By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Nominated for: Jazz
There is no mystery as to why Cafe Noir--featuring, hands down, the finest musicians in town performing a pastiche of so many genres, they all but create their own--has never been nominated in the Best Act Overall Category. It is because they barely play out anymore; there simply are no venues for bands with violins and guitars and mandolins and accordions, no clubs big enough to contain the music or small enough to provide the necessary intimacy. And besides, they have never been heroes in their hometown: They are beloved in Los Angeles, where they accrue better press than Mike Piazza, and all but ignored here. Indeed, where were they when the Morning News recently offered its local picks to click? Nowhere, and that's all the more a crime when they're passed over for the likes of Pimpadelic or Loveswing.
One day, Cafe Noir will land the elusive label deal the band has long sought; one day, Dallasites will wonder, Now, how did I miss that?; one day, the band will have the last, loudest laugh. (Not that landing a label deal is a mark of validation, but the cash never hurts.) It's hard to believe, but Cafe Noir is actually something of an institution, existing in heroic obscurity for more than a decade; it has endured so many lineup changes, you'd think its members were filing for free agency at the end of every season. Most recently, seven-year veteran Randy Erwin left for the Rounders and the children's-party circuit; after proving wrong those who doubted that a yodeler could work with Gypsy-jazz-classical virtuosos, he and the band finally decided there were only so many avenues the band could travel with a vocalist in the trunk.
So now, they are back to an instrumentals-only lineup--featuring, of all things, drums and electric guitar. But what could have been deemed a sell-out move is instead a rather ingenious stroke of invention: The band is shopping a three-song demo that is by turns beautiful and rocking, classical music and classic rock, haunting and thrilling. To hear Gale Hess' breakneck violin runs suddenly turn into Jason Bucklin's electric guitar riffs is to be surprised even after all these years; the Zeppelin nod (the band's "Flight of the Lark" suddenly morphs into "Kashmir") doesn't even seem out of place, but a natural extension of where the band's headed--straight for the arena, by way of the conservatory. But this ain't art-rock; it's way too fragile for that, more about emotion than smarts, but absolutely brilliant nonetheless. Maybe next year, they'll get a nod for best rock band.
Nominated for: Most Improved Act
Of all the bands nominated in all the categories, here's the most appropriate and deserving of them all (but please, vote your conscience). Who would have imagined two years ago that a little garage-abilly band with the occasional Muddy Waters gig would evolve into a band bigger than the whole house? Not so long ago, Todd Deatherage was being dismissed as Rhett Miller's shadow, a carbon copy too hard to read because of the blues fetish getting in the way of the country fixation; Deatherage, a former jazz guitarist who cut his teeth playing blues with the likes of Brian "Hash Brown" Calway (hence, the name in homage), had spent so long learning a dozen other styles, he struggled to find his own. There was no power in the then-power trio, little rock in their rock and roll, more potential than reality.
Yet the new EP Starting at the End, produced by Deatherage and Dave Willingham, showcases a bigger band (they're a five-piece now) with a badder sound. The songwriting is crisp and sharp, and after years of disavowing their rock and roll promise ("[Jazz is] what keeps us together," they said only a year ago), Starting at the End is a real tear-'em-up kick that owes a little to Matthew Sweet, Southern rock, and the last whiskey of a long night. The songs are about three things: love, rock and roll, and how the twain shall never meet, and while the band plays behind him, sounding like the Allmans covering the Replacements, Deatherage sings like he's trying to cough up the heart stuck in his throat. They're most improved, all right, and a hell of a lot better than that too.
Nominated for: New Act
Brandon Curtis, Josh Garza, and Regina Chellew could be a trio of nobodies, and it wouldn't matter. Their band, Captain Audio, would still be the best new band in Dallas. But they aren't nobodies. The fact that they are, respectively, UFOFU's former bass player, Comet's former drummer, and Ruby's former touring bassist makes Captain Audio noteworthy; that they are pretty damned good makes them important.
Captain Audio may not be the most experienced of the contenders for best New Act (the tomorrowpeople, apart from being longtime veterans of the Dallas scene, were also nominated in this category last year), but you can be sure that collectively they have seen the inside of almost every club from Deep Ellum to Denton. Maybe that's why their five-song demo tape sounds like they're working on their third or fourth album instead of their first. That demo is as good as or better than most of the local releases this year, a generous slice of futuristic poptopia that's as familiar as the street where you grew up and as different as the way that street looks now. "Bugs" is one of the best songs that Dallas has produced in the past year, a blast of elastic guitar, noodling piano, and propulsive backbeat, while the droning, quietly insistent "TV Generation" somehow gives monotony a good name.