Art in Paradise: Lend an Ear

On a recent nighttime saunter through Northampton, I heard strains of exuberant music, sort of equal parts folk and indie rock, but with a hard-to-pin-down, maybe Eastern European vibe popping up here and there. Percussion underpinned the proceedings, and sometimes-wild vocals echoed far down Main Street in multi-part, male/female harmony atop the thumping of an upright bass. I wasn’t close enough to read any merchandise or find out who exactly these young upstarts were, but the unusual music they produced was, in short, deeply impressive.

A few days later, things were a bit quieter than usual on the Grand Band Slam front. The annual issue often brings a torrent of commentary, both criticism and praise. Many is the disgruntled fan whose favorite band didn’t get the nod, and the affront occasions that brand of Internet ranting that usually launches with “ummm… .” It’s a great thing that, no matter the opinions on offer, people care enough about local music to sally forth with such strong opinions at all, yet another proof of the Valley’s exceptional status as a center of music and art.

This year’s Grand Band Slam worked a little differently. In the past, an initial nomination process seeded the ballot for final voting—the recipients of the largest numbers of votes made it to the next round, in categories determined by the Advocate. This time around, readers nominated and voted in one go. That process meant the whole of the Grand Band Slam was in the hands of readers, down to which category bands belonged in.

It’s perhaps evidence that the process answered some readers’ wishes for more control that this year’s commentary, at least so far, is minimal. As of presstime, a sole commentator had registered an opinion. A reader going by the online handle “Fitz” offered this: “Not so sure about these winners—where’s Who’da Funk It, Bright Lines, Kids On A Hill, Wolfman, New Growth String Band or Akashic Record? Why doesn’t the Valley Advocate actually set out to find out who’s the best by going to shows and reviewing them instead of just having bands spam their friends asking for votes? Just saying—NO band that describes themselves as ‘Dirty Punk Reggae’ should win the Groove/Funk category… .”

That comment, meant as criticism, ends up, apparently inadvertently, pointing out precisely why the Grand Band Slam exists.

Much as we might love Who’da Funk It or Bright Lines, the Grand Band Slam is not the domain of Advocate writers in the usual way. Fifty-one weeks of the year, we do seek out bands we think worthy of praise. We do go to shows and listen to albums by locals of every stripe. We advocate for bands we think readers ought to know about. It’s a major and especially enjoyable part of the job. But once a year, we put our opinions aside in favor of readers’ choices. You tell us who’s worthy, then we go in search of those bands and write about them. Bands might “spam their friends” (that verb is certainly a matter of opinion), but it takes more than a few willing friends and strangers to gather enough votes to win.

Putting readers’ choices front and center is the raison d’etre of the Grand Band Slam, and a particularly enlightening process for Advocate writers to participate in. If readers decide a “dirty punk reggae” band (Danny Pease and the Regulators) are in fact Groove/Funk, or decide that a band who says its music is “anything but Americana/folk” (The Primate Fiasco) is Folk/Americana, them’s the breaks, the perhaps imperfect results of a nicely chaotic undertaking that upends the usual journalistic process.

On that recent evening saunter, as I walked further away from the band playing on the street, a lightbulb went on. There was pretty much only one band whose style fit the bill. The impressive size of the crowd that had gathered made it a sure bet.

I’d just edited a piece about the 2012 winner of the Grand Band Slam’s most intriguing category, “New Band.” It’s the one category that traditionally provides the biggest surprises, and the musicians of And The Kids got the nod.

Those young players’ confidence and clear dedication as they filled the Main Street night with boldly inventive sounds were a treat to behold. I couldn’t help but crack a smile as I realized just how unusual, how innovative a band our readers had chosen.

Author: James Heflin

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