Bill Clinton, Stars Turn Out for Bono

The second night of the long Grammy weekend was almost as good as the first (see Friday's report on the R&B Foundation dinner).

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences MusicCares dinner honored U2 singer Bono, and he drew a crowd that included Bill Clinton, Patti LaBelle, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, Gwen Stefani, B.B. King, Wynona Judd, Ashley Judd, Jimmy Fallon, Salman Rushdie, Tony Bennett, Eunice Shriver and Bobby Shriver, Carly Simon, Robert De Niro, Steve Van Zandt, David Bowie, artist Francesco Clemente and new Sony Music chief Andy Lack.

There was also a huge gathering of the most important people in the music business. Over a thousand of them crowded into the main ballroom at the Marriott Marquis to see if new NARAS president Neil Portnow could right the wrongs of recent years. I won't keep you waiting: he did, and with panache.

Clinton — looking exceptionally tanned and rested — came to present Bono with the Person of the Year award. The crowd went wild for Clinton, too.

Echoing the anti-war theme of the night, Clinton said: "If you immediately think it's us versus them, then this will not be a world for your children to grow up in."

Elvis Costello, citing Bono's recent nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, told the crowd: "Give him the [expletive] award now."

Earlier, I was seated at a table with Costello, Krall (they're a couple) and Norah Jones when Tony Bennett came over and delivered a drawing he'd made of Costello from across the way.

Some of the performers did very well; others not so great. Mary J. Blige, for example, could not find one note or a melody line for U2's anthem, "One." Gwen Stefani bared more midriff than modulation on "The Sweetest Thing." But Norah Jones knocked off a super version of "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of."  Performances by Costello, Sheryl Crow and Shirley Manson were spot on. A group of spectacular African musicians opened the show.

Still, it was Bono's night. His charity work is now off the charts because he's done so much, and it was proper to recognize him. He's a little full of himself, but that doesn't matter. (He chose to sing "That's Life" and "Night and Day" with an orchestra for his own numbers. The latter was saved by the appearance of his U2 mate The Edge, whose chilling guitar solo lifted the number out of its doldrums.)

Bono told the crowd, among other things: "The war against terrorism is bound up in the war on poverty." At one point he declared: "I don't want to die stupid." He also announced he was a "fan" of America and wasn't leaving anytime soon. He said that Clinton was "more of a rock star than any in this room" — which was saying a lot.

You might wonder what Salman Rushdie was doing there, by the way. Turns out he wrote a song with Bono that appeared on the UK version of the group's All That You Can't Leave Behind.

"It's called 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet,' which was also the name of a novel I wrote about a musician," Rushdie told me. "I wrote the lyrics and Bono wrote the music. Bono liked a verse in there and wanted to base a song on it. It's fifty-fifty, and I do get royalties."

And what of our little table? Well, Costello and Krall were extremely nice together, very affectionate and seemingly well-suited to each other. Norah Jones, I can report, is charming, although she is very petite and quite young. When I asked her if she was nervous about Grammy night, she replied, "You bet." She told me starts work on her new album in April.

Luckily, there was little talk all night of the problems plaguing the music business, which was a relief to many, especially Andy Lack. He has the ominous task in the days ahead of downsizing Sony Music by a reported 1000 workers. And Warner Music was nearly absent from the evening, having taken a couple of tables way in the back of the gigantic ballroom. In the end, though, it was all about good pop music and integrity, two things that don't always go hand in hand.