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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Alicia Keys a worthy host for a Grammy show big on tributes

Lambasted last year for its dearth of female award presentations and performers, the Grammy Awards did an about-face last night that also managed to make for a relatively good show, despite its interminable length.

Much of the credit goes to host Alicia Keys, for her demeanor, appearance, and performance—even if her constant swaying while speaking left at least one viewer a little seasick.

The Anti-Gaga, Keys delivered one of the night’s best bits in her double-piano play of bites from songs she wished she’d written, capped by her own classic “New York.” By contrast, her subdued, give-it-up-for-others approach made Lady Gaga’s overwrought heavy metal interpretation of her Oscar-nominated A Star is Born ballad “Shallow,” which did win Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, instantly forgettable.

But there were other good parts in a show that was so heavily weighted female it bordered on overcompensation. Luckily many of the gals came through big-time, like H.E.R. and her “Hard Place” and Kacey Musgraves with “Rainbow,” and while everyone loved Janelle Monae’s dancer-heavy “Make Me Feel,” genre-busting Brandi Carlile stole the show with her old-fashioned stick-to-the-song performance of “The Joke.”

On the male side, country’s Dan + Shay wisely following Keys’ spot with a simple and most effective rendition of “Tequila.” As for those much-ballyhooed “once-in-a-lifetime Grammy moments,”not even the show-opening West Side Story setting for Camila Cabello’s “Havana” was suitably momentous, assistance from once-in-a-lifetimers Ricky Martin, Arturo Sandoval and J Balvin notwithstanding. Same with the “Grammy Moment” pairing of Post Malone and Red Hot Chili Peppers, which came off awkward at best.

The many tribute segments fared somewhat better. Diana Ross wisely chose to sing her immortal hit “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” though it would have been more right had she or a subtitle acknowledged the front row presence of the song’s co-writer and record’s co-producer (both with late husband Nick Ashford) Valerie Simpson. For Dolly Parton, it would have been more respectful not to have loaded her tribute with so many other singers (particularly an unrestrained Katy Perry), though goddaughter Miley Cyrus was a natural partner on “Jolene”--unlike her earlier duet with Shawn Mendes.

The Aretha Franklin tribute of Yolanda Adams, Fantasia and Andra Day was short but perfect, whereas the Motown 60th anniversary tribute, briefly involving Smokey Robinson while centering on Jennifer Lopez’s dancing, was long and pointless, especially considering there are other Motown legends (like Valerie Simpson) who are also still active and could have been called upon.

But it was fun seeing 1961’s Best New Artist Bob Newhart come out to present an award with last year’s Alessia Cara, who was very good in playing the young person who was barely familiar with a favorite of “my great-great-great grandparents.“ And Ariana Grande, absent from the show after refusing to follow the producer’s directions, got love from T-Mobile during a commercial break.

One other commercial, meanwhile, seemed as much a throwback as the welcome inclusion of Newhart. The promo for the upcoming Luciano Pavarotti documentary evoked a time when the Grammy Awards show was all about the singer and the song. With the exceptions of the tribute honorees--and those remembered in the memorial section--those days are a fading TV memory.



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