Clive Davis told Billboard on Thursday that the opening performance of his annual pre-Grammy gala would “make headlines all over the world.” Presumably he was referring to a show-opening David Bowie tribute that would have found Lenny Kravitz performing “Fame” – which Kravitz’s rep said was ultimately canceled after the singer fell ill the day before the show. But the one that actually happened — Beck playing “The Man Who Sold the World” with the surviving members of Nirvana — was truly one for the ages.
Davis introduced the performance with characteristic fanfare, calling it one that would be among the greatest in the gala’s 40-year history. The five musicians — Beck on acoustic guitar, Pat Smear on electric, Dave Grohl on drums and backing vocals, Krist Novoselic on acoustic bass and a cellist, possibly Melora Creaghan, who toured with Nirvana — ambled onstage and Beck introduced the song as “a tribute to two geniuses.”
The arrangement mirrored the one on Nirvana’s 1993 Unplugged version, but Beck — a devoted Bowie fan — delivered the vocal with a twinge of the original 1970 version’s vinegar and cockney sneer (“You’re fice… to fice… with the man who sold the world”). His voice soared on the song’s closing coda — not approaching Bowie’s power but more than holding his own — and then it was over. As the musicians walked offstage Grohl turned to Davis, who was standing at the podium, smiled and mouthed “Thank you Clive!”
— maeve mcdermott (@maeve_mcdermott) February 15, 2016
In a quick conversation with Billboard after the performance, Grohl said that it was the first time he and Beck and played or worked together, even though both have both been managed by John Silva/SAM for many years. “We ran through the song a few times and got it down,” he said. “I was the one who cued [the musicians] when to stop, but I just didn’t want it to stop, so we played it again and again and again even though it all sounded fine.”
On the basis of Sunday night’s performance, Grohl was hardly the only one who didn’t want the song to end.