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Performances take the grand prize at Grammys

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

Sunday night's Grammy Awards did what the Grammy Awards do best. Music. And that made the live-from-LA telecast easy watching indeed. Rather than long hours of Botoxed egos and exhibitionistic back-patting, it was a night of hot performances first and contests second. Leave the self-loving acceptance speeches to the other awards shows that crowd the Silly Season, which culminates in two weeks with the Oscars; the Grammys are the variety show of the year.

And variety was the theme of the night, as happy host Queen Latifah kept reminding us -- a wise choice by producers in this age of audience fragmentation. The performers in the dizzying opening medley, which culminated in a massive song mash-up, ranged from the Black Eyed Peas, Los Lonely Boys, and Maroon 5 to Franz Ferdinand, Eve, and Gwen Stefani, who was swaddled in some kind of postmodern Baby Huey outfit. Not long after that music-go-round, Alicia Keys sang ''If I Ain't Got You" and then paid tribute to Ray Charles with Jamie Foxx and Quincy Jones

The awards seemed to be beside the point, as the dynamic musical moments accumulated. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gretchen Wilson, Elvin Bishop, Dickie Betts, and Tim McGraw all hit the stage -- separately, in various pairings, and finally all together for a rousing ''Sweet Home Alabama." A Janis Joplin tribute began with an introduction by Joplin friend and ''Me and Bobby McGee" songwriter Kris Kristofferson and then exploded into songs by Joss Stone and Melissa Etheridge. Stone was bare-footed; Etheridge, recovering from chemotherapy, was bare-headed. They tried but couldn't match Joplin's raw vocal power, and that was homage enough.

Even the worst musical moment of the night had a camp thrill to it. A number of singers -- Bono, Stevie Wonder, Steven Tyler, Brian Wilson, Billie Joe Armstrong, Norah Jones -- gathered onstage to sing the Beatles' ''Across the Universe" to benefit tsunami relief. The singing was uneven, and the sight of such different stylists trying to mesh was cartoonish. ''Saturday Night Live" comics could be heard licking their lips in excitement.

Generally, the production effects didn't interfere with the music, a problem that forever dogs the MTV Music Video Awards. Last night, when U2 sang ''Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," the band stood against a stark white backdrop with nothing to distract viewers from Bono and his song to his father. Los Lonely Boys sang ''Heaven" from a stage in the center of the audience, open air behind them. Usher was the only performer who was heavily choreographed with dancers, as he sang ''Caught Up," but the staging worked; the man can move. ''The new Godson," James Brown exclaimed about Usher after joining him for a quick version of ''Sex Machine."

There was one glaringly bad production choice, when Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony did their much-hyped duet. The couple moved around in a stagey little bedroom set as if trying to sell themselves to any Broadway producers who might be watching. That, or they were trying to take the attention off Lopez's weak vocals. A faux church setting for a medley led by Kanye West was also hokey, as the Blind Boys of Alabama sang ''I'll Fly Away" while a faux griever faux grieved. It was an unnecessary attempt to re-create music-video theatricality.

While TV and movie awards shows tend to give the audience a significant role in the telecast -- think Jack Nicholson at the Oscars -- the Grammys don't play that. There were, however, a few lingering glimpses of presenter Ellen DeGeneres and her date, Portia de Rossi, as a nod to photo editors at People magazine and the Advocate. And one painful audience shot found Faith Hill giving her husband, Tim McGraw, a feverish standing ovation -- alone.

For the new ladies of E!'s red carpet, Star Jones Reynolds and Kathy Griffin, the Grammys present a challenge. They can't fill up the awkward, forced encounters with that all-purpose question, ''Who are you wearing?," since, well, this is rock 'n' roll. And they're not especially well versed in the musical oeuvres of Hoobastank and Green Day, with informed questions on the tips of their ever-wagging tongues.

And so they vamp. For Jones, that means asking every couple what disc they play when they're ''in the mood," so that every couple can answer either Marvin Gaye or Barry White. And for the ironic Griffin, it means asking joke questions -- ''Who's your favorite Tito, Jackson or Puente?" -- to mystified artists and nominees. Her attempt at a witty volley with Kanye West went thud. Hard to imagine why he wasn't ready with an answer when she asked, ''Do you think it's fair that you have 10 nominations and Lindsay Lohan was shut out?"

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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