Prince starts program on right note

Sprinkled with energetic performances here and there, last night's Grammy Awards show wasn't the snooze fest it has been for the last two years. Unlike what we saw on last year's painfully subdued program, last night's performances - mostly hip-hop and R&B; - were consistently interesting if at times bloated. Overall, it was a safe, scandal-free night of elaborate staging and powerhouse vocals - the usual stuff we love about the Grammys. Of course, with a five-minute delay, what could go wrong?

The opening with Prince was an unexpected but delightful twist. Lately, the Purple One, a recent Jehovah's Witness convert, has been busy trumpeting his faith and putting out lame albums of disjointed instrumentals. But last night, looking dapper and engaged, he kicked off the show with "Purple Rain." (This year marks the 20th anniversary of the blockbuster film and soundtrack.) Wearing a seemingly painted-on mini dress with feathers, Beyonce sashayed onto the stage, joining Prince in a medley of hits from Purple Rain. Her own smash, "Crazy in Love," was smartly inserted in "Baby I'm a Star." The performance was perhaps the night's most exciting with both Prince and Beyonce in fine voice.


The hip-hop generation's answer to Diana Ross, the former Destiny Child lead singer, who garnered six nominations, picked up the first award presented last night. Dangerously in Love, Beyonce's double platinum solo debut, won best contemporary R&B; album. Up against weak-voiced Ashanti, who picked up the trophy in the category last year, Beyonce was a shoo-in for the award. Although the album was uneven, it was one of the year's most exciting modern R&B; records.

Replete with dancers, a sparkly gown and a live bird, Beyonce's brassy rendition of the title track received one of the evening's few standing ovations.


Among the night's oddest ensembles was the Beatles tribute featuring Dave Matthews, Sting, Vince Gill and Pharrell Willliams. It's typical of the Grammys to throw together such diverse talents. (Where else would you see Williams, the biggest hip-hop producer around, keeping time on the drums behind a country-pop gentleman like Gill?) But it didn't quite work. Matthews sounded off-key as he warbled in the mike with Sting on "I Saw Her Standing There."

Next up, we got Christina Aguilera, who picked up a gramophone for best pop female vocal for the love-yourself power ballad, "Beautiful." First things first: It was refreshing to see Aguilera fully clothed. Singing most of "Beautiful" on her knees, the pop tart gave us a rich performance chock full of Teena Marie-isms. There may be hope for the girl yet.

Saluting Luther Vandross, Alicia Keys sang a stiff, by-the-numbers rendition of "A House is Not a Home," followed with a competent performance of "Dance With My Father" by Celine Dion. She matched the swollen sentimentality of the lyrics with her swollen singing style, and it came off well despite her faulty mike.

A funk segment featuring Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament, OutKast and Robert Randolph and the Family Band felt forced, disjointed and incomplete. (How can you have a funk segment without the primal wails of Chaka Khan?) But it was fun and raucous. And any chance to see the colorful, zany George Clinton on TV is a treat.

Andre 3000, the other half of OutKast whose double-disc set, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, won album of the year, closed the show with a strange but stimulating performance of "Hey Ya!" In green buckskin pants, feathers and silver boots, the singer-rapper twisted and jerked around the stage like a man possessed, taken over by the spirit of funk.

And it seemed as if everybody in the house felt it.