San Diego Music Awards celebrates three decades with in-person return to Humphreys

Casey Hensley performs at the 2019 San Diego Music Awards at House of Blues.
Casey Hensley performs at the 2019 San Diego Music Awards at House of Blues. This year, Hensley’s album “Good as Gone is nominated for two awards: Best Album of the Year and Best Blues Album.
(Courtesy San Diego Music Awards)

The local music scene has come a long way in the last three decades, and the San Diego Music Awards (SDMA) is ready to celebrate.

For its 30th anniversary, the annual music awards ceremony — which celebrates the diversity of musical talent in San Diego — returns to its longtime home of Humphreys Concerts on the Bay.

“It’s probably the best venue for us,” SDMA founder and promoter Kevin Hellman said, noting the outdoor aspect eases some COVID-19 concerns.

Ariel Levine performs at the 2019 San Diego Music Awards at House of Blues.
Ariel Levine, whose track “In This War Or The Next” is nominated for Best Indie/Alternative Song in 2021, performs at the 2019 San Diego Music Awards at House of Blues.
(Courtesy San Diego Music Awards)

Though Humphreys has hosted the most SDMA editions to date, past events have been held at venues all over the county, from La Jolla to Alpine. Most recently, the event took place at downtown’s House of Blues. And like many other regional events, last year’s ceremony was held virtually and featured pre-recorded performances.

While SDMA’s in-person return celebrates the resurgence of live music in San Diego, recorded music will take center stage at the 2021 ceremony.

“When we did our nomination announcement and voting, everything was still closed,” Hellman said. “Nobody had performed since March 13, 2020. So having categories that kind of rely on live performances didn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

The 2021 ballot replaces performance-based categories with additional genres for Best Album and Song of the Year awards, and also introduces Best New Video — fitting for a year of experiencing music virtually.

More than 100 San Diego artists and bands are up for awards. Singer-songwriter Gregory Page leads the list with four nominations, while Carlsbad-based band Aviator Stash follows with three.

Whitney Shay accepts an award at the 2018 San Diego Music Awards at House of Blues.
(Courtesy San Diego Music Awards)

Other popular nominees include Rebecca Jade, Switchfoot, Whitney Shay, Electric Mud, The Frets, Coral Bells, Casey Hensley and Ed Kornhauser. And although Jason Mraz’s 2020 album “Look for the Good” is not up for any awards, he’s featured on two of the seven tracks nominated for Song of the Year.

A few other nominees to look out for this year are rapper/hip-hop artist and southeast San Diego native The Toven, who put out his debut album “Bigger Vibes” last August after years of releasing singles); four-piece punk band The Havnauts, winner of SDMA’s Best New Artist in 2019; and longtime jazz saxophonist Charles McPherson, who celebrated his 82nd birthday last month.

The honoree for Country Dick Montana Lifetime Achievement Award is Jerry Raney, a San Diego musician best known as a member of The Beat Farmers — the local rock band who won Group of the Year at the SDMA’s inaugural event in 1991. (The lifetime achievement award, which debuted in 1993, is actually named after the Beat Farmers’ late drummer.)

This year’s San Diego Music Industry Award will be presented to Liz Abbott, publisher of San Diego Troubadour, a publication that champions alternative country, Americana, blues, folk, jazz, gospel and bluegrass musicians.

Indie band The Verigolds perform at the 2017 San Diego Music Awards at House of Blues.
(Courtesy San Diego Music Awards)

In addition to the awards, there will be live performances by seven local acts: The Frets, Brisa Lauren, Ed Kornhauser, Chickenbone Slim, Electric Mud, Marujah and Cindy Lee Berryhill.

While the coast looks clear for the show to go on this week, Hellman acknowledges the ever-present unpredictability of in-person events with coronavirus still looming, noting that the pandemic forced SDMA to go virtual just eight days before 2020’s ceremony.

Humphreys Concerts by the Bay is currently operating at full capacity, and SDMA will follow all updated COVID-19 guidelines enforced by the outdoor venue. At this time, masks are not required for vaccinated individuals, but attendees are encouraged to wear facial coverings if it makes them feel more comfortable.

Looking back

Aside from the awards, when past San Diego Music Awards come to mind, one may recall the predictable technical glitches, cheesy stage banter, noisy audience members and the large crowd’s tendency to indulge in a bit of alcohol.

But there are plenty of unexpected, highly memorable performances from SDMA’s 30-year history — from elusive punk band the Locust taking the stage in insect costumes to The Burning of Rome performing with severed pig heads on poles.

There have also been politically-charged moments.

In 1992,rapper Lord Byron (also known as Trick) picketed the ceremony because of the lack of a rap, funk or hip-hop categories. The following year, he was invited to the SDMAs as both a performer and nominee in that newly-created category. More than a decade later, in 2003, Mojo Nixon performed the song “Show Me the Weapons,” an expletive-heavy attack on President George Bush and the Iraq War.

But perhaps most memorable of them all was David Jass’ 1993 animated outburst.

Following the band Asphalt Ballet winning the Best Hard Rock or Metal category, Jass — the guitarist of Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver — jumped on stage to denounce the band’s San Diego connection, and later attempted to do the same when Stone Temple Pilots won Best Album of the Year. But when his path was blocked by Hellman the second time around, Jass was knocked to the ground, prompting a few security guards and audience members to jump into the fray.

The brief brawl pointed to a bigger issue: the longtime controversy of who should, or shouldn’t, be eligible for awards. Despite the event’s strong local ties, bands and artists can be nominated even if they don’t currently live, or regularly perform, in San Diego.

One SDMA’s biggest turning points was Hellman’s decision in 1996 to bring in outside help, including Tim Mays of the Casbah, to assist with the nomination process. While the eligibility criteria did not change, the revamped approach boosted the event’s credibility and respect on the indie scene — arguably cementing its future as a beloved San Diego tradition.

San Diego Music Awards

When: Doors open at 6 p.m. and show starts 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
Who: Live performances by The Frets, Brisa Lauren, Ed Kornhauser, Chickenbone Slim, Electric Mud, Marujah and Cindy Lee Berryhill
Tickets: General admission is $35; $100 for VIP tickets. Tickets available to purchase at A portion of proceeds from the event will be donated to The San Diego Music Foundation’s Guitar for Schools program.