Grammy Night: Real Musicians, Actual Instruments — What Next? By Kurt Loder

The Grammy organizers have long held the patent on award-show cheese, but this was a good show.

What a lousy night this was for cynics, scoffers and cheap-shot hipsters of every inclination. I mean, what went wrong? The Grammy organizers have long held the patent on award-show cheese, and the thought of wading through three-and-a-half hours of it this year — were they serious? — set the brain bubbling with pre-emptive snoots and sniggers.

But ... but it was a good show. And I don't just mean there was nothing bad about it (although that was certainly a Grammy first). I mean that pretty good was pretty much as bad as it got; and at one point, at least, it was great. (Click here for a list of winners.)

OK, maybe a Faith Hill power ballad isn't your cup of syrup; and maybe the Dixie Chicks defy your comprehension on every level. I found my own attention wandering as Vanessa Carlton made her tasteful way through "A Thousand Miles." But even if you had no particular use for what these people were doing, I think you'd have to admit they were at least doing it honestly, and well. (Click here to see photos from the show.)

And what about Avril Lavigne? Her public persona can be irritating, God knows: the faux-punk necktie, the photo-op snarl. But fired up by her maximum-blast band, she tore into "Sk8er Boi" and kicked butt. There's no denying this!

Coldplay didn't actually stop the show, but in a less stellar context, the band's epic rendition of "Politik" certainly might have. (Conductor Michael Kamen was the perfect collaborator here: a past master of rock-meets-orchestra fusion whose credits range from Pink Floyd to Metallica.) This grand and soulful performance made "progressive rock" seem like an interesting idea again. Maybe even progressive.

Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock's bright, strutting version of Crow's "You're an Original" demonstrated all of the effervescent qualities that can make straight trad-rock so exhilarating: a good, strong song projected with verve and personality. It draws you in before you have time to muster any resistance.

Norah Jones isn't a rock act, of course. But what is she? The ambiguity of her appeal is appealing in itself. Her jazz fluency is clear, though, and probably answers whatever it is the question may be. Jones deserved the Grammys she collected, not least because in accepting one of them she actually thanked, not her label or her lawyer or whatever, but her musicians for helping her win it (see "Norah Jones Sweeps Grammys, Boss Wins Three, Avril Shut Out").

John Mayer deserved his Grammy, too. "Your Body Is a Wonderland" is a unique and moving tune. The best part of his solo performance of it, though, was his own subtle musicianship: The man is an ace acoustic guitarist. (Electric, too; catch him live.)

There were — can you believe it? — no teen-pop performances at the Grammys this year. But 'NSYNC did come out to offer a tribute to the Bee Gees, and their lush, a cappella harmonizing on such vintage hits as "Lonely Days" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" was stirring — a tribute in itself to the rich possibilities of superior, unaccompanied voices. I hereby disown every dark thought I've ever had about these guys. Well, mostly.

Nelly gave the night a gratifying jolt of whiplash rap. His intricate interaction with Kelly Rowland should give the competition something to contemplate; and I didn't hear anybody complaining about the slinky chicks in the spangly red outfits, either.

The weak points in the show were minor, I thought. The idea of Eminem backed by the Roots was so tantalizing that their actual performance seemed muted, just slightly off. And while Ashanti bringing on a troupe of cute kids to chime in on "Dreams" was very sweet, the overall effect of her spot in the show struck me as a little suburban.

Bruce Springsteen's performance of his Grammy-winning hit, "The Rising," got kind of ragged about two-thirds of the way through; but given his well-known concert standards, that's probably a quibble. In any case, he came back later to help provide the hands-down high point of the night, joining Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello and E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt in fronting a ferocious rendition of the Clash classic "London Calling." This must have been one of the purest, most impassioned rock and roll moments ever to make its way onto television, and the only letdown was that it didn't just go on for the rest of the night.

So, again, quite a show. Was there any larger meaning to it? Maybe. I have no quarrel with Britney and Christina — they've made some really good singles. (Let us not, however, speak of O-Town or 98 Degrees.) But Sunday night's Grammy show, with all of its jubilant musicianship, its vivid display of talented people actually playing together, seemed to herald the end of a dismal era of smugly prefabricated pop. I could be wrong about this, but it felt like a new dawn of some sort, after a dark night that lasted too long.

Kurt Loder

For more Grammy news, check out the MTV News Grammy Archive.