This year’s Detroit Music Awards were billed as the kickoff event for the Motor City Music Conference. And they were, sort of. On Wednesday evening the State Theatre’s lobby was clogged with loitering hopefuls, musicians, merchandise hucksters and bright-eyed hangers-on. Most necks were adorned with newly minted MC2 badges, and chatter turned often to the showcases and panels that would fill the next few days. But as the DMAs progressed, its connection to the conference became increasingly tenuous. It was a weird array of backslapping localism, collective self-aggrandizement, and “gala event” cliché — in other words, it was another dry award show in an era of award-show overkill. The local music community certainly deserves to be applauded. But some of the people in the State Wednesday night seemed to clap mostly for themselves.
This is a problem for any awards ceremony, from the Pinewood Derby championships to the bloated laugher that is the American Music Awards. Its central questions become: What are our motives? Does this validate the work or the street cred? And do the awards unify or distract a music community? The DMAs’ answer was a volatile blend of promise and pomp. There were strong musical performances. The Eastern Michigan Gospel Choir was a powerful opener, and hip-hop unit Now On were joined by Miz Korona for some bold and vibrant verse. But the show would build momentum only to watch it stall. In the role of thuddingly unfunny emcee was J. Chris Newberg; his partner in crime was a house DJ spouting supposedly pithy, but mostly just irritating, presenter introductions. In these moments the DMAs weren’t a showcase for local music and artistry, but an enormous gas bubble of self-promotion and hollow laughter.
The show was a success as an opening reception and schmooze-a-thon for the MC2, even if there would be little tie-in after Wednesday. The lobby’s flurry of flier-trading and CD-R proffering continued unabated for the show’s duration, and the State’s back bar was clogged with wildly intersecting personalities feverishly working every angle. With all the jawing over projects, upcoming gigs and perpetual scene warfare, it was amazing anyone heard the nominations and awards.
Amp Fiddler cleaned up in the electronic music categories, but didn’t attend. Local Christian pop singer Beth Stalker won the Outstanding Video/Limited Budget statue for the clip from “Here with You,” and winners in the rock categories included Mindcandy (Oustanding Rock/Pop Recording, “Recognize”), The Reefermen (Outstanding Rock Artist/Group), and The Fags (Outstanding Alternative/Indie Artist/Group). The show hit another of its high points with a classy distinguished achievement award (and musical tribute to) Detroit Symphony Orchestra conductor Neeme Järvi, and trumpeter Johnny Trudell graciously accepted his own achievement award.
Besides the overblown amount of attention paid to nominee Kid Rock (doesn’t he get enough free publicity at Pistons games?), many DMA presenters seemed most concerned with self-promotion. Yes, publicity is an important component in the work of a rock band or recording artist. But it was promotion to an audience that was already down. There was a winking and nudging sense to the festivities, like everyone knew it was just a fancy way to trade contact info between bouts of ostentation. Diversity in genres was lacking. The categories did have range, from folk and country to blues, rock, jazz and technical achievement. But there was no feel for the underground or off-the-grid in any style, and no sense that the event would adjust the stalemate between it and the city’s equally apathetic downtown rock contingent.
An awards ceremony is flawed from its conception. By design it can’t please everyone, so it corrects for the divide between winner and loser with live performances and amplification of otherwise simple tasks. (Reading the names inside an envelope, for example.) A winner might feel that her award represents her toil, or she might use it to gloat over and smite her competition. Either way she’s failing — a song or album should be supported primarily by the verve of its creator, and just because it’s loved by some doesn’t mean it’s loved by all. Maybe the solution is to rip out the redundant guts of award shows everywhere, and replace them with live music. Live music’s the ultimate equalizer, anyway, and it doesn’t care how close to the stage your table is.
The MC2 badge was just Mylar bling until Wednesday night after the DMAs. At the Majestic complex it became something worthwhile as a permission slip to both the venue’s music rooms. There was a respectable crowd in the Magic Stick for the Nice Device’s set. The band wasn’t really hitting, so it was off to the Majestic for … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Again, few sparks. Back at the Stick, the Ponys were finishing up, their spiny indie rock sounding trebly in the half-full club.
If the venue inside felt a little too creepily industry at this point, the Paybacks were happy to summon a rock ’n’ roll stinger to cap the night. Whether it was the new rhythm section of Jackson Smith and Bill Hafer, curious anticipation about the conference or Wendy Case’s trade-in of her blonde ambition for a brunette streak of wild, the Paybacks were definitely MC2’s real kickoff.
The car coats and irritating facial hair aficionados were out in force Thursday too, queuing outside St. Andrew’s Hall for the Burning Brides and Black Keys gig. It was a full house inside, and the band just destroyed. Deafening, hungry, cynical and stomping between metal and rabid trash punk. It was a sufficient setup for Detroit’s own MAN Inc., playing downstairs as part of Shelter’s Times Beach showcase. Matt McGuire’s bass rumbled along to his themes for the common man, and the tattooed crowd nodded from behind their Pabst. At the Lager House, Ohio modern rockers Modena Vox tried valiantly to rile a spotty crowd. EsQuire was next, and the boy who invented rap fought through a cold to deliver a same-y, but entertaining (as usual) set. The Come-Ons followed with an efficient garage-soul run, and Deanne Iovan’s duet with EsQuire on a rocked-up “Crazy in Love” was a highlight.
With panels to attend on Friday there was time to take in Cobo’s makeover as a haven of rockers and freaks. The convention center’s long grayscale hallways were strewn with young people in black clothing and denim. CD-Rs were the new business cards. In general the panel portion of MC2 was well-attended, informative and heightened by a truly valuable dialogue between panelist and attendee. There was also an undeniable layer of tension throughout, which is unavoidable in a building full of competing artists. But the canned Cobo air became truly tense with a descent to the trade show, where desperation competed with rakish confidence to the beat of a hundred hip-hop songs. Swag peppered every surface, and Nuevo-carnival barkers stuffed palms with flyers and trinkets. It was rabidly consumerist, frantically self-promotional and it made you feel unclean.
Friday night began with Paul Westerberg, who rocked a crowd of graybeards with assorted material both solo and Replacements-linked. Highlights included “Alex Chilton,” “Skyway,” and completely unironic covers of “If I Had a Hammer,” “I Think I Love You” and “Different Drum.” Next it was over to Jacoby’s (313.Jac) for the Motor City Rocks showcase. Sets from Tenley and Molly Jean were charming works in progress; Porchsleeper was a beer shower of impassioned rock; Loretta Lucas and the Larkspurs lent delicate shuffle and rich country harmony to the evening; and Great Lakes Myth Society proved to be classy, rocking and mysterious all at once. Jacoby’s tiny music room was packed with local luminaries, and there’s a chance the bar ran out of Stroh’s.
Saturday it was the Centre Street Lounge, and sets of Euro-flavored techno and house. The car coats and promo caps hadn’t made it here, where French cuffs and low-cut tops were in order. But when conference talk did break out and it revolved around exhaustion, as well as unfortunate logistical breakdowns that included the lack of set times in MC2’s schedule books and a spate of band cancellations. Still, despite some bugs in version 1.0, the Motor City Music Conference did well enough where it matters to make the possibility of another year intriguing.
For complete award results go to detroitmusicawards.com.Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org