Eminem seemed humble when he claimed three Grammy Awards (see earlier report) in Los Angeles last night (Feb. 21) amid protests over his furious lyrics, but the Staples Center crowd wasted no time rew

Eminem seemed humble when he claimed three Grammy Awards (see earlier report) in Los Angeles last night (Feb. 21) amid protests over his furious lyrics, but the Staples Center crowd wasted no time rewarding the rapper's controversial duet with Elton John with a standing ovation. He and John embraced and raised their arms, after which Eminem raised both middle fingers to the audience.

The pair's gripping performance of "Stan," Eminem's eyebrow-raising song about a deranged fan, also tested the CBS censors. At least three obscenities were heard during the performance, although Eminem held off repeating some of the song's more objectionable words.

Outside the ceremony, about 100 people from women's and gay-rights groups demonstrated against Eminem. John, one of music's most famous gay celebrities, was highly criticized for joining the rapper onstage.

The controversy didn't have an appreciable impact in the ratings. The show drew an estimated 26.8 million viewers, about 1 million fewer than last year when Carlos Santana swept the major awards, according to Nielsen Media Research. Still, it was the second most-watched Grammy telecast since 1993, according to Nielsen.

The night's performances seemed to waver back and forth between sexy, visual and dance-oriented sets by younger nominees (Destiny's Child, Christina Aguilera) and more restrained, traditional appearances by veteran acts like Paul Simon and U2. But the sheer range of styles assembled was impressive in its reflection of the diversity of the musical landscape.

Arguably the highlight of the evening came from multiple nominee Moby, who teamed with Philadelphia songstress Jill Scott and enigmatic percussion ensemble Blue Man Group for a rendition of his "Natural Blues." Scott re-created the song's blues/gospel vocal hook, sampled on the album version from Alan Lomax's field recordings.

For "This I Promise You," 'N Sync shared the stage with actors who appeared to "come to life" throughout the performance. Macy Gray spiced up her take on "I Try" by outfitting her backing band in gaudy pink wigs. And while straight-ahead performances by Simon and U2 were well-received by the audience, both seemed to be straining to appeal to the large crowd, which had already been treated to such theatrics as a braided Aguilera being lowered onto the stage in a moon-shaped carriage.

Madonna opened the ceremony with rendition of her hit single "Music," emerging from a sequined limo seemingly chauffeured by 13-year-old rap sensation Lil' Bow Wow. Destiny's Child were joined by a dance troupe for a medley of the No. 1 pop hits "Independent Woman Part 1" and "Say My Name." The latter track won the Grammy for best R&B performance by a group or duo with vocal.

Triple winner Faith Hill, best new artist nominee Brad Paisley, and living legend Dolly Parton represented the wide spectrum of country music with their performances. Hill performed "Breathe," the crossover smash title track from her Warner Bros. album, which was named best country album, while the song won the best country vocal performance award.

Paisley and Parton later teamed up for a dual performance spotlight, kicked off by Paisley's solo performance of "We Danced," a song he took to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in December. He then joined Parton as she led her band through a searing rendition of "Travelin' Prayer," from her Grammy-winning bluegrass album "The Grass Is Blue."

Also well-received in the cavernous arena was Nnenna Freelon and Take 6's a cappella recreation of Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up And Fly Right" from Freelon's latest Concord Jazz album, "Soulcall," as well as a selection by Chopin performed by nominated pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin.

Host John Stewart provided plenty of off-color laughs for the crowd, poking fun at everything from Sean "Puffy" Combs' legal troubles to Eminem's sexuality. But the host suddenly found the joke was on him when a mysterious man dressed in cowboy attire bounded on stage immediately after a commercial break and shook his hand while mumbling something about "Magic FM."

Security guards quickly hustled him away as Stewart quipped, "Kind of makes you miss the days of Soy Bomb," referring to a stage crasher who danced shirtless during a Bob Dylan Grammy performance a few years ago.

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