Some great award: How I learned to love the Whalies

About three or four years ago, I ran into local music promoter Sean Murray, as I often do, outside the Oasis Pub on Bank Street.

Between drags on a cigarette, Murray excitedly told me about his latest idea - a local music awards show called the Whalies, which would bestow trophies on New London-area bands in a number of different categories.

I probably said something along the lines of "Great. Sounds like a blast."

But walking away, I remember thinking an awards show in a - forgive me John Winthrop - town the size of New London would be a daft bunch of navel-gazing from an oftentimes self-congratulatory music scene.

Three years on, I still feel that way.

But here's the rub: the Whalies last year (I missed the inaugural show in 2010) was, indeed, a total blast and 2011's best night out in New London by a mile. Nearly all of the city's serious and less than serious musicians from across the genres mingled and shared a laugh.

And the nominees and attendees also cleaned up nice, as many of NL's arty cognoscenti ditched the latest in hipster couture and donned jackets, ties and some truly splendid dresses. The women looked beautiful, too.

Best of all, the Whalies had a sense of humor about itself, which rescued it from certain insufferability.

But still, I'm not entirely convinced.

In an interview over a coffee last week at Bean & Leaf in New London, I told Murray about my lingering ambivalence and skepticism about the Whalies.

"Well, you should be skeptical about them," Murray said, laughing.

Murray said the Whalies, to be held the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend at Hygienic Art Park, stemmed not from a need to dole out accolades to local bands, but rather his love of awards shows.

"The Grammys are like my Super Bowl," Murray said.

Murray is obsessed not only with the pomposity of awards shows - the fashion, the red carpet - but with the production. Some of the nominees in the dozen categories will be introduced via video clip rather than a presenter reading out names.

"It's important to me that the show look cool," Murray said.

That's the part that might surprise some about the Whalies - the amount of work that goes into not taking yourself seriously.

Murray began planning the Whalies a few months ago, listening to nearly everything a local band has released from Feb. 1, 2011 to Jan. 31.

Murray also has a series of confidants who supply him with information about music he might not see on a regular basis.

Also, he works with his I AM Festival co-conspirator and Hygienic Art manager Rich Martin who helps with the production and promotion. In fact, the proceeds raised through concession sales and donations will go toward this year's edition of I AM.

Some of the winners are selected through a ballot on the fanzine wailingcity.com, while others are sent to out-of-area judges to guard against favoritism.

But amid the party, Murray argues the Whalies have been a catalyst for artists in New London County to write new music and, more important, make it available for human consumption.

"I did not expect the bands to take it to heart so much," Murray said.

"I don't want them to take it so seriously...that they would feel bad if they don't win an award. I think it's positive in the way it motivates them," he added.

Murray also is on to something when he said Whalies is the only local show that gets bands (and fans) of disparate genres together at the same event.

So, then, what to make about the ultimate celebration of, to borrow a phrase, "the scene that celebrates itself"?

Well, I plan on going to the show, which will probably justify my ambivalence, then I'll go again next year.

It's hard to argue with a good time.

Stephen Chupaska is a writer who lives in downtown New London. Follow Steve on Twitter @schupaska or email him at schupaska@gmail.com.

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