The rhythm and the blues

When the curtain finally opens on Slum Village, the State Theatre is a shambles. The end of the evening is flavored with the palpable desperation of a tanking luxury liner. The picked-over fruit trays are wilting. The washroom attendant is blowing a jay. The rest of the stragglers are scrambling for the evening’s final fix and — be it booze, bitches or blow — you’d better choose your poison quick; the hope for salvation is getting slimmer by the second. Thankfully Slum Village, on braggadocio autopilot, doesn’t seem to notice that the line at the bar currently outnumbers their listeners by an estimated ratio of 4-to-1. They are, in a word, oblivious.

But the whole evening can be defined with single-word taxonomy. Drinks: weak. Speeches: cheesy. Cheese: stale. Jokes: staler. Awards: pointless.

The 13th annual Detroit Music Awards (DMAs) is the wily bastard-child of The Motor City Music Foundation (MCMF), and — like most teenagers — no one really seems to know how to handle it. Every year the board struggles to get people to vote (though this year they claim their votes are up fourfold), rails against their reputation as an out-of-touch network and throws a slightly garish locals-only, red-carpet party.

The organization’s lofty mission statement is to “honor Detroit area musicians, … to nurture music that is being made in the Detroit metropolitan area, and to create a sense of music industry community that cuts across genres and styles.”

Sounds great. But, at the end of the night, why is Audra Kubat crying? By all accounts this night is for nurturing musicians like Kubat. The minxy folk songwriter was nominated for an impressive five DMAs (Outstanding Artist, Folk Instrumentalist, Folk/Rock Songwriter, yadda, yadda, yadda …). She looks like a million bucks: her family sits up front, awaiting the announcements. What did she win? Zilch. Next question: Why didn’t she win? Well, the MCMFs line is simple; she didn’t get enough votes. But welcome to the can of worms. The dubious history of the DMAs is a clusterfuck of questionable politics and shady award handouts. Don’t get us wrong — the Forbes Brothers is a fine country band, but 24 DMAs in the past five years?

Let’s back up a bit. Early in the night, as Hit Singles makes the scene at the State Theatre, the air is perfumed with potential. Sure, these functions draw the low-rent Oakland County bar stars like moths to the flame, but at least one can bank on spoofing the bad outfits (of which there is no shortage, oy vey!). Things are going pretty well when we take our table down front (right next to the venerable sovereigns of the Ilitch empire, no less) and The Motor City Rhythm and Blues Pioneers own our asses. Their set is stacked with rich harmonies and soul-strut. It’s awesome.

But that’s about as good as the night gets. After a couple awards we’re subjected to podium meanders by MCMF President Howard Hertz, a lawyer who has worked with many nominees past and present. Hertz defiantly exclaims that Detroit has the best music, producers and recording studios in the world, period. Good things come out of his filibustering, though, one being an announcement of a pending health insurance plan for musicians through ArtServ Michigan. By the time his speech is over Hit Singles has snagged and drained the Ilitches’ complimentary bottle of wine. Hertz says the organization is a “focal point” for helping musicians, but from our ritzy seats we can’t see many actual musicians.

“It’s disappointing that they had attorneys down on the floor and the musicians [had] to stand at the higher levels,” says Dan Tatarian, owner of Showtime clothing. “They should have had them standing in back and the musicians down in the front.”

Hertz’s “focal point” proves less than focused; a handful of winners prove to be no shows. Where are the White Stripes to accept awards for outstanding national album and single? Apparently they’re a little too cool for the leopard print cowboy hat crowd, symptomatic of the garage community’s collective snub to the DMAs. At least Bob Seger shows up, looking gentlemanly in gray hair and beard, to accept his trophy. And Sista Otis is certainly in the house; the local urban-folk fave delivers a rambling acceptance when it’s announced that she and her Wholly Rollers had nabbed “Outstanding Urban/Funk/Hip-Hop Recording” (!!!!???) for their Worldwide Release.

The live musical performances offer hits and misses. The star-studded salute to the late Butler Twins (Clarence died December 2003, Curtis passed April 9) wins us over. The band of blues ringers includes especially notable performances by booming vocalist Odell Bluesboy, guitarist Jeff Grand and ex-Black Crowe Eddie Harsch, particularly on the Twins’ “Not Gonna Worry About Tomorrow.”

The Wrenfields’ brand of summery frolic and hooky twang (thanks to the adorable Noreen Novrocki, who is all polka dots and crinoline) makes for a worthy burst of energy, and Forge’s three-song set of doomsday metal sounds strangely optimistic.

But there is little optimism to savor as the night slowly fades into a mind-numbing disaster and, ultimately, drunkenness. When we stumble to the car and head up Woodward, it’s a supremely vernal night. On the way to the after hours, Hit Singles passes the shattered building at 2457 Woodward, a few blocks north of the blinking marquee of the State Theatre. In 1968, Berry Gordy expanded all the Motown operations to that address, and that was the year Marvin heard it through the grapevine, Diana Ross found her “Love Child” and Stevie Wonder crooned “For Once in my Life.” At night the place is haunted and gloomy, a nearly forgotten landmark of Detroit’s greatest music achievements, a reminder of the most ephemeral part of our cultural history. Maybe they had some great lawyers.

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