Unlike some no-frills awards shows, like the Golden Globes or the Screen Actors Guild Awards, at the Grammys, the actual handing out of prizes almost seems like an afterthought. This Sunday’s Grammy telecast, airing live on CBS from Staples Center in Los Angeles, seems so overstuffed with performances and tributes that it’ll be a wonder if they actually have time to give trophies out. Of course, there are more than 100 categories now, so only a small fraction of the awards will be given out during the broadcast anyway. Still, that’s good news if you’d rather watch musicians play than see frontrunners Kanye West, Usher, and Alicia Keys make multiple trips to the podium to thank God and their mothers and attorneys. Here’s our rundown of who to watch and listen for during the epic-length evening.
THE THREE-RING CIRCUS Recent Grammy shows have opened with surprise performances by music legends — Prince last year, Simon & Garfunkel the year before. Apparently, the Recording Academy wasn’t able to summon anyone of similar stature to kick off this year’s show, but they’ll make it up in quantity. Spread out over three stages will be an opening number performed by five acts: Maroon 5; Franz Ferdinand; Gwen Stefani; Los Lonely Boys; and the Black Eyed Peas. Actually, six acts, since Stefani is singing with frequent duet partner Eve. It’ll be just like Lollapalooza, only without the body-piercing booths or Port-A-Potties.
THE ODD COUPLES The opener won’t be the only time you’ll see slightly off-kilter pairings. For instance, instead of the obvious — say, having Alicia Keys sing with Usher —, you’ll see Keys duet with moonlighting Ray star Jamie Foxx (is there an awards show he won’t go to?), while Usher is performing with James Brown. (Why didn’t the producers simply book The Godfather by himself to open the show instead of pairing him with the young R&B whippersnapper?) Then there’s Queen Latifah, who’s so multitalented that she can do her own double-duty, as both a performer and as the awards show’s host. (Other scheduled performers who are apparently not required to share the stage with anyone: U2, Green Day, and John Mayer.)
Of course, the most anticipated duet may be that of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. The couple, who married eight months ago, have never performed in public together, so maybe their duet will give some indication as to why their union has lasted so long.
THE TRIBUTES Last year, OutKast, Earth, Wind & Fire, and others paid homage to an entire genre: funk music. This year, it’s Southern rock’s turn. The Southern rock segment will feature selected members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elvin Bishop, and Allman Brothers Band alum Dickey Betts, as well as Southerners-but-not-rockers Gretchen Wilson and Tim McGraw, plus neither-Southern-nor-rocker Keith Urban. (OK, the Kiwi country music star does come from the Southern hemisphere.) Along the same lines, there will be a gospel performance featuring Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama, as well as not-exactly-gospel artists Kanye West and his protégé, John Legend. (Well, West raps about Jesus; does that count?)
Also, no awards show this season would be complete without a tribute to Ray Charles (who is also nominated for several posthumous Grammys this year). Showing love to Brother Ray will be another odd couple, Bonnie Raitt and Billy Preston. (Now, wouldn’t this be the place to have Jamie Foxx sing or play piano?) Then there are the lifetime achievement Grammys, going to many artists who never won Grammys during their careers, like Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin. Paying spoken tribute to Joplin will be two of her spiritual descendants, Joss Stone and (making her first public appearance since announcing she had breast cancer six months ago) Melissa Etheridge. (Other non-singing presenters gathered for the evening include power couple Sheryl Crow and Lance Armstrong, Kevin Bacon, Tyra Banks, Ellen DeGeneres, Gary Sinise, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, and John Travolta.)
THE SING-ALONG Grammy producers think one number will be so good you’ll pay to hear it again. That’s the all-star sing-along of the Beatles’ ”Across the Universe,” to be performed by Bono, Stevie Wonder, Norah Jones, Alicia Keys, Velvet Revolver, Tim McGraw, Al Green, and Brian Wilson. A recording will be available immediately afterward for downloading at the iTunes Music Store for 99 cents, with proceeds going to aid tsunami survivors. Visitors to CBS.com will be able to stream video of the performance, as well as see footage of the rehearsals, where maybe they’ll explain the selection of a song whose refrain is ”Nothing’s gonna change my world” to aid victims of a natural disaster.