An evening that you could leave behind

  February 28, 2002


On recent broadcasts, the Grammys have brought us the Year of the Woman, the Year of Santana and the Year of Free Speech (a k a the Eminem/ Elton John controversy).

The 44th annual awards ceremony, broadcast live Wednesday night from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, turned out to be the Year Without a Theme, as well as the Year of Few Surprises.

As expected, heavily hyped R&B newcomer Alicia Keys, aging Irish art-rockers U2 and the bluegrass and traditional country artists behind the phenomenally successful soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" dominated the evening with multiple wins each.

Propelled by the unrelenting promotion machine of Clive Davis and J Records, Keys took the honors for best new artist, song of the year, best R&B song, best female R&B vocal ("Fallin' ") and best R&B album ("Songs in A Minor").

''I'd like to dedicate this to just thinking outside the box and not being afraid of who you are, no matter what you do,'' the 21-year-old Keys said.

The neosoul singer tied Lauryn Hill's 1999 record for most Grammys by a female artist.

U2 opened the show with a low-gear rendition of "Walk On," then claimed four out of the eight Grammys for which the group was nominated: best rock album ("All That You Can't Leave Behind"), record of the year ("Walk On"), best pop performance by a group ("Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of") and best rock performance by a group ("Elevation").

"O Brother" claimed album of the year and best soundtrack compilation; Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen and Pat Enright (the voices behind the film's fictional Soggy Bottom Boys) took best country collaboration; 75-year-old Ralph Stanley won best male country vocal for "O Death" (his first-ever Grammy), and the soundtrack's auteur, T Bone Burnett, claimed producer of the year.

"Bluegrass kicks ass!" declared awards presenter Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.

The "O Brother" crowd also provided the evening's performance highlights. Stanley and the trio of Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris mesmerized the capacity crowd in the huge arena with haunting a cappella renditions of tunes from "O Brother," before the Soggy Bottom Boys delivered the knockout punch with a rollicking version of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow."

Other performers seemed to be repeating things we'd already seen on national broadcasts earlier in the year, including the teen divas behind "Lady Marmalade" (Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink), who did the same shtick on the MTV Video Music Awards, though Patti Labelle joined them for the Grammys. Billy Joel, once again performed "New York State of Mind" in honor of Sept. 11, though this time pop crooner Tony Bennett joined him.

Generic guitar-rockers Train and the histrionic Keys both tried to spice up flat performances of their unremarkable hits by incorporating an orchestra, but the strings didn't help. (Train, who record for Chicago's Aware Records label, won best rock song for "Drops of Jupiter.")

R&B giant Mary J. Blige rocked the house, leaving the impression that she could eat Keys for breakfast. Best rap album winners Outkast were as insanely inspired as ever, and Bob Dylan was good but not great (maybe he needed Soy Bomb to drop in). All three made the joint appearance by 'N Sync and Nelly sound like fingernails on a blackboard.

Always refreshing, the young dance-pop artist Nelly Furtado performed her hit "I'm Like a Bird," then claimed the prize for best female pop vocal.

"Cool! Highly unexpected!" Furtado chirped. "I had fun writing it, so--whoo!"

Host Jon Stewart did his best to entertain in a thankless role, and he delivered one of the best lines ever heard at the Grammys--though you had to be a serious rock lover to appreciate it.

"Afghanistan was recently liberated from a totalitarian regime, and the first thing that happened was that they played music in the streets," Stewart cracked. "Three days later, even they were sick of Creed."

In contrast, Michael Greene, chairman of Grammy sponsors the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, hit a new low in his typically self-serving speech. In the midst of what is shaping up to be a bitter fight between artists and the major-label music industry over business as usual, Greene sided with the enemy.

With a staggering lack of logic, he claimed that downloading music from the Web is killing music--though he never made it clear how people having the ability to listen to something before buying it could possibly hurt anyone.

Didn't "O Brother"--where people heard the songs in the movie, then bought the album in record numbers--prove exactly the opposite?