The whole story line dramatically changed a day before the event. When Whitney Houston died on Saturday in Los Angeles - not far from the Staples Center, where the ceremony was held - a pall was suddenly cast over last night’s 54th Grammy Awards.
Houston’s legacy and the sense of loss her death imparted loomed large, from the live performances to acceptance speeches. Jennifer Hudson even re-created, almost note for note, Houston’s signature rendition of “I Will Always Love You.’’
Early in the evening, Grammy host LL Cool J recited a somber prayer in Houston’s honor; from that moment on, the attention turned from tragedy to celebration. There were triumphs to behold, particularly for the woman who set the charts, and hearts, on fire this past year.
As widely expected, British singer-songwriter Adele made a clean sweep, winning all six awards for which she was nominated, matching Beyoncé’s record for the most wins by a female act in a single night.
Meanwhile, rock band Foo Fighters scored five wins out of their six nominations, among them best rock album, best rock song, and best rock performance.
Adele was initially overcome with emotion as she accepted the award for best pop solo performance for “Someone Like You.’’ She gained her composure soon enough as she went on to win the top three awards, including album (“21’’), record (“Rolling in the Deep’’), and song of the year (again for “Rolling in the Deep,’’ this time honoring the songwriter).
After indie-rock band Arcade Fire scored an upset win in 2011 for album of the year, Adele’s broad victory was reassurance that the Recording Academy values an artist who has the best of both worlds: millions of fans and the platinum sales to prove it.
In her first public performance since having throat surgery in Boston last year, Adele was golden as she climbed the peaks of “Rolling in the Deep.’’ The look on her face, and the tears in her eyes once she finished, suggested she was back where she belongs.
Going into the ceremony, Kanye West led the field with seven nominations, most of which were in the various rap categories. He won four Grammys, but didn’t even show up (sour grapes?), and neither did Jay-Z, his recent collaborator and tour-mate. They won for best rap performance for “Otis’’ from their joint album, “Watch the Throne.’’ Despite being worthy, West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’’ wasn’t nominated for album of the year, though it did cinch the award for best rap album.
In the best new artist field, it was another victory for the dark horse. Echoing Esperanza Spalding’s surprise win last year, indie-folk band Bon Iver triumphed over rapper/singer Nicki Minaj, rapper J. Cole, DJ/producer Skrillex, and country trio the Band Perry.
“I’m a little bit uncomfortable up here,’’ Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon admitted, striking a note of gratitude on behalf of all the deserving artists who will never be acknowledged.
Besting Taylor Swift, whose “Speak Now’’ seemed like a shoo-in, Lady Antebellum took home the award for best country album. For best country duo/group performance, the Civil Wars soared past heavyweight contenders including Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson and Kenny Chesney and Vermont native Grace Potter.
Among the other nominees with local ties, Sudbury native Linda Chorney lost to Levon Helm for best Americana album. The award for best comedy album went to hometown hero Louis C.K. In the category of best blues album, Tedeschi Trucks Band, featuring Norwell-bred Susan Tedeschi, proved victorious. Chick Corea won a pair of trophies, for best improvised jazz solo and, as a member of Corea, Clarke White, for best jazz instrumental album. Berklee professor and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s “The Mosaic Project’’ picked up the award for best jazz vocal album. Released on Burlington-based label Rounder Records, Alison Krauss Union Station’s “Paper Airplane’’ won for best bluegrass album.
Given the drama leading up to the ceremony, many of the live performances were especially disappointing. Bruce Springsteen the E Street Band opened with their latest single, “We Take Care of Our Own,’’ which was a rather ho-hum way to kick off the festivities.
With Lady Gaga firmly out of the picture (and rarely ever seen on camera in the audience), Minaj christened herself pop’s new weirdo. Her elaborate multimedia performance, rooted in an exorcism scenario, was brash, jolting, and downright bizarre.
Amid that kind of flash, there were moments of understated elegance. Easing into “It Had to Be You,’’ Tony Bennett and Carrie Underwood were simply sublime. With Diana Krall tickling the ivories, Paul McCartney was refined and graceful as he sang “My Valentine,’’ from his new album of standards. (A ceremony-closing jam featured McCartney, Springsteen, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Joe Walsh, and a few others, all vying for the title of guitar hero.)
Coinciding with his lifetime achievement award, a poignant tribute to Glen Campbell, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, featured the Band Perry and Blake Shelton before the man himself soared into “Rhinestone Cowboy.’’
As in years past, it was an evening of unlikely pairings - some inspired, others atrocious. The reunited Beach Boys, complete with Brian Wilson, were preceded by younger bands Maroon 5 and Foster the People singing some of their hits - and not very well. The Beach Boys didn’t appear to be having much fun, either.
Honoring another late music legend, Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt teamed up for a tender duet with Etta James’s “A Sunday Kind of Love.’’ Raitt was the glorious leather to Keys’s lace. Meanwhile, a technical glitch rendered country singer Aldean’s microphone mute midway into his duet with pop star Clarkson on “Don’t You Wanna Stay.’’
Choking back tears at the podium to accept her final award, Adele thanked her mother with a shout-out that perfectly summarized the evening: “Mum, your girl did good!’’James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.