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Sam Smith Wins 4 Grammys, Beck Takes Home Album Of The Year

By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

On a nostalgia-heavy Grammy night generally lacking in surprise, Beck bested heavily favored artists such as Beyoncé and Sam Smith for album of the year.

The 57th annual Grammy Awards gave Beck’s “Morning Phase” its highest accolade Sunday, while putting the brakes on the expected coronation of British soul star Smith and pop queen Beyoncé.

The unexpected win continued a Grammy tradition of making up for past oversights by awarding a deserving veteran artist for a lesser work. “Morning Phase” is in many ways a lighter knockoff of Beck’s somber “Sea Change” from 2002.

Despite the setback, Smith won four Grammys, including three of the “big four”: best new artist, song of the year and record of the year, for his gospel-tinged hit “Stay With Me.”

“Thanks for breaking my heart … because you won me four Grammys,” Smith said, addressing the lover who inspired many of the melancholy songs on his “In the Lonely Hour” debut album, including “Stay With Me.”

Beyoncé won two Grammys, but none in the major categories. She did get the last word though. She performed the Thomas A. Dorsey gospel classic “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” paving the way for a John Legend-Common collaboration on the stirring, new civil rights anthem “Glory.”

As part of the weekend of Grammy ceremonies, Chicago blues giant Buddy Guy received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

It was a night otherwise notable for conservative, even nostalgic presentations. Here are a few of the highs and lows from the nationally televised broadcast from Los Angeles:

Best Grammy opener ever? A 59-year-old juvenile delinquent in schoolboy knickers opened the nationally televised portion of the Grammys, and you could practically see him cackling beneath his beanie. Angus Young amped things up instantly with his beleaguered band, AC/DC, which recently lost his brother, Malcolm Young, to dementia. But the rock didn’t stop, not even for a tribute, sentimental or otherwise.

One “loser” and one big winner: “As a former loser” of best new artist, Taylor Swift handed Sam Smith his first big award of the night.

Stiffest performance? Lots of contenders, including a lugubrious “A Little Bit of Your Heart” by Ariana Grande, complete with strings, clunky piano chords and bejeweled ear monitors. And Tom Jones and Jessie J didn’t exactly light it up with their perfunctory tribute to the songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. But imagine the barbershop quartet version they could’ve done with the winter-spring duo of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, who “danced cheek to cheek” later with considerably more flair.

What decade is this anyway, Part 1: More than 30 minutes into the telecast, we still hadn’t progressed much beyond the ’80s in terms of look, tone and aesthetic. Miranda Lambert adopted the windblown look of an early Steve Nicks MTV video for “Little Red Wagon.”

What decade is this anyway, Part 2: Madonna reprised 1989 hit “Like a Prayer” with “Living for Love,” except for the dancing Minotaurs. Progress!

What decade is this anyway, Part 3: The Grammys interrupted itself for an Electric Light Orchestra tribute, led by ELO founder Jeff Lynne, with strings, a massive band and lots of decades-old hits. But why? Viewers could be forgiven for thinking they’d stumbled accidentally into a “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” rerun from the ’70s.

Kanye West, sensitive dude: Kanye cranked up the Autotune, just as he did on his melancholy “808’s and Heartbreak” album in 2008, on “Only One.” Autotune is West’s personal barometer for measuring sentimentality, this time directed at his daughter, North.

Strangest backing band: Herbie Hancock and Questlove as a backing band? John Mayer impersonating Buddy Holly? All in service of carrot-topped British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran? The mind reels.

Did he bargain for this? It was a nice thought by someone to let Annie Lennox join Hozier for his hit “Take Me to Church.” But I’m guessing the Irish singer didn’t expect to get absolutely smoked by Lennox, who ran away with his moment in the televised spotlight and also all her predecessors on the Grammys stage. Her powerhouse version of “I Put a Spell on You” put Hozier in the shadows, strumming his guitar.

Least expected Wes Anderson Grand Budapest Hotel homage: “Happy,” as performed by Pharrell Williams, dressed as a bellhop in a hotel lobby dance montage.

Inexplicable Grammy programming decisions, Part 1: Katy Perry following a domestic-abuse message from President Barack Obama with a ballad? Yes, that’s exactly the singer America had in mind for that moment after last week’s over-the-top Super Bowl halftime performance.

Photo: Mary J. Blige and Sam Smith perform at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

House Music Icon DJ Rashad Dead At 34

By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — DJ Rashad, aka Rashad Harden, started out as a dancer in Chicago clubs and street corners, and turned into a pioneering producer. He helped usher in the next wave of dance music known as footwork.

Harden, 34, of Calumet City, Illinois, was found dead Saturday afternoon in an apartment on Chicago’s West Side and pronounced dead shortly after. Narcotics and drug paraphernalia were found near his body, police said.

The DJ, who was scheduled to perform Saturday in Detroit, toured last year with rising Chicago hip-hop MC Chance the Rapper, who mourned Harden’s death on Twitter: “Music lost a legend today. And he was my friend. Love you DJ Rashad. RIP.”

Chicago now has lost two pioneering DJs from its hugely influential dance community in the last few weeks. Frankie Knuckles died March 31 after laying the foundation for house music in the late ’70s and early ’80s at his Warehouse club. Harden was one of the more recent innovators in a city and an African-American community notable for providing a blueprint for how people should move on the dance floor — whether it was Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train,” the stepping tradition of the ’70s or the “jack” movements of early house music and its evolution into the fast-paced juke and footwork styles of more recent vintage.

Harden was born October 9, 1979 in Hammond, Indiana.

House and juke shaped the young Harden’s aesthetic, first as a dancer, than as a DJ who began crafting recordings that would inspire dancers to greater feats of daring. The juke and footwork beats were fast — 165 beats per minute, about 40 bpm faster than typical house music — and fired up dancers to battle for money or street fame. Speed and athleticism were at a premium as a dancer would break from the outer circle of onlookers to demonstrate rapid-fire steps such as the dribble, skate and bang. Dancers and DJs described the battles as a competitive sport as much as an art form.

Whereas juke music was dense and verging on frantic, footwork offered a warped, stranger and more spacious soundtrack — an avant-garde offshoot that began to find national attention when MTV aired Dude ‘n Nem’s 2007 single “Watch my Feet.”

It was in this more esoteric realm that Harden excelled as a producer and recording craftsman, helping frame a scene and a sound alongside such artists as DJ Spinn (his frequent collaborator) and RP Boo.

Last year, besides touring with Chance the Rapper and appearing at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park, Harden released the acclaimed single “Let it Go.” An eerie vocal sample and synthesizer line floated above intersecting beats that sound as if they were fragmenting at the edges. The track oozed a flawed, dirty, fragility. It wasn’t just a rhythm bed that provided space for dancers to innovate, but also a world for an individual listener to explore between the headphones.

Last autumn, the DJ released a landmark footwork album, “Double Cup,” that chopped up beats into ever more eccentric and haunting combinations. On the track “Let U No,” the vocals become part of a hypnotic landscape of rhythm, while a gentle rollercoaster of a synthesizer melody glides above.

The constant touring and the increasing recognition of his artistry put DJ Rashad on the verge of a breakthrough, according to many fans of the scene. A new EP, “We on 1,” was due out Monday. Now, it’s expected to coincide with a statement from his record company mourning his death.

He is survived by his son, Chad, 9; and his parents, Anthony and Gloria.

Photo: Elevate Festival via Flickr

Music Is More Mobile Than Ever, But Convenience Comes At A Price

By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Need any more proof that smartphones have taken over our lives? You know it’s true when artists start writing songs about losing their lovers to them.

These pocket-size computers have made everyone’s ability to stay in touch with music — and the world — more convenient, more portable and more distracting than ever. The notion that any piece of music you can possibly crave is just a click away, anywhere, anytime, is getting more refined with each new iteration from tech companies that have in many ways usurped the role of record companies, radio stations, video channels and record stores.

“The paradise of infinite storage,” as McGill University professor (and former Clash producer) Sandy Pearlman once rhapsodized, has arrived.

It’s indisputably paradise for music fans. It has empowered them to an unprecedented degree, not only granting them immediate access to just about every piece of music ever recorded, but allowing them to play with, remix and distribute it, then discard it as soon as the next musical bauble comes along.

For artists, the results have been less idyllic. The downturn in physical media — compact disc sales have been cut in half the last decade — and the transition to online music have forced musicians to take at least a temporary pay cut on recording royalties. The transition to digital put new emphasis on individual songs over albums. So instead of paying $15 for a CD, listeners downloaded a favorite track at iTunes for 99 cents. Now they’re paying fractions of a penny to stream tracks at digital platforms such as Spotify, Beats Music and Pandora. And some aren’t paying at all to acquire music; a recent study by the NPD Group concludes that mobile applications have eclipsed file-sharing services as the most widely used source of free music downloads. About 27 million mobile users have downloaded at least one song in the past year, most from unauthorized sources.

Artists benefit by showcasing their music on an accessible platform that is less restrictive than commercial radio, but streaming revenue in general has lagged what artists once made selling CDs or downloads.

“As a consumer, I love (new platforms such as) Spotify,” says Norwegian singer Ane Brun. “They cover so much music. But as an artist, it’s still not there. The payment is really low for musicians. There are different options coming in all the time, more companies. Eventually if consumers have more choices, the competition could help artists. But we’re not there yet.”

For emerging artists, streaming services combined with relentless social networking can deliver much-needed exposure. Alexander Beggins of Texas-based Wild Child says the band owes its steadily growing following to building one-on-one relationships with fans that wouldn’t have been possible in the pre-digital era.

The smartphone culture “is absolutely the reason we’re doing as well as we are,” he says. “If you’re on Facebook or tweet us, we’re right back at you. We respond to people every day and have an ongoing dialogue with our fans. It’s so important to stay connected to the people who spend money and talk about you. With Spotify, we had 7 million plays on our first album, and that does translate into dollars that help us stay on the road. It’s such a wide net you can cast, reaching people in different countries that we never would be able to reach before.”

But there are deeper implications about what it all means. For some, the shifts in human behavior that have been promoted by the tech boom do not augur well for the quality of music.

“I have very dark, complex feelings about the way social media operates and the omnipresence of iPhones,” says California soul singer Nick Waterhouse. “It has become an appendage. It’s how people I care very much about interact with everything. And it’s (terrible). It’s no way to live. It’s just dark. This naive unleashing of an epidemic, to the point where it’s how people process everything. I used to think it was fine, like having an AM radio. But I know so many people who listen to music out of their iPhone speakers. It becomes background noise, part of the wash. It makes music not special anymore. If you eat pizza all the time, it doesn’t taste like pizza anymore.”

There’s no disputing that sound quality has been degraded in the digital era. MP3 files heard over tiny iPod or smartphone ear buds just can’t match the quality of CDs or vinyl, nor was that ever the intention. In recent weeks, one of digital sound’s biggest detractors — Neil Young — introduced a new digital player, Pono, that he contended rivals the fidelity of a phonograph playing a vinyl album.

Vinyl is a fetishized relic of the 20th century, a beautiful artifact celebrated by the crackle of sampled riffs and drum breaks on hip-hop tracks. It’s also a growing industry, particularly for indie bands and record stores; vinyl sales have skyrocketed in recent years (up 33 percent in 2013 from the previous year) but still represent a tiny fraction of overall music sales.

As frustrating as its limitations can appear to artists craving better sound, more attentive listeners and fairer compensation, the digital world is still in its awkward adolescence. The digital overhaul of intellectual property and entertainment media — not just music, but books, newspapers, magazines, video, movies and television — has just begun. The world will be radically different in 10 years. Smartphones will only become smarter. Relatively new innovations such as Instagram, Vine and Twitter will fade and be replaced by new digital fads, just as MySpace, Napster and Xanga once were.

“Five years from now, we’re going to be saying, ‘Can you believe we were obsessed with 140-character conversations?’” says Matador Records publicist Nils Bernstein. The next decade, he says, should be about how technology can facilitate deeper understanding and wider appreciation of music and culture. Because without an incentive to create — and artists have been creating under adverse conditions for centuries — all the technological innovations in the world won’t matter.

Photo: Patrik Moen via Flickr

Eminem, Skrillex, Kings Of Leon Among Lollapalooza Headliners

By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — The lineup for Lollapalooza’s 10th year Aug. 1-3 in Grant Park won’t be announced until next week, but industry sources confirm that the headliners will include Eminem, Skrillex, Kings of Leon and Arctic Monkeys.

Lollapalooza, which last year drew a capacity audience of 300,000 to the three-day festival, will mark return visits for all four bands. Additional headliners and the complete lineup will be announced next week.

Eminem previously headlined the festival in 2011 and late last year released “The Marshall Mathers LP 2,” which debuted at No. 1 and has sold about 2 million copies.

Skrillex has been at the leading edge of the EDM (electronic dance music) movement for several years, and has been a Lollapalooza regular, first performing there in 2011 and returning last year with his Dog Blood side project. His rapid ascent coincides with Lollapalooza’s increasingly large role in advancing dance-music artists; in past years, electronic acts such as Daft Punk, Deadmau5 and Avicii have played high-profile sets.

Kings of Leon used the festival circuit as a springboard over the last decade to becoming an arena rock band, and they headlined Lollapalooza in 2009. Arctic Monkeys last appeared at Lollapalooza before a huge late-afternoon crowd in 2011, but this year marks the U.K. quartet’s first headlining slot there.

The festival will once again spread more than 100 bands and artists across eight stages. It became a destination festival in 2005, based in Chicago and promoted by Austin-based C3 Presents, after launching in 1991 as a multi-band touring event centered on Jane’s Addiction’s farewell tour.

Tickets are scheduled to go on sale next Tuesday.

Photo: Gonzo Chicago via Flickr