Going into Sunday night's Grammy Awards ceremony, conventional wisdom was that Durham-based Merge Records would win one. But almost no one could have predicted that it would play out as it did, with Merge's Arcade Fire losing in two minor categories before unexpectedly walking away with the evening-ending grand prize: album of the year, over a field of nominees including Eminem and Lady Gaga.
Merge co-owners Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance missed seeing it in-person because their band Superchunk is about to start a Japanese tour. McCaughan was already in Japan by Sunday, while Ballance turned her phone off and went to bed because she had a flight early Monday morning.
But Merge publicist Christina Rentz and retail director Jamie Beck were at Los Angeles' Staples Center to bear witness. And Beck actually called Arcade Fire's victory in advance.
"Maybe I'm naive, but I'm hopeful all the time," Beck said. "We found out Arcade Fire was playing last, and I knew that the album-of-the-year winners are usually panting when they accept because they've just come offstage. So we had theories about them slipping in and surprising everybody."
Still, Arcade Fire seemed like the longest of longshots to take album of the year -- especially after losing to Black Keys for best alternative album, which most observers expected Arcade Fire to win. Things looked even more dire when Black Keys also beat out Arcade Fire for best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals.
Just under five hours after that announcement, Arcade Fire took the stage to play, the last album-of-the-year nominee to perform. Barbra Streisand was the presenter, and she seemed almost puzzled as she called out the winner.
"When Barbra Streisand stuttered out their name, we just screamed at the top of our lungs," Rentz said. "We were up on the second level and everybody around us was leaving -- they had no idea who we were or the band was. We were completely stunned."
After a quick acceptance speech by frontman Win Butler, Arcade Fire went back to their instruments and played a second song as a victory-lap outro while the credits rolled. The band's after-party was a jubilant affair, with bassist Richard Parry declaring, "We robbed a bank!"
"We were saying that it kind of felt like the world tilting a little bit," Rentz said. "I did tell Win that the best way to celebrate this would be for them to come play in North Carolina -- 'C'mon, guys, we'll have a barbecue for you!' They were leaving for England the next day for the Brit Awards and I told them, 'Good luck topping this!' They just laughed and said, 'Don't worry. It won't.'"
ADDENDUM (2/20/11): Dissent!