LOS ANGELES — Adele made her return to the stage and the Foo Fighters piled up the hardware at the 54th Grammy Awards, but the focus was on tributes rather than trophies as a grieving music industry said goodbye to the late Whitney Houston.
Off the top of the show, host L.L. Cool J led the first of many tributes to Houston by announcing that the industry had endured a “death in the family,” before leading a prayer to the singer — who died suddenly Saturday night.
“Whitney, we will always love you,” he said.
That was followed by a retrospective video devoted to the singer, but producers clearly wanted to steer the show back to a celebratory mood after that. L.L. Cool J finished his monologue on a high-energy note before multiple nominee Bruno Mars led a frenetic performance of his single Runaway Baby.
The Foo Fighters had five trophies by the midpoint of the show while Adele and Kanye West had won four apiece.
“Long live rock ’n’ roll!” shouted Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl while producers tried to play him off the stage.
It was a humorous moment in an otherwise muted show — the minds of those in attendance were clearly pre-occupied with thoughts of Houston’s legacy.
Rihanna also shouted the late singer out during a performance, while artists and presenters alike carved time from their speeches to acknowledge the six-time Grammy winner.
“We all love you Whitney Houston,” said pop legend Stevie Wonder, before playing a tune on his harmonica.
The focus on Houston understandably drew attention away from what was supposed to be Adele’s night.
Still, the 23-year-old Brit had four awards by the midpoint of the show — including song of the year — and sang for the first time since undergoing vocal microsurgery in November, delivering a stirring take on Rolling in the Deep.
The performance opened free of musical accompaniment, with Adele providing ample evidence of the rejuvenation of her robust voice without any pesky instruments to muck up the mix.
With an adoring audience clapping along — hell, they gave her a standing ovation before she’d even started — Adele seemed to push the tune’s soaring chorus even beyond its usual peaks, swaying gently and wearing an expression of cool calm as she effortlessly delivered the evening’s most impressive vocal take.
Afterward, she shrugged and curtsied as the crowd rose to its feet and roared its approval.
It was one of many performances that were free of the typical Grammy frills.
Bruce Springsteen opened the show with his fist-pumping new anthem of patriotic frustration, We Take Care of Our Own, needing no ambitious stagecraft to get his point across — just the considerable talents of his E Street Band pounding away behind him.
The Foo Fighters electrified a packed crowd in a large white tent erected outside the Staples Center with a straight-down-the-middle performances of their hit Walk, while Paul McCartney was joined by Diana Krall and Joe Walsh for a stark performance of his romantic new tune, My Valentine.
There was also a breezy tribute to the reunited Beach Boys, with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine guiding his flawless falsetto over the waves of Little Surfer Girl, breakout rockers Foster the People charging through Wouldn’t It Be Nice and the whole gang joining together for the pocket masterpiece Good Vibrations.
Also notable was the performance from controversial R&B singer Chris Brown, who earned a spot in Grammy infamy three years ago when he assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna the night of the awards bash.
There was no hint of lingering ill will in the audience’s response to the 22-year-old’s medley performance of “Beautiful People” and “Turn Up the Music” in which the multiple nominee danced about capably on a pyramid of coloured cubes. He received a standing ovation, at least from some in attendance.
And if there was any doubt about the academy’s attitude toward him, he later claimed best R&B album for “F.A.M.E.”
“First and foremost, I just gotta thank God for this opportunity and thank the Grammys for letting me get on this stage and do my thing,” he said. “I don’t know, man, I’m nervous, I don’t know what to say.”
Toronto native Melanie Fiona was a double winner before dedicating the two trophies she won for her Cee Lo Green collaboration “Fool For You” to Houston with an impassioned speech. Montreal’s Caroline Robert was also a winner, taking best recording package for designing the deluxe re-release of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.”
The rest of the Canadian contingent didn’t fare so well.
Toronto rapper Drake and DJ Deadmau5 — from Niagara Falls, Ont. — were each shut out despite three nominations apiece, while Sum 41 and Toronto composer Ryan Shore also missed out on awards.