There is only one place on Grammy eve in Los Angeles where Neil Young chats up Quincy Jones, Lou Reed brushes shoulders with Usher, and Miley Cyrus hoots and shimmies for R. Kelly.

Industry icon Clive Davis’s annual pre-event party last night in Beverly Hills is the week’s most reliably A-list party, a stacked tower of celebrity Jenga that rightly terrified Mumford and Son’s Marcus Mumford: “This is pretty sh– scary,” the English folkie muttered from the stage, before opening the night’s performances with an impassioned, eyes-squeezed-shut take on the band’s “Sigh No More” and “Little Lion Man.”

Janelle Monae followed, pocket-sized and sharp in her rockabilly suit, her signature pompadour coming undone and bouncing wildly as she roared through an acellerated “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” while the events cameras projected the beaming faces of Warren Beatty and legendary record producer Lou Adler.

Mary J. Blige stepped up next to offer a funky, if slightly disconcerting take on Joni Mitchell’s wry, languid “Free Man in Paris,” the song Mitchell penned in 1974 for the night’s honoree, David Geffen, before yielding to a video tribute to Geffen featuring the likes of Tom Hanks, Slash, and Elton John. A fantastically bespangled, foul-mouthed Cher (“I don’t know even what this f—ing award is for”) then appeared to honor him in person and relay a few salty anecdotes from their decades-long friendship.

The night’s momentum was often slowed by lengthy, somewhat rambling speeches from Davis and Grammy head Neil Portnow, so a distracted, several-chardonnays-in crowd wasn’t entirely prepared when R. Kelly stormed in from the rear of the ballroom, electrifying the room almost instantaneously with—no joke—the National Anthem.

From that rockets’ red glare (he wore a red bowtie and red sequined tux scarf to match), Kelly ruthlessly stole the show, moving relentlessly and fantastically through “Step in the Name of Love,” “Your Body’s Calling,” and—cue wild Miley—a quickfire medley of “You Remind Me of Something,” “Bump ‘N Grind,” “Ignition,” and “Down Low,” before asking the audience for a palate-cleansing swig of champagne, which producer Swizz Beats stood up to supply, and ending on “When a Woman Loves.” The man is out of his mind, and he is a wonder.

It was an unlucky artist who had to follow that fandango, but a sleek, red-lipped Jennifer Hudson pulled it out admirably, tearing through her new single “Where You At” and scorching Aretha Franklin’s often oversung “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” before yielding to Glee star Matthew Morrison and his tiny guitar, plink-plunking his way gently, if anticlimactically, through Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s plaintive version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

A reportedly ill Cee-Lo followed, gamely giving the crowd the “F— You” they demanded before surrendering the stage to the night’s final performance: Whitney Houston’s tribute to her cousin Dionne Warwick. Houston, in a cream sequined column, looked and sounded better than she has in the recent past, throaty and measured. Though her rendition of Warkwick’s “Walk on By” and “Say a Little Prayer,” followed by a duet on “That’s What Friends Are For” with Warwick herself, ultimately felt underwhelming after Kelly’s and Hudson’s vocal acrobatics and theatrical showboating.

Some five hours after its doors opened, stars like the Katy Perry, Keri Hilson, John Mayer, Lady Antebellum, the Foo Fighters and Usher filed out of the ballroom and into the night, off to other, later parties—or, for the more conscientious among them nominated and due to perform at tonight’s ceremony, off to bed.

Image Credit: Jeff Kravitz/; Lester Cohen/