The Grammys should always change, says producer Ken Ehrlich — even if some of the changes will confuse guests at the Staples Center on Sunday
In a backstage office at the Staples Center, Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich cued up a song on his computer and listened as Zac Brown, Elton John, Mavis Staples, Mumford & Sons and the Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard ran through a raw, ragged, heartfelt version of the Band's classic song "The Weight." The number was arranged by T Bone Burnett, and will pay tribute to the late Band drummer/singer Levon Helm at Sunday night's Grammys.
"If this doesn't bring the house down on Sunday, there's something wrong," said Erhlich as the final bars of the glorious performance faded.
Once a showcase for stars doing their latest hits and nominees performing the songs that got them there, the Grammys have morphed over the years into an extravaganza that is often centered on moments like "The Weight" – unexpected songs, tributes to the rich history of popular music and genre-crossing collaborations.
Despite his enthusiasm for the Helm tribute, Erhlich insisted that the show can't be pigeonholed quite so easily, and that it is continuing to morph.
"I don't know if I want to type it like that" he told TheWrap on Friday afternoon. Every year I look at it and say to myself, is it time to change? Is it time to reinvent ourselves again?"
Ehrlich, who has been producing the show since 1980, pointed above the audience, where strands of white lights hung in large swoops over the orchestra section.
"These lights are a change," he said. "I've never seen Italian street lights on an awards show, and they're in the video backdrop too. And when people come here on Sunday they're going to hear [Italian crooner] Al Martino and [film compose] Ennio Morricone and ["Volare" singer-songwriter] Domenico Modugno.
"And some of them are going to be confused. They're going to say, 'Why are we doing that?' And it's just because we should be constantly changing what we do. Maybe not drastically, but we should be changing."
Grammy rehearsal is the kind of experience where you can overhear lines like "Bruno Mars wants to kill the kabuki" and "Kelly Clarkson is waiting for you in the Clippers' locker room."
Last year, rehearsal was the moment when a good chunk of the show was overhauled after the unexpected death of Whitney Houston. And while that kind of dramatic change hasn't happened this year, rehearsal is a time to get one of the biggest awards shows in the business off the ground.
The set is scaled to the size of the Staples Center, a building in which most awards shows would be swallowed up by empty space. "It's big," Erlich said Friday afternoon, looking at a set dominated by eight huge video screens stretching into the Staples rafters. "It's just big."
But, of course, the idea is to fit some small human moments into the big show. So 15 rows deep in the orchestra section sits "The Dish," a small circular stage that barely has room for a piano, a guitarist on a stool and a singer.
On Friday afternoon, all three of those things occupied the Dish – and the singer was one of the earliest beneficiaries of the new paradigm in pop music, inaugural "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson.
Clarkson is nominated for three Grammys this year, but she was at Staples to rehearse two songs she's never recorded: Patti Page's "The Tennessee Waltz" and Carole King's "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman."
The number paid tribute to two new Grammy Hall of Fame inductees, and Clarkson performed it brilliantly at rehearsal. She delicately caressed "Tennessee Waltz" (particularly after asking her pianist to slow it down after the first run-through), then bore down and wailed on "Natural Woman."
"I love these songs," she said as soon as she finished. "It's fun enough to sing your own stuff, but I love these songs."
In fact, Clarkson professed to be more comfortable singing than talking – "I'm much more nervous about reading the TelePrompTer," she said sheepishly. "I'm gonna be terrible at this."
Her rehearsal came after run-throughs for country singers Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley, collaborating on two of their hits, and a collaborative performance betweeen the tough Ohio-based rock duo the Black Keys, the historic Preservation Hall Jazz Band and veteran New Orleans singer-pianinst Dr. John.
Also in the Grammy lineup, and spread out across several days of rehearsals: Rihanna, the Lumineers, Fun., Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys and others.
Mars was drawing particular raves from staffers at rehearsals, while Ocean showed up at Staples with his wrist in a brace, apparently from a recent altercation with Chris Brown.
"I would like to think that we can keep topping ourselves," said Erhlich on Friday. "I've lived in a world of prove-it for 35 years. Somebody said to me a little while ago, 'You're the only person that I know of your age who just keeps wanting to ramp it up.' And that's important to me."
Judging from an afternoon at rehearsal, many of the performances are clearly designed for the television screen rather than the in-person audience, which is frequently blasted and all-but-blinded by spotlights coming from behind the performers.
The priorities make sense, of course: There are fewer than 20,000 viewers in the hall, compared to more than 20 million at home.
As he waited for Mumford & Sons to set up, Ehrlich thought back to last year's Grammys, and the wholescale revamping required in the wake of Houston's death the afternoon before the show.
"Every year there are changes during rehearsal, but not like that," he said. "The changes are usually internal.
"Like yesterday with Rihanna, she rehearsed a number and I really liked her performance. But I had seen her the day before, and for the first time I noticed that she had an unbelievable profile, almost like Nefertiti. So I went up to her and said, 'I'd like you to play most of the song looking this way [toward stage left], sideways.' We relit it a little bit, she did it and it was like an entirely different number."
He shrugged. "After 30 years you look for things like that."
As Ehrlich was talking, a line from Neil Young's "Dance, Dance, Dance" suddenly came over the P.A. system. "Are they up there already?" he asked, realizing that Mumford & Sons had taken the stage and were warming up.
"I'm going up," he said, heading quickly toward the stage.