By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
On a windy and colder-than-usual Sunday night in April, more than 3,000 people showed up in Deep Ellum to do nothing more than hear local bands. There were no street fairs, no free food, no mimes, no apartment open houses. No, these people piled into Blue Cat Blues when Josh Alan played; they crammed into Club Clearview to hear the Old 97's and Tablet; they stood one against the other in the Dark Room to hear Meredith Miller and Broose Dickinson play their guitars and sing their quiet songs. They lined up outside Trees to wait their turns to get assaulted by Stinkbug, and they shook their asses as Bobby Patterson brought soul music to Naomi's for the first time.
It was something else, all right, even if ASKA didn't show up at the Galaxy Club (and how's that for a slap in the face, rock fans?) and Shabazz 3 got delayed as they went to Garland in search of a DAT machine. All told, the Dallas Observer Music Awards showcase in Deep Ellum last Sunday went off without a hitch: You came, you voted, you rocked, and you voted the rock. And in the meantime, we raised about $3,000 for Habitat for Humanity, which means everyone came out a winner--on at least one night.
In the end, of course, it's not whether you win or lose an Observer Music Award, but how well you played last night, and how well your next show goes. To butcher an old saying, tomorrow's not the next day, it's the next gig.
In perusing the list of this year's winners, it strikes me that for the second year in a row, there's really not one big winner--no Reverend Horton Heat or Tripping Daisy cleaning up with six or seven awards, no Sara Hickman walking home with a guitar case filled with statues. The Old 97's are, perhaps, this year's biggest winners at 3 1/2 awards (they must share the Single Release award with Funland, and there's no shame in that); and the Toadies walked away with three Music Awards, but two of those went directly to frontman Todd Lewis and sidestepped the other three band members.
So what does it all mean? Either we managed to detect all the stuffed ballots this year, or there really is no one band in this town that attracts the spotlight more than another. After all, a major-label deal is no more a sign of talent than being caught in a motel room with cocaine and hookers means you have a substance-abuse problem. And in a town where every band is either courting a record company or beholden to one for three guaranteed records and a $1.5-million advance, it's nice to see REO Speedealer, the Grown-Ups, and Meredith Miller get a small piece of the recognition they deserve.
Get a hold of yourself: The Dallas music scene still isn't a scene, merely hundreds of bands fighting it out for a weekend slot opening for a touring band at a decent club and trying to make enough money to cover expenses. Some bands will make homemade demo tapes and sell them at shows, some will accrue a decent reputation on Elm Street, some will release CDs on a local label, some will shoot past their peers like rockets before crash-landing into reality.
I can't even tell you who won the New Act award four years ago--not because I don't care, I really do (and I could look it up), but because you can't just pin a ribbon to music and expect it to be good. There's not one musician on this list who doesn't deserve to be here, but there are plenty more who could have been included with good reason. That Bedhead hasn't ever won is proof that rock and roll is, most nights, a popularity contest; that Ronnie Dawson keeps getting shut out is proof that playing well night after night for 40 years is the best revenge a musician can hope for.
There were some genuinely nice moments to be had when the votes were tabulated: For the first time in its five-plus-year existence, Funland won a long-deserved Music Award--for Album Release (1995), usually one of the most highly contested awards around these parts come statue time. (Past winners have included Reverend Horton Heat's The Full Custom Gospel Sounds of... and Liquor in the Front, Tripping Daisy's Bill, and Sara Hickman's Equal Scary People.) And then there's the Folk/Acoustic award going to Meredith Miller, who only recently returned to the performing stage after having taken several months off. It's refreshing when a performer's talent equals his or her popularity.
You may have noticed there is no special Music Award issue this year, no huge spreads devoted to the winners. That's been replaced by the issue that appeared on stands last week, the one dedicated to the nominees. The idea behind the switch was to give readers a larger overview of those musicians making music in Dallas, perhaps to better inform the voters when casting their ballots or when deciding what the hell to do on a Saturday night. Not sure if it worked--I like Andy Timmons well enough, but when Ronnie Dawson loses two years in a row to Dallas' Joe Satriani for the Local Musician of the Year award, it's time to bring in Jimmy Carter to watch the ballot boxes. Still, when Dooms U.K. walks off with the Avant Garde/Experimental award, and REO Speedealer snares the best New Act doorstop, and Meredith Miller gets her due, somebody's doing something right.
This year, we've decided to invite everyone--from the nominated artists to the general public, and that includes you--to the Dallas Observer Music Awards ceremony, which takes place Friday, April 19, at the Rehab Lounge in Deep Ellum and costs $5 (nominees get in free, of course). Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks perform at 7 p.m., awards will be presented at 8:30, and Cowboys and Indians take the stage at 9:45. Neither of our performers won an award this year, though they have in years past, but you don't need to win to be good. You just need to be good.
Best Act Overall: Old 97's. A year ago, Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Philip Peeples, and Ken Bethea walked away with the Most Improved Act statue, which was ironic enough since Miller has been part of the local-music landscape for almost as long as T-Bone Walker. But now, as the Old 97's are on the verge of signing to one of at least three major labels vying for their considerable talents, they take home the coveted Best Act award. Of course, Fever in the Funkhouse won this award five years ago and, at the time, also was being courted by the majors, but this year the Old 97's have one thing going for them Fever didn't: The Old 97's got the goods.
New Act: REO Speedealer. With the exceptions of the Toadies, Brave Combo, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (and who the hell votes in this awards thing, anyway?), no band received more votes in its respective category than REO Speedealer. And though the name's worth a hundred votes alone, Speedealer has the muscle to back it up: Like one long guitar solo, noisy and powerful, it's the sort of rock-and-roll band that could only have been born in Texas, where "psychobilly" is a box to check off on job applications under the heading "ethnicity."
Most Improved Act: Old 97's. This award has long been regarded as the Backhanded Compliment Award: You used to suck, but now you don't. Which isn't true in the case of this band, though the songwriting has gotten better (Hitchhike to Rhome was a modest debut, Wreck Your Life was a meatier follow-up) and the playing has gotten better (Ken Bethea, come on down!), and the performances have gotten better, and...You get the point. And the Old 97's have the Best Act Overall award to prove it.
Rock: Toadies. The first two singles off Rubberneck stiffed, the third made the Toadies MTV love children for 120 minutes and landed their name on the cover of Spin, and now the fourth got them on "Week in Rock." If that isn't enough, the record--which Interscope first tried to ditch till a Florida radio station started playing "Possum Kingdom"--is past gold on its way to platinum. And to think: George Gimarc said they'd never make it.
Alternative Rock/Pop: Hagfish. These guys epitomize "alternative rock/pop" around these parts: They dress snappy, play snappy, even walk snappy, and they manage to fit guitar solos into songs that don't even run two minutes. And if they're the Ramones or the Descendents, then the Old 97's are fronted by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but that's hardly the point: These boys are in it for the chicks, and if they happen to come up with the rock in the process, so be it.
Country and Western: Old 97's. You could make a case for Cowboys and Indians to win this award (and Lord knows I have), and Donny Ray Ford couldn't be more of the Real Thing if he died and went to the Grand Ole Opry, but when you're on a roll, you're Mel Gibson.
Metal: Brutal Juice. Solinger and ASKA came up a few votes shy of catching Brutal Juice, but in reality Brutal Juice is in a league of its own when it comes to its so-called competitors in this category. Where Solinger and ASKA are fossils encased in Spandex and leather, cliches tangled in long hair and power ballads, Brutal Juice is the next step in the evolution of metal--louder than punk, meaner than hard-core, uglier than death. Your mom thinks ASKA is noise; ASKA probably would say the same thing of Brutal Juice.
Cover Band: Hard Night's Day. Here's a band that deserves its award without question--not just a Beatles cover, but the table of contents and the index, and the footnotes in between.
Folk/Acoustic: Meredith Miller. Josh Alan was saying the other day he hoped Meredith would win this award because she deserved it, and the readers agreed: After going into something of semiretirement for the past few months and only now returning to the stage, Miller has become probably the best singer-songwriter in town hiding behind her acoustic guitar. Whether performing under the fluorescent lights of Borders or the cover of night at the Dark Room, she takes your breath away even as she looks for her own, and no one since Sara Hickman in 1988 could turn a twinkle into a tear so quickly.
Funk/R&B: Bassx and Rap/Hip-Hop: Bassx. These two awards go together because Bassx manages to vanish that line separating a good funk band from a good hip-hop band; of course, that's because they're a bit of both with jazz thrown in for good measure. And while Ernie Johnson and Shabazz 3 might represent the respective awards a little better--hell, at least both of them live here, unlike the just-moved-to-NYC Bassx--then at least Bassx splits the difference quite nicely.
Reggae: Grown-Ups. It's not without a hint of irony that the Reggae award again goes to a ska band, especially when half the nominees this year actually hailed from Jamaica (Leroy Shakespeare and Ras Tumba). But you can't deny the Grown-Ups' own particular brand of brilliance when it comes to resurrecting a ska sound unheard since the Specials and the Selector and the Beat were relevant--like, since 1981. And the Grown-Ups get bonus points for going ska long before anyone else did, even if you did blink and miss the revival.
Industrial/Dance: Ugly Mus-tard. It's not really industrial, and you can't dance to it unless you've got a palsy, but Ugly Mus-tard plies that middle ground separating metal from that other odd entity people call "industrial" when they really mean to say "noise." And at least Stinkbug didn't win.
Avant-Garde/Experimental: Dooms U.K. Used to be Little Jack Melody was the avant-gardist around here, but either people figured out he was making great pop music with different instrumentation (banjo instead of guitar, tuba instead of bass), or our definition of experimental has so completely slipped that we now think of a first-rate straight-ahead rock band with an accordion as "avant-garde." Not that I would ever begrudge the Dooms' award for erasing the line between parody and homage so you'd never notice the difference--and now John "The Dark Messiah" Freeman's got the award to prove he's a genius after all.
International/Latin: Brave Combo. Brave Combo deserves this award every year but is so much more than just an International/Latin band: Pop, torch, jazz, you name it and Brave Combo can play it better than any other band in town, and if resurrecting the career of a diaper-wearing freak from the '60s (Tiny Tim) isn't enough to convince you otherwise, then perhaps you'd best move to Fort Worth.
Jazz: Cafe Noir. Marchel Ivery and Earl Harvin are the purists in this category, but when Cafe Noir's Norbert Gerl, Gale Hess, Lyles West, Randy Erwin, and Jason Bucklin go "jazz," they go where few around here have ever visited. Though touched by classical and seasoned with swing and colored by Gypsies, they're the best "jazz" in town. They happily trade Thelonious Monk for Django Reinhardt and would be just as happy backing up Ed Hagan for the rest of their lives.
Blues: Bugs Henderson. The old favorite takes home the award again, even as he handily beats out Andy Timmons, the readers' pick for Local Musician of the Year. But such is the power and respect that comes with age and talent, and even if Big Al Dupree does represent a wider tradition (think T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan) and Jim Suhler's the best blues-rocker in the state (think ZZ Top, then think bigger), then Henderson's just the sort of venerable vet who'll never have to look for work, which is reward enough.
Single Release (1995): Funland/Old 97's, "Garage Sale/Stoned" (Idol Records). Two songs, four versions, and where Old 97's took the rock song and made it pop, Funland took the "country" song and gave it balls. Either the Old 97's aren't a country band at all, or Funland's Peter Schmidt should start yelling with a twang.
Album Release (1995): Funland, The Funland Band (Steve Records). What else is left to say except, It's about time?
Male Vocalist: Todd Lewis (Toadies). It's hard to tell who's singing, Lewis or his demons, but either way he gets his point across and cuts through the static of radio like few singers of the past few years. There's certainly something menacing in Lewis' voice, an indefinable terror that turns "Possum Kingdom" into a death threat, but Lewis is more than just a screamer. Anyone can scream. You know they're really good when they can whisper and still scare the shit out of you.
Female Vocalist: Kim Pendleton (Vibrolux). We should name this award for her because Pendleton will keep winning even if Vibrolux never puts out that long-promised debut for Atlas/Polydor (EP was due last October, LP was due this month, and the band--or Pendleton and Paul Quigg--has cut only four tracks so far). But she deserves it like a dying man deserves his last cigarette: You never know what the hell she's singing about, but the trick is you never really notice.
Local Musician of the Year: Andy Timmons. I understand why he wins this award a lot: Timmons is a technically dazzling guitarist, he's in several blues and jazz and even pop bands. But when Ronnie Dawson finishes 100 votes behind Timmons, you have to wonder if this award wouldn't be better decided by arm wrestling.
Songwriter: Todd Lewis (Toadies). Do you wanna die?
Classical Performance Ensemble: Dallas Symphony Orchestra. They play good. Real good. Should have won Best Cover Band.
Album Producer: Sam McCall. Brutal Juice bassist McCall is something of a local hero to struggling Denton musicians trying to get a record out. He'll record them on the cheap and then give them a masterpiece-sounding tape in return; ask Slobberbone, ask Baboon, ask anyone on the Welcome to Hell's Lobby collection, and they'll all tell you there's no better rock producer in town than McCall. He's the only one who'd deny it.
Live Music Venue: Trees. Sure, why not? After all, sound is nine-tenths of the battle when it comes to going out, and since Trees sounds better than any club in town year after year, they get the nod. Of course, ambience is the other one-tenth of that equation, but what do you expect? It's a club.
Radio Program That Features Local Music: "Texas Tapes," KTXQ-FM (102.1). "The Adventure Club" plays better local music, but "Texas Tapes" plays more; and it's been around a lot longer, which explains the vote (and it was a close one). But what's quality when you're talking about radio, where such discussions are relative, anyway? After all, Q102 introduced local audiences to both the Toadies and Deep Blue Something, which is like going to heaven and finding the devil at the gate.
Local Record Label: Last Beat Records. In last week's nominations issue, Last Beat was incorrectly identified as "Direct Hit"--which seems to have made no difference when it came to the voting. Though Aden Holt's One Ton Records was a damned close second, Last Beat takes home the award through, most assuredly, that blessed combination of quality (Tablet, Comet, rubberbullet, Riot Squad) and quantity (Stinkbug) that makes this label a real contender.
The annual Fry Street Fair, which Denton's city fathers and mothers once tried to run out of town, now only continues to grow bigger and bigger. This year's features almost 40 bands, including Tripping Daisy, and has expanded to two outdoor stages and two indoor ones, at the Argo and Rick's Place. The main stage will feature, in order: Code 4, Billy Goat, The Cookies, rubberbullet, Tripping Daisy, Lap Dog, Mushroom Groovy, Doosu, Funland, and Slobberbone. The second stage's acts include, also in order: Sivad, Shovel, Mr. Ectomy, 420 Blues, The Days, SGLF, The Big Train, Thermus, and Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks.
At Rick's, the festivities kick off with Strangely Appropriate, followed by Plaid Faction, Slow Roosevelt, Half, Sixty-Six, Beef Jerky, and Strap (which used to be Lone Star Trio till the rockabilly went rock). The Argo opts for lo-fi, space-rock, and the like with Jet Screamer, Andromeda, Strain, The Centromatic Band (Funland drummer Will Johnson's one-man rockfest), Breadbox, Gut, The Oddfellows, the Grown-Ups, Dooms U.K., Mazinga Phaser, Greenella, and The Barles. Got that?
The Fry Street Fair kicks off at noon, and it costs $7 to get in ($6 with a canned good, and not those beets that have been sitting in Mom's pantry since 1974).
Slobberbone will host a CD release party April 24 at the Argo in Denton, celebrating the new--or almost new, actually--album Crow Pot Pie, which is being released by the Austin-based Doolittle label. The CD, which is actually a revamped version of Slobberbone's 1995 indie debut of the same name (no, that won't be confusing at all), should be in stores...about...now.
Send E-mail tips and comments to StreetBeat@dallasobserver.com.