By MATT PEIKEN
©WCPO/Scripps • January 30, 2014
CINCINNATI — As the world’s most oggled and coddled musicians reveled together Sunday under the Grammy Awards spotlight in Los Angeles, scores of Cincinnati musicians piled into the Madison Theater, in Covington, Ky., for their own version of the Grammys—CityBeat’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards.
The contrasts with the Grammys struck me before I entered the theater. There was no mention of the CEAs on the Madison’s marquee. Few people dressed to the nines or even to the fives, and those in attendance seemed far more engaged in bar gab than with anything happening on stage.
Dominic Marino of The Cincy Brass rocked a bowtie, and I loved his Michael Buffer-styled shout out to Cincinna-TAAAAAAY. Singer/songwriter Molly Sullivan seemed genuinely pleased and humbled with her honor. The artists who performed generally brought their A-games.
Otherwise, the evening needed to chug a case of Red Bull.
There were no Miley moments or Kanye moments. No award-winners shed tears of joy. Even the acceptance-speech cursing, what little there was of it, seemed bored.
Buggs Tha Rocka, honored as hip-hop artist of the year, twice asked the crowd “Yo, yo, Cincinnati—what’s good?” and barely got a cheer for his trouble. Some musicians were so tuned out from what was happening on stage they didn’t hear their names called as winners. More than once, presenters waited several awkward minutes while winners were retrieved from the Madison’s deeper recesses to accept their awards. By the time Walk the Moon accepted the honor for Artist of the Year, half the crowd had departed the theater.
I’m not an awards show person. I can’t even be bothered to enter my own material into journalism contests. So I get it. Musicians are generally modest and, despite the public nature of their work, tend to shrink from a spotlight when they’re not performing. So those who do show up to an awards show—quite a few nominees didn’t on Sunday—just want to do their thing, hang out with friends over a few PBRs, maybe give a dispassioned glance at whatever is happening on stage and call it a twilight.
These were the 17th annual CEAs, but my first. I suppose I was hoping for something more celebratory, raucous and cheerful, something that respected and honored the past year of talent and recorded output and the great music in this town.
CityBeat puts on a nice show with a modest budget, hands out some fine, framed gold records and even livestreams the proceedings with a multi-camera production for those who’d rather watch from their desktops. But one observation struck me as a setup for disappointment. Rather than traditional theater seating, which would impose some attention to the performances and award presentations, dozens of cocktail tables filled the Madison’s floor. This draped the evening with the distracted energy of a nightclub. Memorial Hall, I thought, would be a far better venue than the sprawling Madison.
As it happens, CEA producers have tried a variety of venues—Sycamore Gardens, the Taft Theater, Old St. George Church in Corryville and, for the past several years, the Madison. Producers have also experimented with format, adding new honors while doing away with others. For the first decade, the CEAs honored the best in local theater alongside music, but the thespians and musicians seemed to want different kinds of shows, said longtime CityBeat music editor Mike Breen. CityBeat eventually narrowed the focus of the CEAs solely on music.
“We just gave in to the bar side,” Breen said in a phone conversation this week, a few days after the CEAs. “If it’s going to be a more formal affair, even at the Taft, people just wanted to be at the bar. We embraced that. What’s cool about these awards, it’s the one time all year musicians get to hang out with each other.”
I mulled a connection between what I observed Sunday and what, at times, I see in local clubs. Because there are no charges at the door to see local bands, many people come to the music as a soundtrack to their nights rather than a centerpiece.
“I can see that argument,” Breen said. “I think it kinda‘ ties into how recorded music is. You can get whatever you want for free, and if there’s not value attached to it, do you care about it? Maybe the bar and drinks are first and the music comes secondary.”
I have no standing to dictate the terms of an evening honoring musicians who’ve spent their lives and careers in Cincinnati. But from what I could see Sunday, the CEAs are an insiders’ affair. I don’t imagine there were many in the audience without close connections to one or more musicians. If people within the scene see the value in wrapping their arms around a broader public—and turn more people onto all the awesomeness here—they should regard themselves and their awards show with a little more reverence.
CityBeat should find an inviting, fixed-seating venue that focuses attention to the stage. Categories should expand to include classical music and gospel. Attendees should show up in something they wouldn’t wear to bed. And if people really want to socialize, that’s why there’s an after-party.
Can we all get a “Yo, yo?”