awards is that they don't waste your time giving out too many actual awards. Forty-five minutes into last night's show, only two golden gramophones had been handed out, and one of them went to the MIA Amy Winehouse, so there was only one acceptance speech. It was more than an hour before we got anything approaching a tender moment -- Kanye West shushing the overtime music so he could thank his dead mother -- and 2 1/2 hours gone before a winner got a laugh -- after expressing his awe at receiving an award from a Beatle, Vince Gill cast a sidelong glance at the audience: "Have you had that happen yet, Kanye?" he deadpanned.

When Winehouse won record of the year, for "Rehab," the look of fearful joy on her face -- like a beehived Christian mystic catching a glimpse of the risen Christ -- was a climax of sorts, and Herbie Hancock capturing album of the year took pretty much everyone, including Hancock, by total surprise. But for the most part, the awards themselves seemed an afterthought, the price paid for the ability to resurrect that great old TV tradition, the musical variety show. Where else could you see Carrie Underwood channel Nancy Sinatra, Alicia Keys try to out-sing Frank Sinatra, Cirque du Soleil "interpret" the Beatles, Herbie Hancock and a Chinese prodigy in a piano duel of "Rhapsody in Blue" and Jerry Lee Lewis take on Little Richard?

Yes, yes, watching the Killer, rotund and sedate as a Southern Gothic judge, "banging" out "Great Balls of Fire" mere inches away from a weird and waxen yet still vocally vital Little Richard was one of those moments that leaves you marveling at the power of the electronic hearth. But because they were marking 50 years of Grammys, the average age of the performers was, perhaps, a bit closer to triple digits than usual. Advance press had touted performances by Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, and the show opened with Frank Sinatra rhapsodizing about the miracle of records, after all, so no one could say they weren't warned. Still, an appearance by Andy Williams, host of the very first Grammy Awards, was a bit of a shock, as was the solemn, historical tone that Tom Hanks, oddly introduced as executive producer of "John Adams," adopted when announcing that tonight "we honor the power of the Beatles." As if "the lads" had been the deciding factor of D-day instead of a rock band. (And is Hanks beginning to look and sound like Lionel Barrymore?)

Which is not to disparage, in any way, the more venerable members of the music community. Through the miracle of modern technology, Keys sang with Sinatra, while Beyonce went toe to toe with a very real Turner, and all I can say is, better them than me. Because as powerful as both those young women are, it is difficult to look like anything but a bridesmaid when you duet with a master. (If you need proof that less is not only more but also the bedrock of cool, just watch Sinatra sing.) On the flip side, one had to wonder what sin Keely Smith, winner of the first Grammy for best performance by a vocal group or chorus, committed to be assigned a duet with Kid Rock, who, naturally, didn't bother to learn the lyrics. Kids today.

Ye olde headliners of yore notwithstanding, the show's main draw was, no doubt, the appearance of Winehouse, who wound up winning five awards. Those watching to see if the British singer, who was temporarily denied a visa in all probability because of her well-publicized drug use, would collapse or give everyone the finger in her live-by-satellite performance from London were no doubt disappointed. Beneath the hair and the tattoos was a wide-eyed, frightened-looking young woman clearly trying to just make it through her performance, which is pretty much what she did.

Still, there is something strangely reassuring about having a young artist thank her husband who is "incarcerated." Fifty years later, the heart of rock 'n' roll is, as they say, still beating.

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mary.mcnamara @latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction First Grammy host: A review of the Grammy Awards telecast in Monday's Calendar section said that Andy Williams had hosted the first Grammy Awards. Williams hosted the first live telecast of the Grammys, not the first award ceremony.
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