The month after the national music community is reinvigorated by the Grammy Awards held in the heart of Los Angeles, the Grand Rapids music community will celebrate its homegrown talent at The Intersection. Although nearly a continent away from the Sunset Strip, the Jammies have been just as instrumental in shaping the musical mosaic that has developed around Grand Rapids.
"If you like live music, you can't not have a good time," said Scott Hammontree, talent buyer at The Intersection.
And the biggest perk for the audience? Admission is free, or rather, priceless.
"I always say the whole affair is a labor of love, with practically everyone involved doing their part without any money changing hands," said WYCE Station Manager Kevin Murphy. "One of the reasons I love the Jammies is because it is solely a celebration of the art, and we do our best to keep commerce from getting in the way."
In addition to the free-until-capacity event, the awards (in its 15th year) give new and veteran local bands the chance to play in front of some of the largest audiences of their careers.
"We're truly honored to be a part of the event and it's great to see the room full of people celebrating great music from so many local artists," Hammontree said. "It affords some artists an opportunity to play in front of 1,000-plus people, and I enjoy seeing them have that chance."
The evening features more than 20 performances split between the venue's two stages. The Intersection has seen its share of concerts and crowds, making it the ideal long-term host site.
"From a venue standpoint, we do some pretty large concerts so we are accustomed to the production aspect," Hammontree said. "But for the Jammies more artists grace our stages than any other for one single night. When you combine the WYCE staff helping direct traffic with our experienced production staff, it actually goes off remarkably smoothly."
WYCE 88.1 FM, run by Grand Rapids Community Media Center, also plays an integral part in increasing the availability of local music to people all over the state. Each year, WYCE organizes the nominees and regulates voting procedures for the Jammies.
"Basically, any local or regional album added to the WYCE library in a given year is in the running for the following year's Jammies," Murphy said. "Each year at the end of November, we put together that list of nominees, and divide it up into categories."
The voters fall into three categories: WYCE programmers, a panel of local music industry aficionados and public votes for song of the year and listeners' choice awards. Online voting is accessible to the public through Feb. 1 on the Jammies Facebook page.
The big night is filled with glamorous finishing touches including "Jam-bo-tron" monitors, whic are giant projection screens alongside the main stage that guarantee a front-row view. For the second year in a row, the bar will feature a "Tap Takeover" sponsored by Bell's Brewery, meaning select brews from Bell's will be on tap for one night only. A free CD is also offered to those who dress up in their jammies.
The spotlight, however, remains on the bands: their music, stories and respective journeys. Bowery, a Grand Rapids mainstay among pop and rock groups since 2007, has weathered some transformative changes since its 2010 Jammie nomination, including the addition of new singer Heather Palaszek. Former vocalist Shaneé Laurent departed before much of the 2013 Jammie-nominated album The Without You, Part I was recorded.
"Being the newest addition to Bowery, I'm so proud of where this band has gone in just a little over a year," Palaszek said. "We've put in a lot of hours: practice every week ... and we've been constantly working to perfect our sound live and within the songs themselves."
Vocalist and guitarist Phil Kulas has been with the band since its inception and credits the Jammies with propelling the band to the next level.
"I feel like our 2009 release Our Love is a Ghost really got the push it ultimately needed at the Jammies. That was the moment that sparked us as a band."
According to Murphy, the level of participation by both performers and local music fans has multiplied after 15 years.
"The fans' involvement has increased each year in terms of the number of people attending, and the number of people voting in the Listeners' Choice categories," he said.
The ability to release music digitally via free sites including Bandcamp and Reverbnation is a major reason for the event's continued growth. And for bands like Bowery, these sites allow them an avenue to stream or sell music.
"Today, technology allows a group of musicians to get together with a single laptop and record a pretty high quality-sounding record and distribute it via social networks for free," Murphy said. "The barriers to entry were much higher in the late '90s."
Although the advent of online music sharing brings more positives than negatives to local bands, in most cases, Kulas acknowledges the cons as well and believes that finding a balance between the two is the key to success.
"We're out there swimming, but it's certainly a challenge with so much art and music out there," Kulas said. "But there are always new avenues to explore online, and it has been an incredible way to connect with like-minded artists and new fans."
Just as The Jammies has transitioned and grown over the course of the digital age, Kulas hopes this year's awards will allow his band's new lineup a chance to prove themselves to listeners once again.
"Having reset the band with a new singer and direction, I'm looking for that one moment we can confidently say 'launched' this new era."
For Tommy Schichtel, producer, songwriter and previous Jammie nominee with his bands the Concussions and the Fuzzrites, the awards are a chance to prove his most recent project is worthy of this year's best new artist award. Schichtel's band the B-Sides has a throwback rock vibe and is nominated for its self-titled album in the "Best Album by a New Artist" category.
Having been a part of the Grand Rapids music scene since the Jammies began, Schichtel has seen a definite upswing in the number of venues available for bands to hone their craft.
"Grand Rapids has changed so much in just 10 years," he said. "There is so much more art at the forefront, and there are great venues to play from people that have a vision."
Music lovers from all walks of life can find live entertainment to enjoy on any given night in Grand Rapids, and the WYCE Jammie Awards aim to provide a sampling of the many styles local bands have claimed as their own.
"A close-knit musical community like Grand Rapids has people in metal bands supporting singer-songwriters with an acoustic guitar," Schichtel said. "If you are out performing, people will notice and come back."
As more bands evolve and more genres of music converge on Grand Rapids, The Jammies will keep pace with the changes.
"We see a lot more local music being submitted to WYCE from a much broader stylistic spectrum," Murphy said. "That means there's more to choose from, which for the most part means we can put on a Jammies show with more than 20 really top-notch acts."
JAMMIES XV LINEUP:
Brad Fritcher + Trois
Chain of Lakes
Jim Alfredson's Dirty Fingers
Red Tail Ring
Ribbons of Song
River Rogues Jazz Band
The Wallace Collective
Who Hit John?