Every which way but loose

The Dallas scene flourishes beneath the chaos

Local musicians had one thing going for them this year: With the national music scene cruelly besieged by market forces, there was less difference between local and national in 1997 than ever before. Radish was the focal point of a fevered bidding war in 1996, with label execs renting cars and driving themselves out to Greenville to check out the next big thing. The result of all this expert industry speculation--Radish's debut Restraining Bolt--has only sold around 25,000 copies, New Yorker profile be damned. Tripping Daisy toured with Def Leppard this summer; total sales of I Am an Elastic Firecracker, their latest album: something over 300,000, far short of the gold many companies expect. Perhaps that's why so many bands with major ink--acts such as Pantera, Reverend Horton Heat, the Old 97's, and the Toadies--take care that they're still perceived as local heroes. As Lowell George once sang, "The same people you abuse on your way up/You might meet on your way down."

This year, two local music entities have distinguished themselves--and effectively eliminated themselves from competition by issuing so much music, of such quality, that to include all their efforts would be unfair. Yet to omit them altogether--thinking, Oh, they do such good work, they'll be fine--would be even more unjust.

Mark Elliott and Keith Foerster's Leaning House Jazz label has long specialized in representing local jazz talent--both legends and Young Turks--with the highest quality product. This year, they released phenomenal albums by saxmen Shelley Carrol (with members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra) and Marchel Ivery (with organist Joey DeFranceso) and pianist Fred Sanders (with Ivery, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and guitarist Mark Whitfield, among others). Other towns have bigger, more renowned scenes--not to mention more influential labels--but the quality of Leaning House's output this year is stellar by any standard.

On the much less accessible side of town, experimental music group the Vas Deferens Organization has likewise had a banner year, picking up reams of national press and releasing four important--if extremely weird--albums: Transcontinental Conspiracy, with Brad Laner and members of Mercury Rev; O2 by Fort Worth's Ohm; Saturation; and the four-sided 45 RPM Zyzzybaloubah. Their work has been picked up by respected avant-garde labels such as Indianapolis' Aether Records and San Francisco's Charnel House.

Also worthy of note this year was the re-issuing of the work of two essential figures from Dallas' early rockabilly days at the Sportatorium, both on cat-music madman Rockin' Ronnie Weiser's Las Vegas-based Rolling Rock Records: Mac Curtis (Rockabilly Uprising) and Johnny Carroll (Texabilly), who remain local legends to this day. (Carroll died several years ago, but Curtis still plays around town every now and then.)

The Best Local Albums of 1997
Blacks 'n' Jews, Josh Alan (Black Cracker). Local singer-songwriter Josh Alan--who also occasionally writes about music for the Observer, when the mood and subject matter strike him--calls what he does an "atomic acoustic" guitar act. In the last few years, Alan has been taking more care, particularly in the area of his guitar playing. The discipline seems to suit him, because Blacks 'n' Jews is his most focused work so far. The title cut is hilarious.

Shimmer, Buck Jones (steve records). A saucy, satisfying slice of pop-rock that is engagingly heartfelt but still sounds, well, cool. The band uses its two lead vocalists--husband-wife team Burette and Gabrielle Douglas--to good effect for a variety of sounds.

Redo the Stacks, Centro-matic (steve records). This virtually home-produced album was Will Johnson's very promising entry into the post-Funland universe. Attaboy points to Crystal Clear/steve head Sam Paulos for going along with Johnson's decidedly lo-fi approach, which in this case works beautifully.

Lit Up, Fireworks (Last Beat Records). You know when you've been up for a couple of days and you decide to break the tension maybe by taking the Jon boat out and shooting some nutria, and while you're out there you bend over and your Zippo and a .22 Derringer that you forgot you had fall out of your top jacket pocket and into the slow-moving water? And you jump over the side, grubbing for them in the thick, almost septic-smelling black mud that oozes between tangles of roots and ends up under your fingernails for weeks? This album is that kind of dirty.

Live from the City of Hate, Homer Henderson (Honey Records). Finally, Henderson classics such as "Lee Harvey was a Friend of Mine" and "Picking Up Beer Cans on the Highway" in CD form. Homer's in rare form throughout, and Beer Belly Slim reprises his role as backup singer and bodyguard.

Joyride, Hippie Gumbo (self-released). Longtime local zydeco mainstays finally find a wider-working formula, mixing in a lot of rock and mutant R&B enthusiasm with their crawfish consciousness. Play it at parties; people dance.

My Charmed Life, Little Jack Melody and his Young Turks (Carpe Diem Records). Subtle and smart, this cabaret-style view of modern life--and human delusion--again shows what makes Denton's Little Jack Melody such an overlooked treasure. His intelligence and elegance don't interfere with his sense of humor.

Abandinallhope, Mazinga Phaser (Idol Records). One of the area's more experimental and impressionistic outfits avoids reworking the assumptions--or pretensions--of worn-out genres and hovers around straighter songcraft. So much the better.

Barrel-Chested, Slobberbone (Doolittle Records). Good reflection of a changing band, but still true enough to the affections established with Crow Pot Pie. If guiding light Brent Best is having any problems with his new lineup, it isn't showing in his songwriting.

The Ultimate School of Rock & Roll, Gene Summers (Crystal Clear Sound). Summers is another bona fide and overlooked hero who has been playing around Dallas his whole life, backing up visiting artists and entertaining the masses in big clubs like Guthrey's. The music on this collection, a reissue of Summers' important songs (such as the title track and "Nervous," released as singles and never before compiled), makes it very clear that Summers had a spark from the get-go.

The Quiet Earth, Keli Vaughan (self-released). Imagistic and aggressive, but no less intelligent or appealing, Vaughan's EP is a bracing shot of what you might call "new folk," six songs that seem both immediate and abstract.

Honorable Mention
The following albums hung in there until the very last cut, constantly being removed from the list and then--when some forgotten song was re-encountered or recalled--restored again, then removed (repeat).

The Twelve-Point Master Plan, Bobgoblin (MCA Records). Smart anti-pop.

Sincerity, Colin Boyd (Happy Cat Records). Longtime area folk fave Boyd gets tougher but stays sweet and--even more impressively--smart.

Group Dance Epidemic, Brave Combo (Rounder Records). Good dance music, with probably just a bit too much hokey pokey.

Crossin' the Line, Barry Kooda (Big Iron Records). This album of country songs is pure Kooda, to be sure, but it also shows his sardonic jokester side giving way to an older, wiser--and wider--persona.

Soul Conscious, Tony Perez (Ichiban Records). Supple contemporary soul from a smooth-voiced Hispanic that proves that buttah knows no color lines.

Happy Hour, Psalm 69 (self-released). Although she's been around the local scene for more than a decade, this is the first full-length album with Judy Hill at the wheel, and its rock format doesn't keep the music from showing the deep textures found in art that's been a long time coming.

Swinging and Singing, Johnny Reno (Menthol Records). Although the cocked-fingers-heeyyy lounge denizen is a pretty dangerous image to play around with--most of those people end up being considered assholes--Reno uses a palpable enthusiasm to cut the smarm and trend-mongering.

Absolutes, J. Paul Slavens (self-released). Put out solely to scratch a personal itch--to write and explore more classical compositions--this short album benefits from having to please no one but its maker.

King for a Day, Hunter Sullivan (Six Degrees). Smooth appropriation of the East Coast, Sinatra/Darin frontman formula, carried along by the still-choogling lounge phenomenon. Well executed but a bit overdone.

Golden Energy, the tomorrowpeople (Last Beat Records). Good, ambitious pop-rock from a band that might--if left to its own devices--live up to the expectations foisted on it.

Best local shows of 1997
It was a curious year for live music. People have been talking about the changing face of the concert scene for so long that it's easy to think of that discussion as part of the experience, like long lines in the rest rooms. Things, however, continue to change--even though mighty concerts still plod across the land. Those shows increasingly feature multiple acts--the better to maximize attendance--but even in this tougher environment, a dizzying number of shows were aiming for a shot at our hearts and wallets; just look at all the mediocre lineups of multiple electronica acts that were jockeying for what amounted to club space.

By summer's end we'd been so battered by the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, and Lollapalooza that when a show that might actually prove interesting was announced--Farm Aid at Texas Stadium--we were too stunned to react, so the show moved up to the Chicago area, where tickets sold briskly.

At times it was amazing how little it could all add up to: Lollapalooza is run by the very people they used to warn you about, and rap's Smokin' Grooves tour went stale in under a year. Naming the world's largest TV screen as the newest member of the band, U2 came to the Cotton Bowl, where it entertained audiences until it was time for them to go home. The Lilith Fair--not even slowed down by its association with the overbeaten dead horse of "women's music"--was the year's best concert experience, full of excitement, good vibes, and common cause.

It took two stadium titans to illustrate a basic tenet of rock and roll. The Stones were sloppy, seat-of-the-pants, and unabashed whores, but they still had an authority that made going to see them more than just a concert. Good or bad, the event was what you came to see; having seen it, you were free to go away. Fleetwood Mac played letter-perfect versions of their radio hits and cloaked their re-unification in sentiment and '70s nostalgia. The songs were immaculate, and the band--with the exception of guitarist Lindsey Buckingham--was utterly devoid of anything even remotely resembling spark or presence. Fleetwood Mac was the most disappointing live show in the area since the Eagles reunion.

Equally disappointing is the alarming degree to which the local live music scene just seems to scrape by. Go to any weekend hotspot, and it's the same: shot bars, cigar bars, daiquiri bars, tapas bars, and martini bars are all jammed, their patrons elbowing their neighbor amid the smoke and the din. Large packs of inebriates stumble across streets and along sidewalks. Amid all this money-flinging hustle, look in the window of the place with the stage: a couple dozen folks--with plenty of leg room and little wait for the toilet--watching some little group of fools or heroes. This year a number of bars closed--Naomi's, the Rehab Lounge, Schooner's, and the Lava Lounge, to name but a few--while the meat markets and cow pens seem to flourish.

It's not like it's a question of money: Most of the people out on the town don't think twice about paying $5.50 for a bad martini, so why won't they shell out eight bucks to see one set by a local band? To check out 40 minutes of live music? And must we jabber back and forth all the time? Must we moan like grandpa with a rash? Without any further discussion or fannying about, then, here are the best live shows seen in the area this year:

Alvin Crow and Doug Sahm at Sons of Hermann Hall, January 4. Originally billed as the Texas Mavericks--a collaboration between Doug Sahm, Alvin Crow, and John X. Reed, all on electric guitar--this show looked shaky for a while when Sahm said he couldn't make it. They restructured the show with Crow headlining and Ed Burleson opening, but when Crow showed up for the gig, Sahm got out of the truck with him. Although the band accompanying them was half sick with the flu, you couldn't tell as they kept back the chilly winter with the dulcet strains of good ol' Texas music. The best part of the evening was the way the moldy oldies--standards such as "San Antonio Rose" and "Faded Love"--sounded like the longtime friends they really are.

Iris DeMent at Caravan of Dreams, April 24. Live, DeMent was previously a minimalist; usually, it was just her and her guitar--and, at most, a couple of other acoustic instruments behind her, adding a dash of flavor. But on this stop, she had a full electric honest-to-gawd bar band with her, built around the considerable talents of Richard McLaurin, the guitarist in opening act Farmer Not So John. A riveting show, enlivened by the presentation of old favorites with the crash and bang of rock.

Social Distortion at Deep Ellum Live, May 15. You can call them a one-note act, but bad boy Mike Ness doesn't give a shit either way. Ness works the whole rock and roll shtick--eye shadow, tattoos, running the pick along the guitar strings and making that cheesy zzizzzzzzzzzzzznng--like a master. Unlike the puffery of a peacock like Rod Stewart, Ness is all bantam cock, only occasionally allowing the mask to drop and show a bit of vulnerability or pain. This show featured a bodaciously bone-headed mosh pit--at one point people were hanging from the lights--and some real stage presence on the part of Ness, who cussed out some "jock motherfuckers" that he didn't like and offered to meet after the show for fisticuffs and buggery. It probably wasn't as edgy as it felt, but a prime slice of rock and roll theater nonetheless.

Emmylou Harris at Caravan of Dreams, May 20: A great evening with one of the best; Harris has moved from being a singer defined by a genre to just plain being an artist, and the music she makes in so doing is exhilaratingly beautiful. Joined by ace guitarist Buddy Miller, Harris delivered a seamless set of songs that drew from her entire career, highlighting the recent Wrecking Ball. This was one of those rare instances when it would've paid to see both the early and the late shows--the band only repeated four songs.

Link Wray at Trees, June 21. Link Wray seemed ageless as he strode across the stage, his long hair flowing down past his shoulders from the big topknot that secured it atop his head. He opened with "Rumble"--as if to say, Let's get this shit out of the way--and then proceeded to pound out a loud, long set of some of the greasiest, most distorted guitar music ever heard.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown at Poor David's Pub, June 28: This was a rare solo acoustic appearance for Brown, and a bit worrisome: Brown is notorious about demanding quiet and attention and can often work himself into a glowering pout when he feels he's being slighted. Happily, the crowd, rapt and laughing at every joke, adored him; the old master was downright sunny. That night, Brown's overlays of blues, jazz, pop, and R&B made a case for his status as an American treasure better than any article ever could.

Rickie Lee Jones at Deep Ellum Live, July 2: Give Rickie Lee Jones credit for turning her back on the lifetime of house payments guaranteed by "Chuck E.'s in Love" and choosing instead to produce--and base a live show on--the weird recombinant music of this year's Ghostyhead, which was a machine's dream of the experimental approaches to her Boho muse. On stage she performed as a character, delivering disturbed little-girl mumbles, distressed ranting, and spinning as the band around her produced a clanking, chirping collection of sounds.

Phish at Starplex Amphitheatre, July 25. A phenomenally hot show, even from these jam-band sultans. Guitarist Trey Anastasio uncoiled lead lines that glowed like lengths of white-hot cable, cracking them over the heads of the audience while the rest of the band thundered beneath him. The fey embellishments and baroque cuteness that can at times trip the band up were nowhere in sight.

Lilith Fair at Starplex, August 4. Best vibes of the summer, just a really cool, joyous night full of first-class music. Dorks who worried about male-bashing were so far off the mark it wasn't funny.

The Artist at Starplex, August 9. Like Janet Jackson, this show is probably mesmerizing close up: full of coordinated costume changes, choreography, and big-time lighting. From the lawn, however, it wasn't altogether clear that the show was worth the nearly-$100 price tag (that's simply for access, never mind beer and pizza). The Artist's skill--mastery, even--was apparent from the start: singalong hooks, dynamic dramatics, "You feelin' hot tonight?" call-and-response. After a while, however, you couldn't help but feel it sort of a manipulative genius, a lot closer to Sting than you might've expected.

Squirrel Nut Zippers at the Lakewood Theatre, August 29. The Bad Livers in the opening slot made this a perfect bill. The Livers' loving bluegrass revisionism was the perfect match for the Zippers' revamp of Prohibition-era pop, and both acts put on dynamite shows.

Vilayat and Shujaat Khan at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, September 27: An absolutely transcendent afternoon, a heady lesson in the benefits of genius--both to the player and to the listener. India's most revered father-son sitar duo are routinely named among the greatest musicians on the planet. The Khans took their listeners on an intoxicating journey, at times joining the imagination so forcefully that you felt yourself losing track of the horizon. The essentially alien nature of the music--full of drones and subtones, the delicate way they could draw out the end of a note as though it were gold wire, and the seemingly mad precision behind the swirling notes they produced all combined to make the program nothing less than astonishing.

David Lindley at the Sons of Hermann Hall, October 27. Intrepid explorer and one-time Jackson Browne sideman Lindley foresaw both polyester geek chic and world music years before they were pop realities. This evening he brought a backing bassist and his collection of the world's weirdest (and cheesiest looking) instruments--a bunch of long-necked, bulb-bodied, bizarrely painted instruments with unusual numbers of strings, along with the more usual guitars and lap steels--and proceeded to engage and dazzle the listener with more spark than many full bands muster.

Quartetto Gelatto at McFarlin Auditorium, November 22. Perhaps it was the way the members of Toronto-based classical group introduced the music they performed--informing and explaining with good humor. Maybe it was the sublime way the instruments--oboe, guitar, violin, viola, cello, accordion--and human voices intertwined and mixed. Or it could just be the enormously restful experience of going to see music at a non-industrial volume level, sitting down in a relaxing atmosphere devoid of smoke and alcohol. Whatever it was, this TITAS evening was like a tall, cold glass of spring water for the brain.

The best regional albums of 1997
From Our Living Room to Yours, the American Analog Set (Emperor Jones/Trance Syndicate). Less like outer space and more like the soundtrack to a grainy black-and-white film whose characters may or may not be ghosts. But affectingly so.

Gon' Be Jus' Fine, Chris Ardoin and Double Clutchin' (Rounder Records). The Ardoin family has been a recognized force in Creole music since 1929, when Amede Ardoin went to New Orleans to become the first Louisiana accordionist to record. Chris Ardoin has kept the spirit alive, mixing old forms and new tricks and coming up with something progressive yet still authentic.

Hogs on the Highway, Bad Livers (Sugar Hill Records). The rednecks don't know, but the college students understand.

No Angel Knows, Slaid Cleves (Philo). Think of Bruce Springsteen without the preening strut, or Loudon Wainwright III without the dyspepsia, and you're nosing around the neighborhood of the unassuming Cleves. It's a sense of the Everyguy that serves his songs about cars, girls, and post-industrial life well, however, keeping his lyrics intimate and conversational.

Anchorless, Kacey Crowley (Carpe Diem/Mercury Records). If Crowley could only sell Lisa Loeb some of that irritated, scared, whiny, bored, urgent edge in her voice-- the immediacy of its claim on your attention--Loeb might be able to abandon "Stay" forever. As it is, the needling demand that underlies Crowley's post-adolescent voice is perfect for the striking stories and pictures she weaves throughout her folk-rock songs.

Souvonica, 8 1U2 Souvenirs (Continental Records). Another slice of Euro-cool from between wars, this one with more emphasis on cabaret than the classic approach of our own Cafe Noir, whom they resemble somewhat. Serious in their playing but spry in their approach, 8 1U2 Souvenirs is just the baguette you need to break the monotony of bluesy roots-burgers. See? The beret fits perfectly!

Spirit of the Sharecroppers, the Good Medicine Band Captive Audience Records). This band--formerly the Sharecroppers--is right on top (along with the Gourds) of that synthesis of old and new that made The Band so important. With three principal songwriters and vocalists, the band gets a particularly appealing variety of sounds and styles.

The Story of My Life, Irma Thomas (Rounder Records). The reigning empress of New Orleans singers--who recorded the Lou Ann Barton favorite "You Can Have My Husband But Please Don't Mess with My Man" in 1959--doesn't get out much, which is a shame: As this soulful album's excellent blend of second-line rhythms, heartbreak, and triumph attests, she can stand toe-to-toe with Chaka Khan, Valerie Simpson, or Patti LaBelle.

Honorable mention
Strangest Places, Abra Moore (Arista/Austin). Although she fell pretty much in the middle of the whole Lilith demographic--and "Four-Leaf Clover" still sounds an awful lot like the English Beat's "Save It for Later"--Moore's album has a weird solvent effect, appearing in the collections and on the stereos of people that you'd think would never go for her pretty, slightly pumped-up brand of singer-songwriter pop.

Wrapped, Bruce Robison (Boar's Nest Records). Clean and insightful, Robison's musical explorations about life and love are poetry set to country-tinged roots and rhythms and have an odd ability to catch your attention, almost before you know it.

Florecer, Nydia Rojas (Arista Latin). Mariachi poster girl continues to add Tejano pop flourishes to her traditionally based music, coming up with an album that doesn't just hew blindly to formula but actually breaks new ground--no small feat in the somewhat rigid field.

All About Satellites and Spaceships, 7% Solution (self-released). Spacey, yes, but sincere--the inclusion of a freebie second disc (give one to your friends!) is a particularly inspired stroke.

I Hate These Songs, Dale Watson (Hightone Records). Watson's hard-core country albums are just too consistently good: You lose sight of what you're supposed to be comparing them to. Fortunately, a few seconds of "Indian Outlaw" usually re-establish your equilibrium and Watson's high place in the Texas pantheon.

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