Will U2 find what it’s looking for on Wednesday, when it competes for eight Grammy Awards at the music industry’s biggest bash of the year? Or will the Irish rock quartet be rattled by folk musicians, soulful R&B divas and tireless troubadour Bob Dylan?
Nothing is ever certain about the Grammys, whose industry voters frequently stun music fans with oddball choices, including last year’s album of the year prize to semi-retired jazz-rock recluses Steely Dan.
In the past few years the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which organizes the event, has tried to improve the awards’ image by forming a top-secret committee to weed out embarrassing choices before they are nominated. This year, the only complaint about the nominations was that there was not too much to complain about.
Plenty can go wrong on the night, but leading nominee U2 seems assured of adding some hardware to its collection of 10 Grammys, observers say.
“U2 have been around forever and they’re seen as a quality band,” said Sia Michel, the executive editor of Spin magazine.
U2 spent much of 2001 on tour, reapplying for “the best band in the world job,” as vocalist Bono said at last year’s Grammys where it won three awards for “Beautiful Day,” the first single from its album “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
It faces competition in the big categories from rookie R&B singers India.Arie 26, and Alicia Keys, 21, with seven and six nods each, respectively. (French classical conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, No. 4 on the all-time winners list with 23 Grammys, also received six nominations.)
Bluegrass musician Alison Krauss, R&B singer Brian McKnight and rap duo Outkast received five nominations each. Producer T-Bone Burnett, Canadian pop singer Nelly Furtado, young rock band Train, Aerosmith rocker Steven Tyler and roots-rocker Lucinda Williams each earned four nods.
ROOM FOR SURPRISE
Michel predicted U2 and Keys would share the major spoils: U2, because people gravitated to the band’s socially conscious music following Sept. 11; and Keys, because people are excited that she is a classically trained pianist who writes and produces her own music.
But eight-time Grammy-winning producer Phil Ramone warned that there are no certainties. “The mixture is so cool at the top in each category that I’m not sure that anybody’s going to walk away with as many Grammys as people think,” he said.
“Every year the surprise is album of the year for me: ones that you don’t think are going to win or don’t have a chance suddenly step forward.”
This year’s album race pits U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” against India.Arie’s “Acoustic Soul,” Dylan’s “Love and Theft,” Outkast’s “Stankonia” and the folk/bluegrass-themed movie soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
The producer of the latter album, T-Bone Burnett, considered the U2 release to be the front-runner.
“I think we have to be a fairly significant underdog,” said Burnett, who was nominated for producer of the year (non-classical) in part for his work on “O Brother.”
The last time a country album won the album race was in 1969 when Glenn Campbell’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” beat Jose Feliciano, the Beatles, Richard Harris and Simon & Garfunkel. Still, the “O Brother” soundtrack was “an astounding sleeper hit” with U.S. sales of four million units to date, said Spin’s Michel, and could emerge as the dark horse winner.
If so, Burnett said it would be “the happiest moment of my life” to share the stage with the album’s performers, including 75-year-old banjo picker Ralph Stanley and the members of gospel’s Fairfield Four – consummate musicians who have pursued their craft for decades.
“They’re worked so hard and they’ve been marginalized, and yet they’ve kept the faith and they’ve kept their vision and they’ve kept their integrity. It would be a really, really great thing,” Burnett said. (The album award goes to the artists, producers and engineers.)
KEYS VS. ARIE
Grammy voters love sentiment, and nothing warms the heart more than seeing veteran musicians get their belated due, even if it reminds everyone of the academy’s oversights over the years. Dylan finally won an album of the year Grammy in 1998 for “Time Out of Mind” and could be an easy choice this year for older voters not in tune with R&B and country.
Keys and Arie will compete against each other in six categories, including record and song of the year and best new artist. Michel predicted Arie would lose out because she does not have the same buzz as Keys. Ramone said they both have “magic simplicity” and could end up splitting the vote, allowing a third artist to grab the spotlight.
Burnett said he would vote for Furtado as best new artist because she’s “spunky.” Unfortunately for the coltish 23-year-old singer of song of the year nominee “I’m Like A Bird,” Burnett is not a Grammy voter. In fact, he claimed to have never watched a telecast.
The other best new artist nominees are pop singer David Gray and California rock band Linkin Park. Ramone said it is “insane” trying to handicap this famously volatile category, whose past winners have included Milli Vanilli, Hootie and the Blowfish and Christopher Cross.
The 44th annual Grammy Awards will be held at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Most of the 101 prizes will be handed out during a fast-paced afternoon ceremony. The main televised ceremony, hosted by comedian Jon Stewart and featuring performances by the likes of U2, Dylan, Keys, Arie, ‘N Sync, and some of the “O Brother” artists, will begin at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST).