Once its river burned, and now the city’s lighting up. It’s been a good month for Cleveland, which not only welcomed back their prodigal baller, but also kicked off the inaugural Alternative Press Music Awards at Voinovich Park in the shadow of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
More than 6,000 stood on the park lawn before the city’s backdrop, served by food trucks and Lagunitas beer and entertained by a teeming multi-generational throng of performers, emceed by Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus and broadcast by AXS TV. It was a great night for it, a temperate 75 degrees with a breeze off the lake and a guest list thick with names, including Ice-T, Slash, Joe Perry, Billy Corgan and Joan Blackheart.
The shindig was conceived by Alternative Press, a magazine started as a fanzine in a bedroom almost 30 years ago by Mike Shea. It has almost improbably become the longest-standing major music magazine dedicated to underground/youth rock. Shea was the author of the evening’s most brilliant idea: the persistent role of the 115-piece Cleveland Contemporary Youth Orchestra, who backed and interacted with the performers, gave them entrance music to receive the awards and provided interstitial music during the broadcast breaks.
During those breaks, Hoppus’ backstage interviews with performers were broadcast onto the large video screens that flanked the stage. The Blink-182 frontman dedicated the show to the late Tommy Ramone and the spirit of his punk rock brothers in arms.
Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie — the evening’s Best Vocalist winner — got the show rolling. Dressed in a black tee, gold lamé jacket and sunglasses, Urie did an admirable job on Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady” and “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Ice-T came out shortly after and laid down the ground rules for the evening. “Say thank you to your mother and get the hell off the stage,” advised the rapper/TV star, backed by his hard rock band Body Count. An effortlessly charismatic character, Ice-T couldn’t resist making a shameless plug for the new album: “Get on your iPhones, little girls, and buy that sh–.” That said, Body Count’s intense, high-energy performance was among the night’s finest.
It would however pale in comparison to the set from Columbus, Ohio, up-and-comers Twenty One Pilots, who were nominated for Best Album, Breakthrough Band and Best Live Band. Though they didn’t win a single Skully — the name given to AP’s skull-shaped awards — the duo served notice that they aren’t going anywhere with a dramatic two-song set. They opened in ski masks with the eerie, propulsive ballad “Car Radio,” using the orchestra to full effect. They upped the ante on “Guns for Hands,” as lead singer Tyler Joseph climbed the lighting stanchion to stand 30 feet above the crowd. Meanwhile, drummer Josh Dun played on a board held aloft in the audience pit. Even beyond the showmanship, the lively, dub-tinged dance-rock number intoxicated with its percolating rhythms.
Billy Corgan was on hand to receive the Vanguard Award, one of three winners not chosen by the fans. (Jett and Slash were the others.) Corgan was feeling magnanimous, telling young fans it was their music. “The kids always rule. The kids win, and they should,” he said. “The kids should always kick mother—-ers like me out of the way. And I mean that. I am no legend. Your favorite song is legend. Your favorite band is legend. Your favorite concert is legend. That’s what makes it work. You make it work.”
The Icon Award went to Jett and was presented by Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of Against Me! Grace has demonstrated striking self-determination in coming out as transgender and addressing her longstanding gender-dysphoria. “As a parent of a 4-year-old little girl who wants to be a drummer when she grows up, I can’t thank Joan enough for the path she cleared through rock ‘n’ roll, refusing to accept any pre-established gender roles,” Grace said. “She didn’t ask to be let into the boys club; she kicked the door down and did so with a double cutaway.” (This line produced a smirk and amused head shake from Jett.)
Jett would go on to perform with Grace and singer/guitarist Billy Crooked of Cleveland’s The Vacancies (signed to Jett’s Blackheart Records). In the evening’s most scintillating performance, Jett was joined by Slash on a cover of the Rolling Stones’ deliciously profane “Star Star.” The Guns N’ Roses star lit up the Keith Richards parts as the camera zoomed in on his fleet fingers.
Slash was on hand to receive the Guitar Legend Award, which was presented by a none-too-shabby six-stringer himself, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. After heaping praise on Slash, the familiarly hatted guitarist stepped up to receive the award, which he called humbling and he said it “officially means I’ve been doing this a long f—ing time.”
Among the young hard rockers — who form a substantial but not exclusive party of AP’s core audience — the big winner was San Diego post-core band Pierce the Veil. They won Best Live Band, Jaime Preciado won Best Bassist, Mike Fuentes won Best Drummer and the Song of the Year was All Time Low’s “A Love Like War,” featuring frontman Vic Fuentes.
It’s almost surprising given the fan-based balloting that they didn’t also win the Most Dedicated Fans, which went to glammy, goth-operatic Hollywood rockers Black Veil Brides.
The other big winner was British metalcore act Bring Me the Horizon, which won Album of the Year for the electronically enhanced “Sempiternal,” as well as Best International Band. In his acceptance speech, Bring Me the Horizon frontman Oliver Sykes said the album was born out of his battle with addiction, and he credits all the letters and texts fans sent without knowing he was in rehab with providing him the incentive to get better. “When I got out, I didn’t want to tweak anymore,” Sykes said. “I just wanted to stand and shout from the rooftops.”
After Sykes, Korn came out to award Artist of the Year to fellow onetime pop-punkers Fall Out Boy. The Wilmette, Illinois, quartet reunited after a three-year hiatus to make last year’s “Save Rock and Roll.” They performed that album’s opening track, “The Phoenix,” to bring the night to a close.
Overall, the show went off smoothly, abetted by Warped Tour’s Kevin Lyman, who stage-managed the proceedings and oversaw the seamless transitions. That efficiency allowed the four-hour evening to move briskly, despite the commercial breaks and set changes. Indeed, it was a much better experience from that standpoint than the Rock Hall Induction Ceremonies in Cleveland a few years ago, which ran well past bar close. Both events actually coincide next year, adding to Cleveland’s sense of incipient revival.