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.