Back in the final year of the 1900s, I stood, guitar in hand, on the steps of Northampton’s old courthouse at the main intersection. The occasion was the (then new) Valley Advocate Grand Band Slam. My bandmates and I had won top honors in the “experimental/progressive” category.
The proceedings were festive, and they were modest in a small-town way. I didn’t work at the Advocate then, but I was intrigued to meet some of the staff, including one who played guitar in a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute — the pony-tailed Tom Vannah, who became editor not long after. The Advocate editorial types seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the endeavor, and about local music in general.
A sizeable crowd filled the courthouse lawn. The bands took the very small stage in turn, and the sounds hailed from many a corner of the musical universe. A particular highlight came when bassist Jo Sallins took the stage, throwing down a blizzard of slapping, popping, and rumbling with fierce abandon. The notes echoed off the big wall of the Calvin Theatre across the street, sounds percolating through that whole end of downtown.
That modest beginning led, in the following years, to an annual happening that delivered two waves of entertainment. The live show was the second of the two, and it grew to monstrous size when it became a downtown Springfield event. The Grand Band Slam took over several venues, including a raft of clubs and restaurants, plus an outdoor stage at Stearns Square. That mid-2000s era brought plenty of memorable shows — the hardcore/reggae Fear Nuttin’ Band packing a room so full the whole place seemed to writhe as one; the spandex spectacle of Aquanett delivering ’80s hair band excess for a Harley-riding crowd; Back in Black igniting a cannon of old-school rock with their AC/DC overkill. Subsequent years saw a move to Chicopee’s Maximum Capacity, with multiple stages and one-stop shopping for music fans in search of the Valley’s best players.
That was the second wave of annual entertainment. The first came in the weeks-long process of nominations and voting, followed by our writing about all those winners. If Dr. Frankenstein were to require a replacement lightning rod with which to channel nature’s forces, he’d need look no farther than the Grand Band Slam. Sure, it could be a bit rough to run down all the suggestions, recriminations, ballot-stuffing, and mayhem. But take a step back, and a bigger picture became clear: local music fans, not to mention musicians, are passionate about and proud of the depth and breadth of talent this small but sound-rich Valley offers.
Say something critical about playing music here, and an avalanche of letters is sure to follow. Say something that praises a subset of the music scene, and expect an avalanche of letters pointing out who else deserves attention.
That level of passion made it all the more unfortunate when the Grand Band Slam slipped off the Advocate’s roster for a couple of years. That respite offered, however, time for thought about how to make the event come back in improved form. This year, the Band Slam is back, and now with a lot more actual Slam — the goal for GBS 2015 is to crown one winner.
In the past, readers have voted for the best bands in a long list of categories. These days, categories are yet more slippery, and coming up with a list that adequately reflects the remarkable scope of Valley music is even tougher. The answer was clear: fuggedaboudit. Popularity is the only yardstick for this year’s GBS, and any and every kind of music is welcome, with one caveat designed for a creative Valley: the contest aims to discover the best original or improvisational Valley musicians.
In June, readers will get the chance to nominate their favorite local bands for consideration. The top 25 nominees submit music for readers’ online consideration and a first round of voting in July. The top 10 vote-getters move to a second round of voting, this time with the addition of music videos.
After that, four winners move along to the live GBS event, which happens Sept. 12 at One Bar in Northampton. Those winners will also receive coverage in the pages of the Advocate. The live GBS event, rather than offering a long day of very short sets, will offer the top four vote-getters longer sets, and attendees will vote on the spot for their favorite band, who’ll receive prizes, glory, and accolades.
Things have changed a lot since last millenium’s approach to the Band Slam, but there’s certainly a constant: the level of creativity and musicianship remains as high as ever. The current incarnation of the GBS aims to bring to light, in festive form, some of the best talent our end of the state has to offer.•
James Heflin can be reached at email@example.com.