The Blue Pike Music Awards
Celebrating and Recognizing the Talent Pool that is the Erie Music Scene
When it's all said and done, what is it that we all really want?
Through faded snapshots of the past and fractions of memories, like shards of broken mirrors, we can assemble some kind of severed timeline, one that hopefully provides some solace when the day ends. Times of laborious effort show proof we worked hard, the recollection of stumbling beneath the rebirthing light from a rising sun – eyes cracked in red like forgotten sidewalks – vindicate our reckless summer nights, and the accumulation of countless hours lying in bed next to someone – who we hope we'll never have to let go of – illuminates those times we fell in love.
But for some that's not enough. It's their insatiable passion to create, for the way a melody makes the world move, for the pain in their heart that gets released when they sing, for the way they finally feel alive when they're looking over the audience like the open sea, letting waves of music overflow into their soul. They must succumb to their muse, their mistress, to music.
These people crave the open water, for adventure void of map and compass, through the maddening currents of creativity. They spread their fins wide, assiduously swimming towards the crest of the wave where their music pours off stage and the crowd is hot enough to make water boil, only to plunge into the trough on the other side where the money is short and cultural standards pollute the shoreline. And yet, in each rise to the peak and every subsequent fall into the valley, it's greeted and accepted as the fundamental element of life's fulfillment.
"Some people, if they weren't able to express themselves, wouldn't have anything," says a thin faced man before he takes a swig from a pint of dark beer.
We have many fish in this lake of ours; some are doctors, some are drug dealers, some lawyers, and others landscapers. Perhaps politicians or prostitutes, some electricians and statisticians, office workers, engineers, and quite a few unemployed. And sprinkled about in all those schools of scales, you'll see the strung- out writer, the disheveled painter, the hardened sculptor, the depressed comic, the flamboyant playwright, and the struggling musician – all swimming vulnerably close to the surface where the worms on fish hooks dangle, and the nets lay in wait like sirens calling from a deathly shore.
Long ago in our lake, we had a fish called the Blue Pike. Commercial fishing boats came in droves to catch these azure scaled creatures, pulling them up by the thousands – even millions – sending their bodies to factories to be filleted, overlooking the subtleties of the species, its cool glow, its shimmer, its beauty. The Blue Pike was native only to our precious lake, and our economy boomed from what these boats brought to shore. The Blue Pike was once one of the most commercially harvested fish in the Great Lakes. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "over one billion pounds were caught between 1885 and 1962, mainly in Lake Erie."
Then suddenly a strange, eerie thing happened. There were less fish in the nets; fishermen brought up only their hook and worm. The population of these shiny, aquatic creatures plummeted, the life and color beneath the surface turned deathly and dark. And finally like the last Truffula Tree being chopped down for a Thneed, our last Blue Pike was fished out of our sea.
"My grandfather told me when I was a small child," the thin-faced man sipping his porter begins to say with a wise, serious tone behind a bag of books, "about the Blue Pike, and how our community thrived on this fish. And now they're gone."
The man that sits behind his bag of books and dark brown beer is Bob Jensen. He has watched – and in a way, studied – this town's music scene while it's dwindled and flourished, the way a scientist surveys the sea level as it deepens and shallows. He is a tall, lean man with bleached blond hair (at least for the moment, as it's been blue and green). Bob's words come out calm yet meaningful, as if he's reading you a storybook with a message he knows is deeper than the words on the page.
"The Blue Pike is a fish that got fished out of our lake years back, and it's gone extinct," Bob emphasizes. "It's something we don't want to happen to original music."
Music drives this town. Every night of the week, there is a venue – be it club, pub, or bar – with bands taking a swim to the surface, just to send out some waves saturated in sentiment and soul for the sake of adding just a bit more color to a town that can seem quite dreary at times. These singer-songwriters, musicians, and bands – the ones Bob Jensen has been studying – are the Blue Pike of our lakeside city.
"We really do have giants among us in this community, and I don't want them being overlooked," Bob says. "We don't want [music] to go extinct in this town."
The doctors and the lawyers and the white - and blue-collared fish of the sea have their place. Their niche is defined, appreciated, and understood. But the Blue Pike of our town have a harder time not being washed ashore, snubbed out, and pulled astray by the water's cruel currents. Sometimes their environment can be harsh, unforgiving, and non-reciprocating. Musicians work for low – or no – pay, they rehearse and play until their fingers bleed and their voice gets raw in order to give culture to our community, color to our nights, and open the channels of communication by means of music and art for the people looking for it. This is not to say every musician is an altruist; they do seek something in return, it just happens to be deep under the surface.
It was the carelessness of those who harvested our previous assets who made the Blue Pike disappear. Between pollution, excessive fishing, and invasive species ruling the lake, our community suffered a loss that was irreversible. So to ensure this city doesn't repeat its history, Bob has created a celebration unlike any other to recognize what Erie's music scene has to offer, all the while preserving our assets with appreciation, accreditation, and hometown warmth that doesn't dangle from a fishhook.
On Sunday, Feb. 9, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Masonic Temple [32 W. Eighth St.] the Blue Pike Music Awards will highlight all of the talented, original, 21-and-up, and all-age musicians who have been working hard, constantly fighting extinction in order to make a name in this city's scene. "It's about recognition," Bob says repeatedly. "It's for understanding music and art for what it is."
The second annual Blue Pike Music Awards will feature Steve Trohoske & The Submariners featuring Tony Grey, as the house band, and performances by Teatime for Three, Spethz, and Optimistic Apocalypse, as well as food and drinks, and it will be attended by Erie's finest musicians and music appreciators. Tickets will be sold online for $12 in advance and $15 at the door.
"A lot of times you think of awards shows and everyone's dressed nicely and claps politely, and this and that, but one of the things I like about the Blue Pike Awards is that they kind of take that notion, and toss it to the wayside," says music enthusiast, musician, promoter, and presenter at least year's award show Ben Frazier. "I really like this grassroots, DIY approach… kind of letting their freak-flag fly if you will."
"We're not opposed to people heckling, yelling out, being funny, and communicating," Bob notes in encouragement. "That's what it's about, friendship — different types of music, and people coming together."
The key elements of Blue Pike are to support local bands and place a strong emphasis on original music – something Bob takes quite seriously as he takes his time with this event and the ballot of bands, endeavoring to include every Erie musician and group on a master list to ensure everyone is recognized as a potential candidate for nomination and a possible award winner.
"Then to ensure that it goes down the proper way, we have an academy," Bob adds. This academy is comprised of venue owners, promoters, and a representative from Erie's only independent alternative publication (that's us). Best punk, hardcore, metal, electronic, rock, jam, urban, and alternative band, along with best acoustic performer, are the nomination categories being judged this year. Also, between Jan. 5 and Feb. 1, the public is encouraged to vote online to weigh in on their favorite in each genre, at BluePikeAwards.com.
In this year's academy is Marty Schwab, owner and proprietor of the crooked i. He was asked to join the panel of judges as his contributions to this community's music scene are countless and crucial, working with big names like Black Flag and Dead Prez, while providing one of the best outlets for original music.
Also in the academy is local promoter and show veteran Alex Harrilla, A.K.A Gimp Guy Underground, has probably organized enough shows over the years to fill an entire library with fliers, and his eclectic taste demonstrates his credibility when judging each category. Then there's Jon Box of the Box Street Couture, whose underground hip-hop knowledge crosses over from the music to the culture itself, giving a fresh view and voice to the academy.
And after a rep from the Reader, Bob Jensen rounds out the group, contributing to the academy not only with his tireless efforts to strengthen the local scene by running Erie's premier all-ages venue, Basement Transmissions, his experimental rock band the Jargonauts, or his extensive knowledge of the intricacies in each genre, but mostly for his unconditional love towards this city's music.
Like the ebb and flow of the sea, music and art are two constant motions in Bob's life. When his band or his venue isn't taking on the tide, he's manufacturing pop-up books, sculpting, painting, or metalworking. It's the kinetic energy that rolls in with a wave, especially those swells synthesized from sound and aesthetics that kept Bob moving during a time in his adolescence when he suffered a debilitating and nearly fatal injury.
Last January Bob was featured in our "You Ought to Know" series, a fixture of the Erie Reader that highlights amazing people in our community. Online, his article accumulated hundreds of comments affirming his pivotal role in the community and his amazing comeback from quadriplegia.
"A whole group of these 'football player' type kids sort of cornered me," Bob had said in his interview beneath a deep sigh. "I was in a fight because a jock didn't like my haircut, so he beat me up and broke my neck. I was completely paralyzed from the neck down."
It was years before Bob regained his mobility. For months he was bedridden, and for years confined to a wheelchair, one he steered with his mouth and later with thumb controls. But nothing could stop him from living out his passion for art. "I did some drawing with my teeth," Bob laughed. "It was pretty cool."
While his journey was excruciating, his positive attitude, patience, and his passion for art and music kept him striving towards independent mobility. Not only can Bob walk again, but through his trials, he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in metalsmithing and jewelry work, opened his own music venue, and is now putting together one of Erie's most community-based celebrations with the Blue Pike Music Awards. "I work in such a community based business – I get to see all the positive things in the community… Positivity breeds positivity," he says, alluding to the reciprocity between venue owner and artist, all of his life and all of his art.
So what do you think it is that leads a lyricist to bleed words on to a blank page, publically display their most personal perceptions from a pedestal, and then await criticism or praise? Why do musicians take the time to map out melody, compose chord order, and etch their emotions into every track? How is it that most people can barely compromise with their conscience, yet a multi-member band can collaborate with one and another, fitting drum hit with bass lick, matching each strum with words sung, or finding each members place in the sonic space? They hunt for their sounds in a school, feeding off the energy in the water, the creativity along the coast, and each other's ingenuity through vibration, emotion, compassion, and seemingly irrational motivation.
What are these music makers looking for past their parent's basement, their best friend's attic, their uncle's garage, or their small studio space? Perhaps it's self-indulgence; it's the acceptance and even encouragement to luxuriate in lechery and debauchery during post-show celebration. Could it be the hope for a home with more room than a warehouse, a flashy ride bright and vibrant like the sun, the red carpet walks like a personal parade, the brilliance of city lights, or the blinding burst from flash bulbs?
"[Blue Pike] is less about being Mr. Famous and more about letting everybody know you're out there, you're doing something cool, and that you're involved," Bob says. "The whole point is about recognition."
While most careers show affirmation in the way of monetary stability, the long serpentine stream of musicianship is oftentimes foreboding, arriving at more criticism than commendation. But we all long to be appreciated, to be recognized for our contribution, and to acknowledge that the path we're on, the current we follow, is the right one.
"When I won a Blue Pike award, it let me know I was doing something right. The Blue Pike award was more of a reminder than an accolade; it let me know I was on the right path, and I should stay on that path," says one of Erie's leading names in the hip-hop scene and last year's winner in the Blue Pike Urban category, C. Brown.
Blue Pike embraces Erie-born, original music, like a hatchery and a haven of encouragement for those still swimming and inspiring others to tread below the nets of stark under-appreciation, to look away from the lures that drag musicians into complacency – whether that means strumming cover songs until the end of time or a typical nine-to-five – and to swim freely through their own unaffected channels of creativity. They don't want to be surgeons or attorneys, but artists, still appreciated like the rest of the fish in the sea. "For us, our main goal is to get more recognition to more people instead of bundling it all into the same people over and over and over again. It's not about that – it's about trying to pull people up from the bottom and about support," Bob reassures.
But already Erie plays home to a monster of an award show, and love it or loath it, our Bayfront Convention Center floods with musicians for The Rock Erie Music Awards. "I was on [The Rock Erie Music Awards Board] last year," Bob says. "I have nothing against them and they have nothing against me. Both events are about the community."
However, a mountain could be made from the miles of online criticism this event receives every year. Some believe each award is swayed by some undercurrent of political madness in the art world. Others are just plain perplexed by those who receive these glossy wooden REMAs each year. And some artists believe it's less about the music and more about the money.
So you may ask why is it necessary to host another award show if one is already established? "Blue Pike has more of a pulse on what's going on beneath the surface," Bob points out.
While C. Brown is one of the bigger fish in our Erie hip-hop scene, he is still a huge supporter of the environment the Blue Pike Music Awards creates. "We were all there to laugh, and basically coexist, without any political bullshit involved," he says. "It's more than giving someone an award; it's about showing who is doing what."
Hiding below the shimmering façade of tight pants, dyed hair, cranked-up volume knobs, mosh pits, shiny guitars, and a set of deafening drums, there are musicians that don't fit nicely into categories, a definable genre, or feel they're even recognized in their home city.
"A lot of people are really disappointed with what we got going on now because it excludes a lot of people and it kind of goes against the grain of artistic endeavors," Bob says simply. "Several categories were being completely overlooked… they just don't understand the concept of some of the sub-genres. To them it's all the same thing because they don't know the subtleties of a scene."
"As a music purest, and a person who is punk-rock at heart, award shows don't totally sit well with me. But that's what I like about the Blue Pike awards – they're done so irreverently," says Ben. "In a lot of ways [last year's show] was a big party; it was part award show, part celebrity roast," he continues. "A lot of laugher among friends, and compatriots… It was done in a lot of good fun and good spirits," he finishes.
Bob himself has never fit into a distinct category, which might be why he is so adamant about representing a different population. According to Bob, metal, hardcore, and most "under-21" bands are completely misrepresented or not represented at all. "Our event represents a different group of people," Bob says.
There will always be the fish that find a home in the mainstream, where the current is strongest and most of the waves crash. But there is also smaller, lesser known tributaries, rivers, and streams, where life still flourishes beneath the surface. "Blue Pike caters to everybody and it was fun for everybody. It's not just about accepting the award it's about having a good time and bringing people together," says C. Brown.
It's when the subtleties of the alternative, and the underground are overlooked, the attention to detail is lacking, and the recognition for something different is missing, that we run the risk of repeating our bleak history. We need to nurture the culture in all areas of this community in order to thrive as a city. It's too easy to take a simple glance at our art and music scene and write this part of our society off as insignificant.
"Don't neglect what they're up to, because at some point in your life, someone in your family or someone you care about has something to tell the world, and this event focuses on them. Music is a very important part of people's souls, and to hear what they have to say is an important part of our future and what direct society takes," Bob says, as if to speak for the Erie Scene. Aside from his physical features in distinct opposition to the furry, scruffy, stout, shouter who speaks for the trees, the Brown, Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans, and the Humming-Fish, Bob is Erie's Lorax, who speaks for our surrounding music scene, and for the artful artists, and all the Blue Pikes of our community.
"Without people supporting the arts, there is no point in doing it," Bob said in his You Ought to Know.
But how will Bob ensure Blue Pike doesn't turn into something mundane or something that only favors the mainstream? "I'm not afraid to be the leader of the event and I'm not going to give that power away to someone who cares less."
As the Seuss's character the Once-ler once said from the room by the roof, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
"This event is not about money; it's about recognition," Bob says again to drive his point home. "If I have to pay for it out of my pocket, then so be it, because it's an important and crucial part of our community. We get this accreditation out there to some of these younger bands that are trying to get their names known."
With the addition of The Blue Pike Music Awards into Erie's annual celebrations and festivities, our city can be a better environment for our local musicians to flourish. "[Blue Pike] reinforces that notion that Erie is a place that you can really be proud of," Ben explains. "When I was growing up, Erie was a place where things only seemed like they could happen, things could be great there… But now people have started to say, 'Hey, why can't it be great?'"
The years artists spend to paint a perfect portrait or the monuments of time musicians build with a catalog of songs, an accumulation of sound equipment, and walls plastered in tattered show fliers, show devotion that oftentimes is ignored. They aren't all looking for stardom or fame, but rather some acknowledgment for their music in the way any professional fish in the sea is thanked for their trade.
At the end of the day, of the week, or our life, we all want to know we are loved, appreciated, recognized for something greater than ourselves. The musicians crave what is at the bottom of sea, the affirmation that their direction was not taken in vain, but still need to swim up to the surface to create life in the nights, music for life, and to entertain.
But the drive inside the strung out writer, the disheveled painter, the hardened sculptor, the depressed comic, the flamboyant playwright, or the struggling musician slowly dwindles, goes dormant, or even worse, dies, without love and support from the city. Even when the time comes to surrender to the nine-to-five life, Erie musicians can take solace in knowing their city acknowledged their creation, their art, and music.
Events like the Blue Pike Music Awards reminds us of this incredible asset Erie has. Our streets have waves of sound splashing out of doors on all corners. There are young kids creating something that wasn't there before, something they believe will take them somewhere new, and bar bands that make the whiskey go down smooth, and veteran musicians that feel such a strong burning love for their trade that they're still out playing like a rock that's too heavy to move. Bob is a representative for our city's music scene, the Lorax of our lakeside world. He is a voice for the Blue Pike, one that speaks of their beauty, pivotal role they play in our community, the dreary future we face if we muck up the waters by neglecting the arts, and on the flipside, a city rich in culture, colorful, and vibrant, the way Erie should always be.
Matthew Flowers can be contacted at mFlowers@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @MFlowersER.