Getting ready for Grammy night
In this era of award show proliferation, it’s hard not to smirk at the “once-in-a-lifetime” advertising campaigns for shows such as the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards on CBS Sunday night. Beyoncé is up for 10 Grammys this year and you have to suspect that back at the home, the trophy room is the most cluttered corner -- well, except for the walk-in shoe closet.
Still, there is something about the scale, history and reach of the Grammys stage that stirs undeniable emotion in the artists who step on it for the first time. On Thursday, at rehearsals for the broadcast, that was clear in the voices of two artists, Zac Brown and Leon Russell, who are on opposite ends of their careers but will step into the spotlight together Sunday night to sing to the largest audience of their lives.
Brown is the 32-year-old leader of the Zac Brown Band, which is nominated in the prestigious best new artist category for its grits-and-guitar sound. Russell is the 67-year-old Oklahoma piano man who left a hospital bed last week and used a wheelchair to reach his keyboard on the Staples Center stage. “It’s an honor,” Russell said in a hushed voice backstage. “And it’s one I never expected.”
The acts were put together by Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich, who said despite the generational gap, their “music was born in the same barn.” The haystack suits Brown’s band, which aspires to be musical kin to the Charlie Daniels Band or the Allman Brothers; the group arrived for rehearsals in battered denim and belt buckles tested by their country-bear physiques, and sang their hit “Chicken Fried,” an ode to America, its soldiers, cold beer and a mother’s love.
“We never expected to be here,” said Brown, whose wife is handling the band’s show wardrobe and taking care of three daughters younger than 3. “It’s a lot to take in. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to show our musicianship.”
Other scheduled performers are the Black Eyed Peas, Beyoncé, T-Pain and Jamie Foxx with Slash, Eminem teamed with both Lil Wayne and Travis Barker, Lady Antebellum and Green Day performing with cast members from the “American Idiot” stage production. Bon Jovi will perform a song to be determined by viewer votes. What number might steal the show?
Well, at Thursday’s rehearsals, the most gripping performance was by Pink, who sang “Glitter in the Air” while suspended -- spinning -- from the Staples Center rafters with a trio of body-painted dancers who looked like gilded, hard-bodied angels. During the number, Pink wore an outfit that is little more than strategically placed bandages, and took a dip in a tub of water placed in the center of the venue.
“It’s something she did during her tour and we loved it and brought it in for the show,” Ehrlich said. “The song isn’t a hit but it’s a good song and she’s happy to be doing something besides ‘So What.’ Going with the hit is the easy thing but it’s not always the best thing.”
30 years of stars
This year’s show represents a memorable milestone for Ehrlich; it’s his 30th anniversary as executive producer and, as Pink finished her practice set, he waxed about that first show in 1980, which featured Bob Dylan (“He actually wore a tux as he sang ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ -- imagine that, Dylan in a tux”) and a duet between Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand (Streisand phoned Ehrlich’s house late the night before the show to ask which hand she should use to caress Diamond’s cheek).
The centerpiece moment this year is a 3-D concert performance by the late Michael Jackson singing “Earth Song” that will be accompanied by Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood, Usher, Jennifer Hudson and Celine Dion. The 3-D glasses are available free at Target.
In the category of wardrobe fascination, there will also be a duet by Lady Gaga and Elton John, who memorably shared the stage with Eminem in 2001.
Mary J. Blige and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli will perform the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and that live performance as well as their recent studio recording of the song will be sold through Target and iTunes as a fundraiser for earthquake relief in Haiti.
“When I was young, my mother played that song, the Aretha Franklin version, all the time, every day, and I never knew why,” said Blige, talking about her youth in Savannah, Ga. “Then I sat down and I listened to it, really listened. I couldn’t believe the way Aretha skated all over that song. It’s amazing. The lyrics are amazing.”
Oh, yes, there will also be acceptance speeches. The nominees for album of the year are “I Am . . . Sasha Fierce” by Beyoncé, “The E.N.D.” by the Black Eyed Peas, “The Fame” by Lady Gaga, “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King” by the Dave Matthews Band and “Fearless” by Taylor Swift. The prestigious record of the year race is between “Halo” by Beyoncé, “I Gotta Feeling” by the Peas, “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon, “Poker Face” by Gaga and “You Belong With Me” by Swift.
Neil Portnow, the president and CEO of the Recording Academy, said initiatives to widen and diversify the voting membership have led to a richer variety of nominees in age, background, genre, gender and heritage.
“I think you see that when you look at the styles and sounds that are represented by this year’s nominees,” he said.
Perhaps, but some critics are saying this year’s nominated music in the top categories is an especially forgettable lot and that “music’s biggest night” feels smaller than it used to amid the commercial losses of the reeling recording industry.
Don’t talk about diminishing returns to Brown and his band, who are just now arriving in the big time. By the end of his first Grammy adventure, Brown will have met bigger names than Russell but it’s doubtful that any will make a bigger impression on him.
“Leon has got a presence about him, like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, that aura from a long, hard music life,” Brown said. “There aren’t very many people that have that. It’s something to see.”