31st Annual WAMI Awards at Turner Hall
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Awards shows often get knocked as insular, self-congratulatory, back-slapping circle-jerks, often by people who wish they had been invited to attend said circle-jerks. As the festivities began at Turner Hall for the 31st Annual WAMI Awards show last night, it was hard to not concede that point; with a membership consisting solely of Wisconsin musicians who are somehow able to utter the phrase “music industry” with a straight face, is it possible to be anything but insular? Still, as we’ve noticed previously, this year’s WAMI Award nominations gave the impression that the organization is at least trying to think outside the box.
Perennial WAMI fave Beatallica kicked off a show packed full of the trappings of an honest-to-goodness, real awards show, just like those fancy Oscars and Grammys out in The Big City. While VIPs walked a red carpet near the freight elevator and posed for photos in front of a WAMI backdrop (heads up, Boris & Doris!), co-emcees Len Nelson of WAPL in Appleton and Steve Palec of WKLH attempted to entertain attendees with topical Waukesha vote-count humor, and what can charitably be described as “chuckle-inducing” skits. While Nelson’s rant about the Best Polka Artist award being relegated to a “non-presented award” was mildly amusing, Palec’s Charlie Sheen impersonation fell flat. (A “There sure are a lot of WINNERS in here!” pun while hoisting a bottle of “tiger blood”? Too late! Too late!) The musical guests were a mixed bag as well—while Jeanna Salzer and Fever Marlene proved capable and solid entertainers, the faint meanderings of Eau Claire folkies The Daredevil Christopher Wright left more than a few people wondering, “What the hell was that?”
So who took home trophies? Among the highlights: Fresh Cut Collective was named Best Rap/Hip-Hop Artist; Justin Perkins nabbed Best Producer honors; .357 String Band was named Best Bluegrass Artist; and Jaill and The Wildbirds earned a tie in the Best Alternative Artist category. (Guess you’ll have to saw that award in half, guys.) Some band named “Call Me Lightening” was listed on the Jumbotron as a nominee for Best Hard Rock/Metal Band; we’re going to assume that WAMI was referring to Call Me Lightning. In any case, that band lost to World Minus One.
But in perhaps the nicest surprise of the night, David Byrne’s favorite Milwaukee-based soul outfit, Kings Go Forth, took home two of the big trophies: Album Of The Year (for The Outsiders Are Back), and Artist Of The Year. Album Of The Year was a particular surprise as KGF were up against the BoDeans’ Mr. Sad Clown, and the BoDeans typically win everything WAMI throws at them. Also notable: KGF defeated Danny Gokey in the Artist Of The Year category—but then, the Gokester lost to frickin’ Kris Allen on American Idol, so maybe that’s not so shocking.
The clear highlight of the evening, though, was the induction of Die Kreuzen into the WAMI Hall Of Fame, an exclusive club featuring such Wisconsin music scene luminaries as Liberace, Al Jarreau, Steve Miller, and (of course) the BoDeans. After a rousing introduction by WAMI VP Michael McGinley (during which he proudly proclaimed, “Those guys who wore flannel in the ’90s? They cut their teeth listening to these guys!”), all four band members took the stage to a standing ovation—including Milwaukee expats Brian Egeness (guitar) and Erik Tunison (drums), who traveled from Austin, Texas and Amsterdam, Netherlands respectively. Their acceptance speech was all class. Bassist Keith Brammer saluted the band’s early-80s punk contemporaries, saying “This isn’t about us—this is for all of them,” while vocalist Dan Kubinski gave shouts-out to past and current Wisconsin artists like the Oil Tasters, Northless, and Zola Jesus, saying they deserved recognition for “doing things their own way.”
The Wisconsin Area Music Industry gets a lot of flack for seeming out of touch (a reputation not helped by presenters mispronouncing “Bon Iver”), but credit where it’s due: Some deserving artists who operate outside WAMI’s close-knit community of session players and cover bands were recognized, and that’s a pretty cool thing. Sure, we can debate the merits of handing out an award for Best Cover Band (congrats, Half Empty!), but it seems as though the organization is doing its best to cast a wide net over Wisconsin’s music scene. We’ll see if that keeps up next year. (Early warning, WAMI: That Northless band Kubinski mentioned should be a shoo-in for Best Metal Band in 2012.)