Review

The Joy of Sets

The Grammys finally got over its performance anxiety and lined up enough music to make it hot in therre.

If you noticed something unusual amid the celebrity logjam of last week's Grammy telecast, you were right: It's called music. Sure, Norah Jones swept the major categories and Bruce Springsteen strode away without the Album of the Year statuette. But the night's real surprise was the abundant live performances: 18 in all, up from 17 last year and 14 two years ago. Given the Grammys' slip-sliding-away ratings, the move felt like a blatant attempt to jack up the numbers at the expense of trophy handouts. But in this case, crass commercial concerns were a good thing. This year's Grammys felt less like a parade of speeches, with music packed in between, and more like an all-star concert (albeit a long and spotty one, at three and a half hours). The performances, in order:

-- Simon & Garfunkel, ''The Sounds of Silence'' At first, the song choice for their vaunted reunion (tied in with their Lifetime Achievement Award) seemed curious: Solemn and portentous, ''The Sounds of Silence'' hardly makes for a rousing opener. But that same solemnity speaks to the times (especially the line ''people hearing without listening'') -- and Garfunkel's still-angelic tenor at age 61 speaks to some freaky miracle of nature. A-

-- No Doubt, ''Underneath It All''/''Hella Good'' A formal, unplugged version of the former gave way to a trashy-fun take on the latter. Not even the dancers dangling nonsensically from the ceiling could distract from the way Gwen Stefani deftly balances high style and high-class strip club. A-

-- Norah Jones, ''Don't Know Why'' Tasteful and candlelit, but you wish she'd done something a little different. B+

-- Faith Hill, ''Cry'' Hill's make-over, from country crooner with pop tendencies to pop runway model with a touch of Nashville, never felt more out of place, nor so banal in presentation and song, than during an awards show that strove to highlight substance. Even Celine Dion has sturdier material. D

-- That singer-songwriter segment Will John Mayer's coy ''Your Body Is a Wonderland'' and Vanessa Carlton's rambling ''A Thousand Miles'' stand the test of time the way James Taylor's three-decades-old ''Sweet Baby James'' has? Here's a lesson, kids -- keep it simple in both delivery and lyric. B

-- The Dixie Chicks, ''Landslide'' Another reminder that the Chicks' twang-lite version of Stevie Nicks' Fleetwood Mac ballad adds nothing to the original; it's just their way of scoring an easy hit. They should've done ''Long Time Gone'' instead. B-

-- Coldplay with the New York Philharmonic, ''Politik'' You can see why they chose this elliptically topical song, even though it wasn't one of the highlights of A Rush of Blood to the Head. And Chris Martin was at his Tourette's-rocker best. But will the Grammys ever stop saddling rock acts with orchestras in a misguided, condescending attempt at making them look ''classy''? Just let them be. B+

-- Avril Lavigne, ''Sk8er Boi'' She can act as ''punk'' as she wants, but here were all the giveaways that she isn't one: the perfectly straightened hair, the perfectly in-tune voice, the too-perfect wardrobe. Now that she's gone home empty-handed, she might finally have something to be angry about. B-

-- Nelly, ''Hot in Herre''/''Dilemma'' The missing Band-Aid was what you noticed first, followed by something truly disturbing: all that pyro going off a mere three days after the Great White fiasco. That insensitivity, combined with a Kelly Rowland duet on ''Dilemma'' that wasn't quite as sexy as it was on Saturday Night Live a few months back, rates a combined C.

-- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, ''The Rising'' Although this song works well on record, it always feels strained live, as if he and the band were pushing a boulder up a hill. The symbolism was obvious, but why not ''Lonesome Day'' or ''Countin' on a Miracle''? B

-- 'N Sync's Bee Gees tribute There's a reason barbershop quartets went out of style. D

-- Eminem with the Roots, ''Lose Yourself'' Eminem can be a passive performer, but this time he dug in hard, and the Roots made their conceit -- that hip-hop played with live instruments is more ''authentic'' than the samples on which the music was founded -- come to life. A-

-- Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock, ''You're an Original'' First-rate filler on disc, first-rate mess on TV. Were they rehearsing? B-

-- Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl, and Little Steven, ''London Calling'' A year ago, imagine ending a Grammy night with a Joe Strummer tribute featuring weathered veterans bashing out a Clash remake. But this odd-on-paper lineup delivered a fitting, bristling finale, as well as a bookend to Simon & Garfunkel's passive protest. And how horrifying is it that ''a nuclear error, but I have no fear'' is relevant again? A

-- The prolonged, unexpected blast of feedback after ''London Calling'' Now that's punk. Avril, were you listening? A

Originally posted Mar 07, 2003 Published in issue #699 Mar 07, 2003 Order article reprints