Blues singer Sarah Ayers, who stopped performing for nearly two years after a health condition damaged nerves in her throat, came back with a roar Sunday at the Lehigh Valley Music Awards.
Ayers was chosen the top winner at the 15th awards ceremony, taking home five statues and reclaiming the fan-voted All Around Performer after a four-year lapse and Female Vocalist after three years.
Blues harmonica player James Supra won All Around Performer on the industry voters’ ballot — his second in a row. He won three other awards, including Best Blues Harmonica player, which he’s won every year. It’s the music awards’ only unbroken streak.
Maureen “Moe” Jerant won Best Drummer as well as a special recognition award, and her band, The Large Flowerheads, won for Best Band or Duo and for Best Website.
The awards came during a three-hour ceremony that was held for the third year at Musikfest Cafe at ArtsQuest Center in Bethlehem. In all, the event featured 47 industry-selected awards, 21 fan-voted awards and 13 veterans awards.
Blues pianist Carl Snyder and rock band Rick Levy and The Limits each won Lifetime Achievement Awards for 50 years in music and gave blistering musical performances paired with other veteran Lehigh Valley musicians.
But the ceremony seemed like a formal welcome back for Ayers, who is 2009 was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition that usually affects the thyroid, but caused nerve damage to her throat.
“It’s totally unexpected; I’m overwhelmed,” Ayers, who was not at the ceremony, said in a telephone interview afterward. “There are a lot of very talented people in the pool these days and I’m just honored to be among them. To have been selected was a total surprise.”
Ayers also won for Best Female Artist, Best Female Vocal and the fan-chosen Best Singer/Songwriter, and her Sarah Ayers Band tied with Supra’s James Supra Band for Best Jam Band.
Until 2009, Ayers routinely swept the annual awards, winning as many as 10 in 2008 and having a string of four Performer of the Year awards and seven for Best Female Vocalist.
If the awards represented a return for Ayers, it also was a continuation of success for Supra.
In 2012, the last year the awards were held, Supra was the top award-winner with five — his first Lehigh Valley Music awards other than Best Harmonica. This year, in addition to Best All Around and Best Harmonica and his band’s tying Ayers’ for Best Jam Band, his band also won for Best Blues Band.
“It’s just an honor to be a part of the Lehigh Valley,” a jubilant Supra said. “I love the music scene here, and just to have the opportunity to play with such talented musicians is very inspiring. I’m grateful.”
No other performer won more than two awards Sunday. Sharon Elizabeth won the industry vote for singer/songwriter, Craig Thatcher won for male artist and Jonathan Padilla for Male Vocalist.
The awards marked the continuation of two other streaks.
Ian Holmes won Best Christian Performer for the 10th year in a row, and Fusion Jazz Trio won Best Jazz Band for the fifth year in a row. Holmes also won for Best Gospel Band.
Scott Marshall, who in 2011 was top winner with five awards, including Best All-Around Performer, was nominated for 13 this year. He won two: a special recognition award, and for Best Original Song for “Letters & Prayers, a song about reaching out to loved ones deployed overseas.” He and his band, Hillbilly Souls, performed the song during opening ceremonies honoring men and women of the military.
The event also marked a seismic change in the way the Lehigh Valley Music Awards were chosen, shifting far more to voting by people in the music industry than fan votes.
In previous years, two-thirds of the awards were chosen by fan votes, but the Greater Lehigh Valley Music Association, which holds the awards, shifted more to industry balloting this year to give the awards more integrity, Director Gloria Domina said.
“We’re just honored to have all these musicians come, and all the new musicians who have never been involved with the music awards before,” Domina said. “And that new artist have won this year, that’s an amazing thing. … The show of support … I’m just thrilled to death and very grateful to our music community and community in general.”