14 February 2007

The 2007 Grammy Awards: Reflections

Every year I make it a habit to do two things: first, watch the live Grammy broadcast to pick up on new talent. Then, next morning, I check the complete winners list to see who the Academy honors and who they miss. It's a good way for an old man (who just turned off a Derek and the Dominoes recording to write this) to try and keep up with what's happening now in popular music. Here are a few thoughts.

First, the advertising promoting the show made a big fuss about bringing The Police together to play on the broadcast. I'm a big Police fan so I said to myself "great, can't miss that." Well, I wish I had. This is the second time Sting, Stuart, and Andy have pulled this trick and I for one am tired of it. The first time was justifiable: they were being inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. But this time: play "Roxanne", pick up a most certainly huge check, and hit the road -- it is simply unacceptable. These three men are too talented for such antics. Shame on all three of you. If The Police are truly "back", let's here some new music from them.

Two more complaints and I'll get to the nice things I have to say. A three song tribute to The Eagles? The Eagles are not an important band. They are a footnote that for reasons I cannot fathom are apparently still popular. Me, I'm with "The Dude" in the Coen Brothers' film The Big Lebowski: I'll risk getting thrown out of a cab to get the driver to turn off this lame excuse for a country rock band. Dear Academy: you wanna do a country rock tribute, do one to The Flying Burrito Brothers -- Gram Parsons in particular.

Last complaint: Maria Callas was given a well deserved lifetime achievement award. But then Ms. Callas was immediately compared to the next performer, Mary J. Blige. I have nothing to say about Ms. Blige other than she's no Maria Callas.

And now my positive remarks. The staying power of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, their humility in accepting the Grammy for Rock Album of the Year, and their suprisingly understated performance were proof that hard rock is alive and well.

Other random highlights: the tribute to the late James Brown brought tears to my eyes; though Smokey Robinson is an old man now, his live performance of Tracks of My Tears was close to perfect; Ludacris turned in a fine live performance; John Mayer, winner of the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album, played the the best guitar of the evening and is the singer/songwriter to watch in coming years; also, keep an eye on Corrine Bailey Rae, she gave a mesmerizing live performance.

Now, to three things I really want to highlight about this year's Grammys. Rick Rubin is the man, the producer to have in your corner. If he continues on the path he's on, he will be the Tom Dowd of this era. He received this year's Grammy for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, no doubt in part because he produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers' and Dixie Chicks' albums that stole the evening.

And that brings me to exactly were I want to be: singing the praises of the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, Emily Robinson & Co. took home 5 Grammys this year, including the three big ones, Album of the Year (producer / artist award), Record of the Year (artist award), and Song of the Year (songwriter / artist award), for their album Taking the Long Way and the potent single Not Ready to Make Nice. As Alanna Nash wrote for Amazon:
Nothing changes folks like babies and war, and since the release of their last album, 2002's Home, the Dixie Chicks have been forever altered by both. If that album showcased the trio as precocious young adults, Taking the Long Way finds them sobered and matured, and in a grown-up state of mind. Produced by the celebrated Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers), who saw the Chicks as "a great rock act making a country album, not a country act making a rock album," their new record impresses both as beautiful sonic tapestry (peppered with myriad Beatlesque hallmarks) and forthright yet vulnerable portrait of three women shaken by the personal and political events of the past few years. As they make clear in the defiant "Not Ready to Make Nice," they still smart over the backlash from their 2003 Bushwhacking. But as they assert on the equally autobiographical "The Long Way Around," they could never "kiss all the asses that they told me to" and just follow others aimlessly--and silently--through life. This means that the Chicks are simultaneously prideful and scornful of celebrity ("Everybody Knows"), and that as new mothers they increasingly treasure the refuge they find in life with their families, out of the spotlight ("Easy Silence," "Lullaby," "Baby Hold On"). The push and pull of both passions drive this record. .... The trio crafted all 14 cuts with the help of such writers as Sheryl Crow, Gary Louris, Mike Campbell, and Keb' Mo', laying out their lives as honestly and intimately as they might in their diaries. .... By the last cut, the R&B/gospel offering "I Hope," the Chicks have chronicled their journey with as much spirituality as spunk, their pain deeply ingrained in their protests.
Whatever side of the political spectrum you espouse, you've got to admire a girl group power trio featuring soaring three part harmony vocals, violin, and banjo that stands their ground in the face of death threats for political commentary.

Finally, let me tip my hat to Academy president Neil Portnoy's three minutes at the microphone. Instead of the usual whining about record industry loss of control over its profits, Mr. Portnoy gave an impassioned plea for art education in our schools. In a time where more and more pressure is placed on school authorities to teach to evaluation tests, his defense of the importance of arts education is both timely and also a profound use of his air time.

In sum, this year's Grammy Awards did it's job for me; I feel much better informed about today's pop music scene now than I did before I watched the show. And I won't be surprised if the phrase "I'm not ready to make nice" becomes part of North America's idiomatic lexicon.


Anonymous said...

Got your e-mail about Rick Rubin and his badassedness.....couldn't agree more.....seems as though he can get the most out of anyone.

I didn't watch the Grammys, but here was some commentary I enjoyed written by The Sports Guy for ESPN (he covers a lot of pop culture stuff on top of sports). Here's the link


Lastly, I agree with high praise for the Chili Peppers. They have endured time and tragedy all while finding ways stay creative. Do you think they deserve comparisons to the Stones?

Paco Malo said...

It's hard for me to be objective about the Stones', given the huge influence they have had in my life.

But in trying to be objective, it's way too early to be comparing the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Stones. The Stones have been on the popular music charts for 44 years, with personnel changes that have changed the band but it's still the Stones. Further, the Stones just recently gave a free concert on the Copacabana that drew a million people. Only time will tell if the Chili Peppers achieve what the Stones have achieved. My bet is that when the dust settles, the Stones will stand with a handful of their peers as the champs of the 2nd generation rock pioneers (who are not black). The Chili Peppers belong to an entirely different era -- only time will tell where they rank among their peers when the final history is written.

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt in my mind that the Stones are the greatest band of alltime, especially when you look at the music produced during their zenith, their longevity, their worldwide popularity, and how prolific they were throughout their years. So when the dust settles after a nuclear winter, and Keith Richards finds a way to inject cockroaches, history will have concluded the same.

However, my asking if the Chili Peppers compare to the Stones is merely that - a comparison - and that alone. In fact, it is probably the ONLY band that I can think of (post 1980) that can even hold a torch to the Stones.

Further, if you look at the history of the Chili Peppers you will see a stark similarity (drugs, death, turmoil, et cetera) through their 25 year career, yet they have done well to remain true to the original spirit.

Check out their wikipedia page for a breakdown of their past and tell me what you think.

Paco Malo said...

Dear Il Figlioccio,

Per your suggestion, I just finished reviewing Wikipedia's discussion of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was very enlightening -- though I wish the author of that entry would go to the trouble of looking up the definition of the word ironic and learning how to use it in a sentence; the degree to which people think ironic means "an interesting coincidence" simply drives me crazy. But I digress.

While I see why you find points of valid comparison between the Rolling Stones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I will make a few points of my own and then offer an invitation.

First, and here I reiterate, the Stones and the Peppers come from two different generations in rock history. The Stones and their blues, R&B based British peers were taking American black music and introducing it American white audiences -- if you ever get a chance to hear Pat Boone sing Little Richard's Good Golly Miss Molly, this point will become crystal clear. This foundation laid, the Peppers, an American band, have built on it by bringing Bootsy Collins and jazz improvisation to hungry worldwide music fans.

Second, to my mind, Keith Richards has always been the core of what made the Stones great. I don't mean to diminish the other band members' contributions, but there it is: no Keith, no Rolling Stones. Arguably, Flea is the Keith of the Peppers, but I'm gonna leave it to you to make that judgement.

The bottom line is I'm just not familiar enough with the Peppers' catalogue to discuss them in a credible fashion.

But you are. So, I hereby invite you to write a post as a guest contributor and handle a job I simply can't.

Let me close by saying that I've always loved the cover of Mother's Milk -- red hot indeed.