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Chicks' night out

Dixie Chicks (music group)Mary J. BligeTelevisionChris BrownWyclef JeanGrammy Awards

The Dixie Chicks may not have been ready to make nice, but last night, band members showed they weren't above gloating -- at least a little -- as they accepted five honors at the 49th annual Grammy Awards, including record of the year, song of the year and best album. The super-trio was snubbed by many country fans and radio stations after lead singer Natalie Maines made disparaging comments in 2003 about President Bush. Taking the Long Way, last night's winning album, was ignored by the Country Music Association at its November awards ceremony.

"That's interesting," Maines crowed from the podium after winning the award for best country album. "Well, to quote the great Simpsons -- 'Haw-haw.'

"Just kidding," said Maines, adding, "A lot of people just turned their TVs off right now. I'm very sorry for that."

Emily Robison noted, "We wouldn't have done this album without everything we went through, so we have no regrets. I thank everyone who voted for us."

Other major winners of the night included hip-hop soul queen Mary J. Blige, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood.

Despite making a big push for younger viewers last night, the Grammy Awards wound up feeling safer than ever. Ho-hum performances and bombing stage patter were the norm.

This year, the Recording Academy tried to lure a bigger audience by making the telecast more interactive and opening the show with a reunion performance by '80s supergroup the Police.

Picking up where they left off 20 years ago, Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers kicked off the show with a spirited take of "Roxanne," the rock band's 1978 classic single. A medley would have been better, but the Police kept it sweet and brief. The chemistry is still there, so a reunion tour would be a great (and probably lucrative) idea.

That burst of energy was subsequently drained by the Dixie Chicks. The country trio's performance of the heatedly defiant single "Not Ready to Make Nice" felt disappointingly soft. Led by Maines, who was decked out in what looked like a white junior prom dress circa 1990, the song sounded tentative. But the hit, a highlight from Taking the Long Way, won the award for song and record of the year.

The Grammys got the overwrought out of the way early on. Beyonce, evoking Billie Holiday with magnolias in her hair, wailed through "Listen," the boring, wannabe self-love anthem from the Dreamgirls soundtrack.

Early winners were predictable: Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett picked up the first award of the night for best pop collaboration for their warm rendition of "For Once in My Life," a hit for Wonder in 1967 -- beating out such hits as Nelly Furtado and Timbaland's "Promiscuous" and Shakira and Wyclef Jean's "Hips Don't Lie."

Blige gave a tearful, long-winded thank-you after picking up the gramophone for best R&B album. The Breakthrough, her seventh studio release, was among last year's biggest albums and one of her better CDs. Known to the world as the dramatic "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," the native New Yorker led this year's nominations with eight. She also won best female R&B performance and R&B song for "Be Without You."

Underwood won best new artist, best female country vocal performance and country song for "Jesus Take the Wheel."

The Chili Peppers' double album, Stadium Arcadium, won several awards, including best rock song, rock album and rock performance by a duo or group for "Dani California."

Midway through the show, the winner of the much-hyped, win-a-duet-with-Justin-Timberlake contest was announced: Though pretty, Robyn Troup, 18, of Houston didn't radiate that certain "It" factor and looked awkward onstage. And she didn't get to display whatever vocal talent she may have. She shadowed Timberlake on a weak take of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" and an even weaker version of "My Love," a cut from the pop star's FutureSex/LoveSounds CD.

Earlier, Timberlake also gave a competent performance of "What Goes Around." But it turned odd toward the end. Whoever thought it was a cool idea for him to sing into a hand-held camera like a YouTube amateur should be fired. This was undoubtedly an attempt to make the Grammys more interactive, more "cool." But it came off clumsily.

John Mayer, John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae, last year's most critically acclaimed artists under 30, gave a memorable performance, splicing together cuts from their latest albums. Although each comes from different genres -- Mayer, rock-pop; Legend, modern soul; and Rae, jazzy folk-pop -- their approaches meshed well. It was buoyed by Mayer's scorching guitar work. Afterward, he rightfully strolled away with the award for best pop vocal album for his stellar CD, Continuum. He also won best male pop vocal performance.

The broadcast clearly was more about flashy performances than mere awards. Shakira and Wyclef Jean brought Vegas to the Grammys with a stagy, overdone version of "Hips Don't Lie," a ubiquitous pop hit last year. There were dancers draped in gold and lots of washing-machine hips shaking across the stage.

Singer-rapper Cee-Lo and producer Danger Mouse, known collectively as the weird pop duo Gnarls Barkley, turned out an idiosyncratic rendition of "Crazy," the Song of Summer 2006. Wearing commercial airline pilot uniforms, the twosome changed up the arrangement with a marching beat and a large, sweeping choir. It was strange but compelling -- and something only Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse could pull off.

Blige took on a regal aura in an elegant, pearl-colored gown. Her performance of "Be Without You" was too thick with grand strings, but toward the end, she folded in a snippet of the '60s soul classic "Stay With Me," originally done by Lorraine Ellison. Pitch issues aside, she emoted plenty of churchy feeling.

Rascal Flatts and Underwood paid a long tribute to the Eagles. Adding no zest or personality to the FM-radio classics, the country stars sang mediocre takes of "Hotel California," "Life in the Fast Lane" and "Desperado."

They were soon followed by yet another tribute, an obligatory one to R&B music. Smokey Robinson, looking a little too well-preserved in a black, see-through shirt, sang his self-penned '60s standard, "The Tracks of My Tears," which nicely segued to Lionel Richie's "Hello." But incongruously, Chris Brown, the athletic teeny-bopper urban performer, was added to the lineup. Backed by a troupe of hoodie-clad dancers, he stomped and gyrated through "Run It." Vocally and aesthetically, Brown has nothing in common with Robinson or Richie. Talk about an awkward mash-up.

In a shamefully slight tribute to James Brown, Christina Aguilera belted "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." Though a technically strong singer, Aguilera lacks the emotional depth to pull off such a wrenching number. All that screaming and wailing made for great theatrics, but it was ultimately hollow. Later in the telecast, ending the "in memoriam" segment, Chris Brown returned to the stage, briefly mimicking the Godfather of Soul's famed feet-shuffling moves. It was yawn-inducing.

Blige returned to the stage with Ludacris for one of those lame, kid-choir-with-candles productions. Although the staging for the rapper's heart-heavy "Runaway Love" was a bit much, the number was musically sound, featuring soaring vocal obbligatos from Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey. That was followed by James Blunt, warbling the sugary "You're Beautiful," which was scaled-down to guitar and piano. The British singer-songwriter dedicated his performance to Ahmet Ertegun, the late co-founder of Atlantic Records, the label that distributed Blunt's multiplatinum CD Back to Bedlam.

Multi-Grammy winners Red Hot Chili Peppers brought back the energy with which the Police kicked off the show. A white confetti storm took over the arena during the band's lively performance. Of course, it didn't match what the band usually does in concert. But, hey, the band members could only get so loose at the Grammys.

When the Dixie Chicks made their way back on stage for the fifth time to take the album of the year award, it was a triumphant close to an otherwise anti-climactic evening of song and expensive staging.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.comIncludes reporting by the Associated Press.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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