Keeping Our Azz on the Prize

Emily Grove entertains acoustically — and is nominated accordingly — as the Asbury Music Awards return to the Stone Pony on Sunday, November 13.

We’ve got a place all picked out and dusted off for it, right up there on a shelf near our Rat Fink toy and that landline phone we never use. A place where we can look at it and remind ourselves that a committee of our peers in and on the fringes of the local music industry has chosen us as Top Journalist in Support of Live Music. It’s our validation. Our entree into the closed and clandestine fraternity. Our Azzie.

Actually, pretty much nobody apart from the late great Chris Barry called them Azzies. To everyone else whose local life centers at least in part around the Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom they are the Asbury Music Awards, or AMAs — and the weeks leading up to their announced nominations are fraught with anticipation, speculation, recrimination, paranoia, jealousy, agita, angst and, in rare cases, apathy.

Just so we’re clear, the correspondent known as “Tom Chesek (Freelance)” has absolutely NO expectation of tapping that Azzie from a crowded field of thirteen(!) nominees that includes many people whose contributions on the regional media scene we’ve long admired — people whose commitment to the Shore-centric soundscape has been 24/7/365 total, versus our own intermittent dabblings between writing about theater, film, words, art and whatever else is ostensibly happening.

Hell, we weren’t even sure we’d ever SEEN an Asbury Music Award until we asked around our circle of acquaintance and discovered that Ribeye Brothers frontman Tim Cronin brought home an AMA several years back, in a category that’s apparently been lost in the sands of time. We found it up on his bookshelf, displayed next to a large pine cone and a paper mask of Bob Ross — and while we were duly impressed, we did have to agree with him that “it’s supposed to be a microphone, but I think it looks like corn.”

That said, we are of course honored and pleased to be considered within this worthy group — and when the 2011 edition of the Asbury Music Awards returns to The Stone Pony on Sunday, November 13 for the 19th annual “Gala Night of Celebration For Our Music Community,” your favorite freeload…uh, freelancer will be there to pay tribute to the brave men and women who put their self-respect, their solvency and their sanity on the line for our entertainment day and night, way more out of love than any Lifestyles caviar dream. We’ll be there to greet a gang of old friends in a convenient one-stop-shop context, and to meet some of the many movers and/or shakers of whom we must sheepishly profess unfamiliarity. Most of all, we’ll be there because this year, nominees get in free!

We kid, natch; we kid because it’s true. But if there’s a single overriding reason to be there, it’s to give a tip of the hat to the Herculean (maybe even Sisyphean) efforts of The Saint partner Scott Stamper, the founder of this feast and the man who’s rolled that rock up the hill, year after year after year.

The kits and kats of No Wine for Kittens are also on the ticket — and nominated as Top Indie Rock Act — for the 2011 Asbury Music Awards.

The AMA gala has actually rolled about town like a BB in a boxcar since it began life as the Golden T-Bird Awards (after its birth-mother venue, the much-missed T-Birds Cafe) in 1993 — and the event has long outgrown the funky freight-container space at The Saint, settling into its present home at the storied Stoney for the past ten years.

“I started the Asbury Music Awards, or the Golden T-Bird Awards, by going to South by Southwest in 1989, ’90, ’91 and ’93,” explains Stamper — speaking in between beer-truck deliveries from his back-room office, a decidedly unglamorous retreat seemingly held together by band stickers.

“I thought, ‘I can do that’.”

“That,” as it turned out, was the unenviable task of making some semblance of sense from the big tent that is the Shore music scene; creating “community” from a competitive cattywampus of scene subsets that includes a burgeoning network of acoustically oriented singer-songwriters, a multigenerational legacy of beach-bar bluesbands, a fervently followed jamband framework, a web-driven underground of punk/ska/garage and avant-oddities — plus compelling pockets of bluegrass, trad jazz, funk, metal, word and some things that have yet to be triangulated by our musical Magellan.

It’s a shufflemix of the quintessential and the quirky that reflects the delightfully diverse (or frustratingly fragmented, depending on your point of view) panorama of musical styles that can be heard emanating from the barrooms, boards, boulevards and bistros of the greater metropolitan Asbury Park practically any day or night of the cool year — and it still doesn’t even address the burgeoning homegrown hiphop industry (“we’re working on that”), the live music of the city’s Latino lounges, the creative cabaret scene and whatever it is that William Robert does. But at 32 separate award categories (up from the 25 promised on the flyer), it’s certainly a start.

“We’ve been trying to trim it down, combining things like Groove Bands with Jam Bands, but we’re so deep into it by this point,” says Stamper, who issued this year’s ballot with his fellow members of the AMA nominating tribunal (Aquarian correspondent John Pfeiffer and the Pony’s Kyle Brendel) last week.

“There’s so much going on in the scene, too…how can you not acknowledge it?”

Indeed, a quick glance at the category of Best Thing to Happen in 2010/2011 points up the dilemma of passing value judgments on an embarrassment of positives. There’s the now-legendary reunion of Lord Gunner, the establishment of Musicians on a Mission, the appearance of a couple of well-received books on Asbury and its music, the city’s year-long Where Music Lives promotion, and the Smithsonian’s selection of Asbury Park as one of the host cities for its New Harmonies exhibit. Oh yeah, and the coming of the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival to town; a “get” that’s akin to snagging the Olympics.

“It’s been a tough year,” sighs Stamper, not in the Great Recession sense but with the realization that “The Saint’s been busy…it’s been tough getting those nominees out there.”

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s also been tough for Stamper and his Asbury Music Company to pin down the ideal time of year in which to present the annual awards extravaganza.

“It started in April, then moved to summer, but it was just too much dealing with the heat and the ballots,” the impresario says as another beer delivery rolls up to the delivery door of the Main Street musicbox. “So we moved it to the fall in the late 90s, but what happened every October was that the Yankees or the Mets would be getting into the post-season, and everyone was paying attention to the games instead of the awards show.”

“Now we’re doing it in November — and the next step is December,” fesses Stamper, an avowed Cubs fan if you’re asking.

“Next year I’m thinking of Sunday, November 4 as the best date…that way, it’s still before the holidays, and it’ll free me up to attend this live music conference that I always like to go to.”

Regaling the young delivery crew from the liquor distributor with tales of the stellar acts that have appeared at the downtown corner bar — Creed, Kings of Leon, Deftones, even Jewel — Stamper says of the Alaskan acoustica queen, “we got her the same day that she was on Regis and Kathy Lee…she was sick that night, and she spent her entire soundcheck time sitting outside in the car.”

“When she was doing her set, people in the back were chatting away, and she interrupted her set and just started yodeling…when everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to look at her, she was like ‘oh good, you can hear me’.”

“As crazy as it gets, I’m committed to these awards, and a lot of people look forward to them every year,” says Stamper — a busy enough barkeep when he isn’t producing an annual awards event or, heaven forfend, briefly pondering the return of the three-day circus known as the Wave Festival.

“The awards are about commitent, really…commitment to a single band, a single project; you expect the people that you nominate to have the same level of commitment to what they’re doing that we put into this event.”

Putting the all-ages nature of the Asbury Music Awards ceremony to the test, blues prodigy Little Jimmy performs (and maybe picks up a trophy as Top Guitarist) on the Stoney stage this Sunday.

Doors open at 4pm on Sunday for the Asbury Music Awards, hosted this year by all-seeing, all-knowing DJ and all-round Music Wizard Jeff Raspe of Brookdale Public Radio. He’ll be joined onstage by a pretty eclectic cross-section of area bands, including No Wine for Kittens, Only Living Boy, Scarlet Carson, Toothgrinder, The New Royalty and Accidental Seabirds — most all of them in the running for one award or another. There’s also a smorgasbord of acoustic sets by Emily Grove, Joe Miller, blues prodigy Little Jimmy and the “band, not a man” roots-thing that is Ocean County’s Thomas Wesley Stern. All this plus spoken-word specializer Chris Rockwell, and a hinted-at infusion of “special guests” that can only boggle the brain beforehand. Take it here for an updated list of nominees and featured live acts at the event.

Admission to the Asbury Music Awards is open to the public (tix are $15 in advance, $20 at the door), and, like the man said, FREE to all nominees — it’s first come first served, so reserve tix via Ticketmaster, TicketWeb, The Stone Pony, or The Saint‘s box office.