Rock Focus: Alabama Shakes Erupt At 58th GRAMMYs
Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard was almost, well … shaking. She and her bandmates had just nabbed the GRAMMY for Best Rock Performance, capping a night in which the band earned their very first GRAMMYs. Nervously explaining how the band got their modest start in high school, the jittery Howard paused and said, "Let me tell you — my heart is beating a mile a minute right now!"
It was a touching moment during a night that saw Alabama Shakes authoritatively dominate the Rock Field at the 58th Annual GRAMMY Awards show. In all, the Shakes earned three GRAMMYs, Best Alternative Music Album for Sound & Color and Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance for "Don’t Wanna Fight."
The Shakes' GRAMMY breakthrough was one of the biggest moments during a night — and day — in which the operative word was "hot." With temperatures soaring to the 90-degree mark in Los Angeles, attendees streamed into Staples Center to experience the GRAMMYs, and the sweltering heat served as a metaphor for the awards competition itself. No field was arguably more hotly contested than the Rock Field, where nominated acts including Foo Fighters, Florence & the Machine, Slipknot, James Bay and more jockeyed for the music's ultimate prize in the categories of Best Metal Performance, Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Album.
But while the nominations celebrated the work of both new and established artists, this year's rock proceedings felt curiously … haunted. Since GRAMMY nominees were announced last December, a host of rock masters have passed away, including Eagles singer/songwriter Glenn Frey, Jefferson Airplane founding member Paul Kantner, heavy metal pioneer Lemmy Kilmister, and GRAMMY-winning rock experimentalist extraordinaire David Bowie. That's not to mention the late B.B. King, whose stinging blues guitar continues to influence legions of rock musicians.
These dearly departed rockers rank among the best-selling and/or most influential artists in their fields, and their innovative spirits cast an inspiring shadow over Music's Biggest Night. Accordingly, The Recording Academy gave these late masters, and many others spanning all genres, their due during the In Memoriam tribute segment.
This year's nominations bore testament to the increasing variegation of the rock genre, and nowhere was that more evident than in the Best Rock Song category. GRAMMY victors Alabama Shakes faced off against Elle King’s "Ex's & Oh's," a heady throwback to the "brag" songs of pioneering blues women like Bessie Smith and Blue Lu Barker. James Bay earned a nod for his haunting and atmospheric rock ballad, "Hold Back The River." Breaking from whimsical tradition, British rockers Florence & The Machine were nominated for "What Kind Of Man," a single whose clarion horns, ripsaw guitars and explosive drums pound with tribal intensity. Rounding out the competition was "Lydia," a hard rocking track with rapid-fire vocals that helped make 2015 a breakthrough year for Massachusetts rockers Highly Suspect.
The Best Rock Album category saw Slipknot, Death Cab For Cutie, James Bay, and Highly Suspect competing for the prize. But it was Brit rockers Muse who captured the award for their critically acclaimed album, Drones.
The Best Metal Performance award went to the theatrical Swedish metalists Ghost, whose song "Cirice" emerged over other tracks by competing nominees Slipknot, Lamb Of God, Sevendust, and August Burns Red. Just hours before winning their award, Ghost turned heads by walking the red carpet in their trademark masks and theatrical makeup. Accepting their GRAMMY, the band crowed "a nightmare has turned into a dream" — a rather curious conclusion to an exciting metal competition.
The Academy paid tribute to Motörhead founder and heavy metal pioneer Kilmister with a performance by Hollywood Vampires, the rock supergroup comprised of shock-rocker Alice Cooper, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and actor/rocker Johnny Depp. The group made the most of their GRAMMY debut, performing their punk-inflected original song "Bad As I Am" before seamlessly segueing into a high-velocity interpretation of Motörhead's classic “Ace Of Spades.”
The Hollywood Vampires' performance hearkened back to the loud 'n' proud days of '70s proto-metal, but the 58th GRAMMYs also celebrated rock’s tender side. Indeed, though the word "rock" connotes raucousness, some of the genre's most powerful tunes have been haunting songs that flirt with balladry (think the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," or Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb"). Singer/songwriters and Best New Artist nominees James Bay and Tori Kelly underscored rock's poignant potential with their duet performance of Bay's own "Let It Go" and Kelly’s "Hollow."
A similar intimate spirit animated the performance of the surviving members of the Eagles, who regrouped to pay tribute to heir fallen co-founder Frey. The band performed the breezy "Take It Easy," with folk-rock icon Jackson Browne filling in for Frey (Browne co-wrote the song with Frey). Supported by Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit and guitarists Joe Walsh and Bernie Leadon, Browne led these high-flying birds through a faithful version of the breezy hit that helped set the Eagles on their path to becoming one of America's most successful rock acts of all time.
Frey was surely smiling from his heavenly perch.
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post,USA Today, Detroit Free Press, San Francisco Chronicle, and other distinguished publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)