CHICAGO – Resilient youth was served at the 55th annual Grammy Awards Sunday, with relative newcomers such as Mumford & Sons, fun. and Gotye sweeping the major awards.
The Black Keys also enjoyed a banner night. The Nashville-via-Ohio rock duo won three Grammys, with guitarist Dan Auerbach picking up an additional award for producer of the year. Mumford & Sons won the biggest award of all, album of the year, for “Babel.”
But fun. didn’t go away empty-handed, nailing two major honors: best new artist and song of the year for “We Are Young.” In accepting the awards, the band reflected on its long climb to recognition over more than a decade. “But we’re old,” they cracked.
Australian artist Gotye won three awards after a decade of obscurity, and his humbleness resonated. Even as he accepted record of the year for “Somebody That I Used to Know,” he first thanked and lavished praise on his presenter, Prince.
Also collecting three awards were Jay-Z and Kanye West. Newcomer Frank Ocean won a pair, though the six-time nominee was shut out in the major categories.
The live telecast had its share of pacing problems. A long speech by host LL Cool J threatened to derail the awards right near the start, and a presentation by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences president, Neil Portnow, cut short a tribute by Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Kenny Garrett to the late jazz pianist Dave Brubeck.
But there were redemptive moments, not the least of which was a massive sing-along version of The Band’s “The Weight,” in honor of drummer Levon Helm, who died last year. The song was perfectly suited for passing the vocals, with the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard and Mavis Staples shaking the rafters.
And now for a few of our own award winners from the night’s nationally televised performances, speeches and other tomfoolery:
The saints go marching in: The Black Keys stormed down the streets of Treme, rocking up “Lonely Boy” with a jazz band and Dr. John in ceremonial, feathered “Night Tripper” head dress.
What, no explosions? Face it, everyone was waiting for something to blow up, a bunch of dancers in bondage gear to come strutting into view, or something equally outrageous in the middle of Rihanna’s performance. Instead the singer actually sang, and the intimacy of “Stay” made it among the night’s best and most refreshingly glitz-free performances.
Obligatory Sting sighting: The former Police singer strutted his bass during Bruno Mars’ performance. He’s not up for any awards, but as the official Grammys mascot, he reprised the song “Walking on the Moon,” apparently still upset it wasn’t nominated in 1980.
Revenge of the nerds: Though fun. often comes across as just another bland pop-rock band in the tradition of Train, matchbox20 and Hootie and the Blowfish, at least they have a self-deprecating sense of humor. In winning song of the year for “We are Young” over some strong competition, fun. singer Nate Ruess acknowledged, “We are not very young” and guitarist Jack Antonoff thanked “our families” who “let us live at home” for 12 years.
Best promotional plug: Justin Timberlake paved the way for his new album by fusing a ’40s Cotton Club vibe, with the musicians and backing singers arrayed behind him on a Duke Ellington-style band stand, and then brought out Jay-Z, while channeling some Michael Jackson falsetto.
Least likely acid head: Taylor Swift got her surrealism on as she opened the broadcast by recasting her single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” as a kind of Little Bunny Foo Foo/Alice in Wonderland fantasia. Somewhere Lady Gaga was cackling. It sure put a new spin on Swift’s ultra-earnest, ultra-confessional singer-songwriter persona. Could a meat dress be next?
Country time machine: Last year it was electronic dance music, so this year the Grammys took a hard right and went for some Nashville twang as they presented a series of country entertainers. Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley may have been playing new tunes from their recent albums, but they weren’t that far removed from vintage ‘70s-style country-rockers.
Soul lives: Dapper Miguel, on bended kneed, crooned “Adore,” even with the distraction of Wiz Khalifa, who seemed greatly under-utilized in one of those duets-that-didn’t work.