Songs in the (Alicia) Keys of Life

Alicia Keys | Rod Stewart 

Songs in the (Alicia) Keys of Life

You might be wondering what Alicia Keys did when she came off the stage last night at the Grammy Awards, having just picked up her fourth statue of the night — this one for Best New Artist.

I was backstage and happened on Keys — whom I’d never met before — and her entourage. Jubilantly, one of the group yelled out “A Keys,” which I did not immediately understand. Then the whole gang — about 10 people — got into a circle, extended their arms into the center, said a silent prayer, and then yelled out in unison, “A Keys.”

“It’s a tradition,” Alicia’s older sister told me later. “It keeps us going.”

Indeed, Keys is so refreshingly unusual that her ultimate win of five Grammy’s last night is completely warranted and deserved. What a triumph! And, so far, this beautiful and talented 21-year-old-woman has not let it go to her head. I had this rare opportunity to witness her interacting with her backup singers, musicians and assistants — and it couldn’t have been more convivial. Keys knows how lucky she is, and she’s not about to blow it.

When I was introduced to her by a publicist a few minutes after the prayer session, Keys — who might have had a lot on her mind at that moment — was gracious and focused. She’s a little more well spoken in person than on stage, where she likes to act “street” so she can be accessible to her fans. “I’m just overwhelmed,” she said as dressers tried to freshen her up so she could go back out front in the audience.

I can tell you that in the Staples Center — where the air is stagnant and the vibe is deadly — Keys’s performance of “Fallin'” had a huge impact. Many of the night’s songs were lip-synched — you can figure out by whom. But just coming out of a commercial break we heard Keys’s band tuning up, and Keys herself practicing at the piano. When the lights came up and she started singing, her voice was so powerful, clear and soulful that the entire mood in the Staples changed. Suddenly everyone was involved. Quite a difference from some of the less spontaneous stuff that had gone on before.

All of this low-key and human stuff was in stark contrast to some other shenanigans at the Staples last night. Just before the show went live, Celine Dion showed up late with a makeup person and hairstylist in tow. Rather than go through the artist’s entrance and face the press without all her pieces in place, Celine had her staff work on her right there in the lobby.

You haven’t seen anything til you’ve seen Celine getting powder and blush from one lackey while another one is busy arranging the strands of her elaborate wig. Yikes! Meanwhile, publicists, managers and agents buzzed around her, screaming into cell phones, making sure their superstar attraction was getting the royal treatment.

Inside Staples, the tedium of the broadcast quickly translated into boredom backstage. Almost none of the acts used the Green Room, although Natalie Cole patiently waited there most of the night. Instead, several of the acts chose to barricade themselves in a new, private and restricted area backstage — sort of a Mega Green Room/velvet roped club — where a bar was open and available throughout the show.

Meanwhile, Stevie Wonder — always cooperative, always a sport — whiled away his time for more than 90 minutes in an L.A. Clippers dressing room. He was supposed to present Best Album — after all, he’s won two of those awards himself. But the show’s producers and NARAS, the scandal-plagued Grammy organization, thought that Matthew McConaughey, Janet Jackson and Gloria Estefan deserved that distinction. How ridiculous! Stevie waited patiently until he was called to give the Best Record award.

In the audience, a few miscellaneous celebrities wandered through the proceedings. Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann was present with a young male friend, and he particularly enjoyed the “Lady Marmalade” segment. He told me, “Since I wasn’t nominated for a Best Director Oscar, I’m going to campaign hard now for Moulin Rouge for the next couple of weeks.” Luhrmann said he was relieved the movie was getting so much attention now. “It’s keep the whole idea of movie musicals alive.”

My favorite area of the night, though, was the holding pen directly backstage. This is where the presenters and performers could stop in for a last minute touch up before heading out in front of the cameras. This was a makeshift set up, cordoned off by a black curtain and containing TV monitors. At one point, McConaughey came in to practice his presenter’s patter with Gloria Estefan. He wound up shaking hands with Rob Thomas, who was also in the room. Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock took a place on the little sofa in this staging area, and Patti Labelle got her makeup fixed.

I don’t know how the show looked on TV, but oh my what a dreadful boring business it was in person. I must admit to taking leave of the show entirely right after Mary J. Blige’s energetic performance. If the Grammy’s move back to New York next year, then I think the rumor of producer Pierre Cossette’s retirement might not be such a bad thing.

Also, I still haven’t figured out why Britney Spears and Matthew Perry were paired in a presentation. Nothing Perry said to Spears registered with her, and it might have been smarter just to read the nominees and give out the awards.

Rod Stewart’s Take on It

Here’s the quote as promised from rocker Rod Stewart. He sat near Barry Manilow at Clive Davis’ gala on Tuesday night. When I asked him about the great sales success of his greatest hits album that’s out right now, he replied: “Well, I haven’t sold as many as Mrs. Manilow over there!”

Ah, the English sense of humor.

Then Rod, who was in rare form, continued: “Have you noticed in profile that Barry and I resemble each other now?”

And how will Rod fare with his upcoming J Records album of standards produced by legendary Richard Perry? “It will either be huge success,” he said, “or Clive and I will never speak to each other again.”

Stewart, by the way, told me he’d like to tour and perform the standards on their own, with just a few of his old songs mixed in. But no more big rock show extravaganzas. “I’m too old,” he said.

Tomorrow: all the Grammy parties