LOS ANGELES — Like a frigid breeze off the St. Lawrence, Arcade Fire froze a wild 53rd Grammy Awards gala dead in its tracks on Sunday.
After losing out on two lesser awards, the Montreal rockers stunned a Staples Center audience filled with the some of the world’s biggest stars by claiming the night’s top prize: album of the year.
When the award was announced, bowled-over lead singer Win Butler fell to his knees.
“What the hell?” he said, probably summing up the feeling of many in attendance. “I just want to say thank you, merci, to Montreal, Quebec, for taking us and giving us a home and a place to be in a band.”
Still stunned, he then swore before adding: “I can’t believe it, we won. Merci Montreal!”
It was the final surprise in a Grammy ceremony that was absolutely packed with them.
Country crossover outfit Lady Antebellum nabbed a leading five trophies, but their haul was overshadowed by many other moments in the 2 1/2 hour telecast.
This was a Grammys in which Lady Gaga swore on live TV, David Letterman provided laughs with a Top 10 list that poked jabs at many in attendance (and suggested that Bieber wears a hair piece) and Aretha Franklin was one of a series of legacy artists who was honoured with a heartfelt tribute.
Neil Young finally won a Grammy for his music, leading nominee Eminem was only a footnote on the night overall and an upstart band of indie-rockers from Montreal won the biggest music award in the world.
After the band claimed the award, they took the stage for a performance of “Ready to Start” — Butler still unable to wipe the shocked grin off his face.
“Thank you the Grammys,” he said. “We’re so happy.”
Beyond the fact that Arcade Fire is signed to Merge Records, a renowned if comparatively tiny label based in North Carolina, the win was shocking because it had looked like the Grammy voters simply weren’t going the band’s way.
They had been up for two other prizes earlier in the day, but lost out to the Black Keys for both alternative music album and best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals and thus seemed dead in the water in the night’s biggest category.
Prior to that shocking moment, it was Green who had stolen the show with a downright bizarre performance of “Forget You” (the sanitized version of his proudly profane summer single) alongside Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
Surrounded by more than a half-dozen brightly coloured Jim Henson Company puppets, Green sat at a piano dressed in a metal chest plate and a vibrant full-body peacock outfit. The set behind him was cheerily cheesy, designed to look like an alien planet with two stout rocket ships positioned in the background.
Paltrow mostly held her own with the Atlanta crooner, and certainly looked the part, sprawling out on top of Green’s piano and singing a few inches from his face before hopping up and dancing atop the instrument.
They performed the clean version of his song, of course, but it was the original that collected a Grammy for best urban/alternative performance.
The devilishly infectious tune made Grammy history by becoming the first song with the F-word in its title to claim an award. (Though in the broadcast, the tune was referred to as the “Song otherwise known as ’Forget You’.”)
Some of Bieber’s fans, meanwhile, might have been tempted to utter some similarly explicit words — assuming their parents weren’t listening.
He performed his hit “Never Say Never” and joined his hero Usher onstage, but lost out in both categories in which he was nominated.
Drake, too, was shut out in his four categories. Both Canucks were casualties of one of the evening’s biggest surprises: 26-year-old Esperanza Spalding, a talented but not particularly well-known jazz bassist from Portland, beating out both of the platinum-selling stars for best new artist.
She became the first jazz artist to ever win the award.
“Thank you to the Academy for even nominating me in this category,” said a visibly stunned Spalding. “I take this honour to heart so sincerely and I’ll do my damndest to make a whole lotta great music for all of you.”
She wound up with only one trophy fewer than Eminem — who entered the day competing for 10 prizes.
The formerly blond MC — the same guy who once rapped “You think I give a damn about a Grammy?/ Half of you critics can’t even stomach me, let alone stand me” — glanced nonchalantly at his fingernails as the envelope for best rap album was being pried open, but then sounded shocked onstage after he won.
“OK, this is crazy. Um, thank you,” he said, before reeling off a list of people who helped him on the record.
“And thank you to the fans. What up Detroit? Stand up!”
The 65-year-old Young — a three time nominee this year — seemed taken aback too when he finally claimed a Grammy.
He had never been honoured by the show during his ’60s and ’70s heyday, and only in recent years claimed an award for the packaging of his “Archives” set. He won Sunday for best rock song for “Angry World.”
“Thank you everybody, thank you to the Grammys and all the people who, y’know, are part of that,” said Young, who seemed pleased — even amused — by the honour, and rubbed the trophy as he clutched it.
“I appreciate this very much. This is my first Grammy for music. … I’d like to thank my lovely wife, Pegi — she’s been with me for 33 and a third years of marriage, keeping me rocking.”
As usual, Gaga was notable for more than her music.
Wearing a skimpy black leather one-piece, the singer celebrated her win for best pop vocal album by climbing the stage and immediately uttering an expletive beginning with the letter ’S.’
“Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart to all my fans, all the monsters watching,” said Gaga, choked up behind a pair of sunglasses, who brought her award tally to three.
“I had this dream when I was really young that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and no matter what I envisioned for myself, that I would do it no matter who didn’t believe in me.”
Gaga performed early in the show, but she seemed to save her most endearingly weird idea for the red carpet, where she showed up enclosed in a giant egg that was perched on a cross carried by gold-clad attendants.
During her performance of her pulsing new outsider anthem “Born This Way,” she emerged from said giant egg before leading a fairly standard dance routine (the lone deviation coming when Gaga played organ in front of a vanity covered in a few severed mannequin heads).
The Grammys played to seemingly every possible music audience. In fact, at times it seemed as though the broadcast alternated wildly between performances by the very young and the, ahem, less young.
To wit, there was, of course, the 16-year-old Bieber and 12-year-old “Karate Kid” star Jaden Smith, plus plenty more people from the 25-and-under set: B.o.B, Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, Bruno Mars and Rihanna (26-year-olds Katy Perry and Esperanza Spalding only just missed the cut).
But those youthful faces were counterbalanced by plenty of vets.
Indie-folk heroes Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers were joined by Bob Dylan for their performance, while 68-year-old Barbra Streisand and the 67-year-old (though seemingly indefatigable) Mick Jagger also appeared onstage and the show opened with a multi-voice tribute to 68-year-old soul queen Franklin (the singer herself was absent, still resting after surgery for an undisclosed ailment).
The Grammys paid tribute to other legacy stars, too, including Dolly Parton, Teddy Pendergrass and Solomon Burke.
A stately performance from Nashville star Miranda Lambert summed up the dual appeal pretty well — while the 27-year-old swayed through “The House that Built Me,” images flickered overhead of past stars John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Dylan, Madonna and Elton John.
And even a collaboration between three exciting young talents — Janelle Monae, B.o.B and Bruno Mars — became a black-and-white retro throwback, with the trio donning formal wear for a medley of “Nothin’ on You,” “Grenade” and Monae’s incendiary “Cold War.”
Vancouver crooner Michael Buble claimed his third career Grammy, winning the award for best traditional pop vocal album. He was not on hand to pick up the trophy.
Other Canadians had a more disappointing day.
Among the Canucks who missed out on awards were Rush, Michael J. Fox, Fredericton’s Measha Brueggergosman, Toronto R&B singer Melanie Fiona and Alberta powwow dance group Northern Cree, who have now been nominated six times without winning. Similarly, Montreal composer Marc-Andre Hamelin is still without a Grammy after nine nominations.