Near the end of Universal Music Group’s pre-Grammy showcase at the ornate Theatre at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Joe Jonas’ band DNCE capped off its energetic two-song set of “Toothbrush” and “Cale By The Ocean” by taking a bow to a recorded snippet of Queen’s “We Are The Champions.”
As the crowd of music-industry executives, TV bookers and media cheered, the band jumped off the stage, made a beeline for UMG Chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge’s table and presented him with a gold trophy inscribed, “To the Best Chairman and CEO that we know!” Jonas then jumped on a chair near the label-group boss grabbed a bottle of rose wine off the table and raised it in a victory salute before taking a generous swig.
It was hard to begrudge the band or Grainge this brief display of self-congratulatory swagger.
Of the 11 acts that performed at the three-and-a-half hour showcase, including The Weeknd, DNCE, Demi Lovato, Halsey, country stars Chris Stapleton, Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt, the lion’s share of them had dominated radio, streaming and record sales over the last year, and the up-and-coming acts that the label group showcased among them, including pop wunderkinds Troye Sivan and Alessia Cara, one-man electro R&B band Jack Garratt and alt-country rockers The Strumbellas, who were already generating plenty of buzz, if not sales and chart action.
Their inclusion in the showcase meant that their respective UMG-owned labels, which include Republic, Def Jam, Capitol and Island, considered them priorities for the coming year and that their chances of becoming breakout artists were very good. Tori Kelly, who sat in the audience, had performed at last year’s showcase, and is nominated for Best New Artist at Monday’s Grammy Awards. Kelly told Billboard that performing in the show was pretty nerve-wracking and was looking forward to watching her friends Halsey and Cara, “who’s just the sweetest person,” perform.
The showcase began with an electric performance by The Weeknd, who looked natty in a grey suit and white dress shirt. Each artist sang two numbers, and Abel Tesfaye opened with “In The Night” followed by “I Can’t Feel My Face,” which led to a raucous standing ovation from the crowd.
The Weeknd’s soaring, elegant sound gave way to a grungier but no less soulful sound with one of the afternoon’s standout performances by Jack Garratt. The bearded British multi-instrumentalist, who won 2016 Critics Choice honors at the Brit Awards, had the jaded crowd exchanging wide-eyed glances and bobbing their heads as he played guitar, keyboards and drums while growling his way through “Weathered” and then laying down some hard Cream-style blues riffs in the introduction to “Worry.” For a solitary performer, Garratt put on a captivating performance that ended with him dropping his guitar to the stage and walking off.
He was a hard act to follow, but Halsey managed just fine, stalking the stage in black knee-high boots, what looked like a metallic-trimmed bikini bottom and a black hoodie, her hair cut boyishly short. Known for her my-way-or-the-highway approach to her music, Halsey didn’t play her hit “New Americana,” instead choosing “Hold Me Down” and “Colors” for her mini-set. She was also one of a handful of artists who expressed her gratitude to UMG for being a company “that believes in celebrating your peers instead of competition.”
Troye Sivan, who took the stage after a brief intermission to perform “Wild” and “Youth,” also told the crowd that “my mind is blown” that he was signed to a company “of people who work every day to make my dreams come true.”
Other memorable moments: Canadian alt-country-rockers The Strumbellas evoking The Band with foot-stomping performances of “Shovels & Dirt” and “Spirits.” Alessia Cara introduced her next single, “Wild Things,” as a song about “being alienated or marginalized for being exactly who you are — and refusing to apologize for being exactly who you are.” Before singing his country hit “Die A Happy Man,” Thomas Rhett noted that it was Valentine’s Day and told the audience, “This is a love song I wrote about my wife.” Demi Lovato’s all-in performance of “Stone Cold,” which she described as a “song that best represents me as an artist” had the audience cheering her powerhouse vocals. And three-time Country Music Association Award-winner Chris Stapleton who closed the show — and brought the crowd back down to earth — with performances of “Whiskey and You” and “Sometimes I Cry.” Alone on the stage with his guitar, the power of his cigarettes-and-whiskey vocals and world-weary songwriting were undeniable.