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TELEVISION REVIEW

Performers set night to variety of music

Last night's Grammy Awards did what the Grammy Awards do best. Music. And that made the live-from-LA telecast easy watching indeed. Rather than long hours of flaming egos and exhibitionistic back-patting, it was a night of hot performances first and contests second. Leave the self-loving acceptance speeches to the too many other awards shows that crowd the Silly Season, which culminates in two weeks with the Oscars; the Grammys are the variety show of the year.

And variety was the theme of the night, as happy host Queen Latifah kept reminding us -- a wise decision by the producers in this age of audience fragmentation. The performers in the dizzying opening medley, which culminated in a massive mash-up of songs, were the Black Eyed Peas, Los Lonely Boys, Maroon 5, Franz Ferdinand, Eve, and Gwen Stefani, who was swaddled in some kind of postmodern Baby Huey outfit.

Not long after that music-go-round, Alicia Keys sang "If I Ain't Got You" and then paid musical tribute to Ray Charles with Jamie Foxx and Quincy Jones, who wore a Charles T-shirt. And within 90 minutes of the show's start, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gretchen Wilson, Elvin Bishop, Dickie Betts, and Tim McGraw had all hit the stage -- separately, in various pairings, and finally all together for a rousing "Sweet Home Alabama."

The production effects didn't interfere with the music, either, a problem that haunts the MTV Music Video Awards. When U2 sang "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," they stood against a stark white backdrop with nothing to distract viewers from Bono and his song to his father. Los Lonely Boys sang "Heaven" from a stage in the center of the audience, with nothing behind them. The only bad choice came about an hour in, when couple Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony did their much-hyped duet. They moved around in a stagey little bedroom set as if trying to sell themselves to any Broadway producers who might be watching.

For the new ladies of E!'s red carpet, Star Jones Reynolds and Kathy Griffin, the Grammys present a challenge. They can't fill up the awkward encounters with the all-purpose "Who are you wearing?," since, well, this is rock 'n' roll. And they're not especially well versed in the musical oeuvres of Hoobastank, Green Day, and the Black Eyed Peas, with informed questions on the tips of their ever-wagging tongues.

And so they vamp. For Jones, that means asking every couple what disc they play when they're "in the mood," so that every couple can answer either Marvin Gaye or Barry White. And for Griffin, it means asking joke questions -- "Who's your favorite Tito, Jackson or Puente?" -- to mystified artists and nominees. Her attempt at a witty volley with Kanye West went thud, most resoundingly with the question, "Do you think it's fair that you have 10 nominations and Lindsay Lohan was shut out?"

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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