Grammy Rehearsals, Day One: Sugarland, Smokey Robinson... and a tardy Lil' Wayne
I’m here at the Staples Center in downtown L.A. with my feet up on seats that’d cost you hundreds at a Lakers game, just chillaxin’ until Lil’ Wayne gets his practice on. He was scheduled to start at 5:30; he ain’t here yet. The lighting guys are hoisting parcans to the rafters with rope. Placards are set up on the chairs to indicate where the celebrities go. A lady behind me on the phone is discussing Kid Rock’s meal break. Someone just fell into the orchestra pit. All that’s missing are the showgirls and a dude in a bear suit. The amazing thing about rehearsal for the Grammys? It’s just like rehearsal for anything else: long stretches of boredom peppered with performances. In between run-throughs, musicians noodle around on their instruments, filling the void with jazzy breakdowns. At the moment, we’re listening to Allen Toussaint roll through the great piano intro to “Big Chief” (you Lily Allen purists know it as the sample from “Knock ‘Em Out”). This is not a bad way to spend a rainy Thursday afternoon.
I’m getting the chance to sit in on rehearsals in hopes that something I write will entice you PopWatchers to watch the show, buy an album, support your local famous musician. I can’t see everything, and I’m gonna try and keep this free of major spoilers (i.e. I will not tell you who Radiohead is performing with, even though it sounds pretty awesome on paper), but I’ll at least try and score some sweet Grammy appeteasers to tide you over to Sunday. So! After the jump, a tribute to the Four Tops, Sugarland collaborates with Adele, and we keep waiting for the Godot of cough syrup to appear…
addCredit(“Sugarland: Whitney Pastorek/EW.com”)
Sadly, Neil Diamond’s morning rehearsal was closed to press today (get it? “TODAY”?), so I showed up at 2 and walked down the aisle of the arena with a bounce in my step courtesy of Smokey Robinson, Duke Fakir, and two stand-ins running through the “I Can’t Help Myself” part of a medley dedicated to the Four Tops. (Ne-Yo and Jamie Foxx will be replacing the stand-ins come Sunday.) A choreographer stood in front of the men, replicating the steps just like in dance class as cameras swirled around, practicing their angles. Robinson’s voice sounded strong and clear, and the whole medley — which also includes “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love” — was snappier than a turtle in spring. It’s worth tuning in for, if only to see Fakir, the last surviving Top, prove he hasn’t lost a step.
Next, I ducked under the arena to meet up with Adele and PopWatch mascots Sugarland (above), who were prepping for a collaboration in one of the L.A. Kings’ locker rooms. Stay tuned for video of their pre-rehearsal first meeting — featuring 15 people and $90,000 of musical equipment crammed into a room the size of my kitchen — as well as a little chatty-chat with Jennifer and Kristian, and commentary from NARAS president Neil Portnow on why these two acts were a good match. I’ll embed that clip here when it’s ready, but meanwhile, know that there is something exhilarating about watching professional musicians learn, rearrange, and perfect a song in under 20 minutes, using shared vocabulary and hand gestures to communicate key changes and harmony and who should do what when. By the time the group surfaced to take the stage — Sugarland’s doing “Stay” before joining Adele on “Chasing Pavements” — the whole thing was pretty much ready to go live on CBS. Well, except for a missed cue from Adele (“I f—ed that up,” she said, dry as bone, which got a big laugh from the house) and a giggle fit that seized Nettles during the first verse of “Stay,” which the uninitiated should understand is a very serious and sad song. And this is why we rehearse.
Which brings us back to Lil’ Wayne, who had not, as of 6 p.m., shown up to do so. I used the break to pop down to the floor and ask Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich if he ever worries they’ve got too many performances — this year’s “Coldplay and U2??” bonanza seems to be a particularly overstuffed show — and if the songs could suffer from all the cutting. I suspect Ken Erlich never worries. “The show is modular,” he said, “but with tighter performances, you can do more. Some performances are great at three and a half minutes — which is the ideal length for music on TV — but some should be four and a half, and we let them, cause that’s what it takes. The thing is, to a great extent, the artists trust us. I think we do things differently.” He then pointed out the brass band taking the stage: the Dirty Dozen, here to accompany Weezy with a New Orleans jazz funeral outro to the Katrina elegy of his “Tie My Hands.” Assuming, said Erlich, that Weezy ever makes it into the building. To the credit of everyone at Staples, no one was panicking.
But the show must keep moving in a forward direction, so they ran through his number twice to make use of the time, putting stand-ins in the empty spots, which led to the rather entertaining chance to watch some poor dude meander around on stage in a vaguely Wayne-esque fashion for the TV cameras to practice following. Another stand-in read the teleprompter intro with great gusto, explaining that Mr. Eight Nominations would be sharing the stage with Allen Toussaint, the Dirty Dozen, and Terence Blanchard. “Y’all better put my name up on there,” said Robin Thicke, who was not late, and who gamely stood on stage in a dark coat and scarf to sing his backing parts all alone. I didn’t have time to stick around and see how that story ended — gotta write an Office TV Watch — but before I left, the Dirty Dozen had walked up the aisle to the center of the house, and stepped onto a circular platform that lit up in a very “Billie Jean” way. Trailed by a pack of celebratory dancers, they finished the number, and the room once again went quiet, except for the sounds of the best musicians in the world noodling around on their instruments. Which, if you ask me, is what this whole thing is about anyway.