By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
A few years ago, you'd hear the happy-go-lucky, impossibly supportive local music fans shout their rallying cries, and you'd smile because, much as you wanted to believe that what they were saying was true, you knew in your heart that it wasn't.
Still, you listened to their rants: "There's just so much talent here," they'd say. "I don't understand how these bands aren't more famous."
Diligently, as a fellow local, you'd do your part and halfheartedly agree — compassion and support are important to fostering a scene, y' know — but, mostly, you tried not to roll your eyes. The honest-to-goodness truth was that, entertaining as it may have been for what it was, the music scene four years back just wasn't very strong. Deep Ellum was a distant memory, there were serious divides between the music communities in Dallas, Denton, Fort Worth and all points in between, and where there should've been collaboration there was competition — not a particularly friendly brand of competition either, as there just weren't enough fans to go around.
This year, thankfully, has very little in common with the North Texas scenes of the mid- to late-'00s. There's little doubting that this year has been a great one for local music. From the big, familiar names (Old 97's, Erykah Badu, Toadies, Centro-matic) still doing their things to the mid-level favorites (Sarah Jaffe, Seryn, True Widow) on the verge of national stardom to the fresh-faced newcomers (Datahowler, Sundress, Soviet, Sealion, A.Dd+, Maleveller) fast making names for themselves locally, the scene is more vibrant now than it has been in a long, long time.
Credit Deep Ellum's resurgence for the comeback if you must, but the fact is that the traditional music neighborhood of Dallas wouldn't have been able to make its comeback were it not for the suddenly substantial audience demanding its existence.
The true stars of the Dallas music scene in 2011 are the fans, the ones who still go to shows, the one who still buy merchandise and the ones who giddily approach local band members on the street or at a bar and make them feel special in the process. Yes, you all. Not because you simply show up and blindly support, either. Rather, it's because during the down years you made it clear: If bands wanted your support, they'd have to earn it.
In 2011, you finally got your wish. The bands heard you. And at this year's Dallas Observer Music Awards, we're happy to honor your bidding. This year's winners are deserving — not just because of talent, but because of the ways in which they've fostered your support. And boy, did they: The number of votes received for this year's awards is the most we've ever received, by almost four times.
Yes, the scene is stronger these days. The following winners, along with you all, are the reason why.
Last year was when Seryn formally introduced themselves to the music lovers of North Texas. This was the year they became fully embraced. After losing out on all three nominations the band received in our 2010 Dallas Observer Music Awards, this year Seryn takes home victories in five of six the categories in which it was nominated. And their label, Spune Records, takes home the award for Best Label this year.
It's not hard to see why the band has so endeared itself. Despite two band members taking home individual honors at this year's awards (Trenton Wheeler as Best Male Vocalist and drummer Chris Semmelbeck as Best Instrumentalist), Seryn truly is a collective, with the group providing myriad onstage focal points, each member singing and performing every word and every note like it could be their last.
That's the whole idea behind this band, actually — that there are greater forces at play than any one individual can provide. The band's name, a reference to their serendipitous formation, and their sound, a rousing brand of indie folk that swells and swoops and lulls and roars, back this up. This year's Best Song winner, "We Will All Be Changed," mines this territory brilliantly, as do the rest of the songs on the band's January-released Best Album winner, This Is Where We Are.
That album's title, perhaps, best explains this band's draw. Seryn is just starting out and, for now, simply happy to be a part of the conversation. This humility, paired with the collective's supreme talent (guitarist Nathan Allen, violinist Chelsea Bohrer and bassist Aaron Stoner each could've given Semmelbeck a run for his money had they been nominated in the Best Instrumentalist category), bodes well for their future.
Best Solo Act, Best Folk Act, Best Female Vocalist
Different year, same accolades: Surely, a meager Dallas Observer Music Award win — or, say, three, the number Sarah Jaffe wins this year — must be old hat at this point for Jaffe, the adored singer-songwriter who wishes she were "a little more delicate," as she opines on her breakthrough single, "Clementine," from her 2010 Suburban Nature debut LP. But let's not discount these facts: Jaffe made Dallas music history at last year's Music Awards, taking home five victories and becoming the first-ever nominee to reach a total of 11 awards without ever suffering a defeat; this year's three-for-three take only further cements her place as one of the most decorated acts in these awards' 23 years.
These honors confirm what the discerning Dallas music fan has long known: Jaffe is a supreme talent.
Last month, Jaffe released a combined EP/DVD release called The Way Sound Leaves a Room. The EP portion finds the singer trending in a more experimental, more electronic direction but still maintaining her intimate, revealing songwriting ways. The DVD portion, meanwhile, showcases the once-shy performer's suddenly palpable onstage confidence.
In many ways, the release is a confirmation. Jaffe's great, sure, but she's only getting better, and will be a fixture in the North Texas music scene for as long as she likes.
Best Local Music Advocate, Best Radio Show ("The Local Edge" on KDGE-FM 102.1 The Edge)
He's charming, he's funny and — dammit, America! — he loves him some local music.
There really isn't a stauncher advocate for the local music scene than Schectman, and he proves it passionately and repeatedly every Sunday night during his hour-long 11 p.m. time slot on KDGE-FM 102.1 The Edge with his show "The Local Edge," which he's hosted since 2009. When you listen, you can hear in his voice his excitement over new tracks and his awe at the abundance of musical talent in the region.
It's as if he's using his hour not as a chance just to play some songs, but rather to market the scene as a whole to anyone who'll listen.
By day, Schectman works as a marketing representative, helping various area businesses find their audiences. It makes sense, then, that he's good at doing the same for local music, right?
Yes and no. See, what sets Schectman apart is the somewhat daring way in which he advocates for local music. Before he took over "The Local Edge," the show mostly highlighted area butt-rock also-rans. Since taking control of the show, Schectman has confidently taken it in another direction, highlighting the acts on the more indie side of the spectrum, the ones who, before he came around, had no place on the local radio dial. Schectman gave these bands a home, and has proven himself a fine host in the process.
Best New Act
Earlier this year, Ross Edman released his first full-length album, Slowdrifter, under the name of Datahowler. The heavily instrumental album received positive feedback all around, and was praised for sounding at once vintage and futuristic, thanks to its artful combination of hip-hop, jazz and electronic influences.
"When my album came out, I was going through a lot of growing pains," Edman explains. "I didn't think it would go anywhere. I really did it for me. I didn't imagine the possibilities of where it would take me. The album led me out of poverty, gave me confidence, made me new friends and did even more. It was a turning point in my life. I never thought I'd be here."
But here he is.
So what can we expect from Datahowler in the next year?
"More live performances, more singing, more band members and lots more music and art," he says. "And hopefully a lot of experimental things as well."
The Red 100's
Best Blues Act
The Red 100's play the blues as if the band members' lives depended on it. But let's get this out of the way early: These guys' version of the blues is based not on a traditionalist such as B.B. King, but more influenced by Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic take on the genre.
"Blues is at the heart and soul of everything we do," says Red 100's bassist and lead vocalist Robbie D. Love. "Rock 'n' roll wouldn't sound so exciting without the roll added to the rock, which comes from R&B and the blues."
Whatever the influences, the attack of The Red 100's is that of a wickedly fierce beast. And this much is certain: When Live off the Floor, the band's debut EP, came out this year, it signaled the arrival of one of the area's most interesting bands — blues or otherwise.
The House Harkonnen
Best Hard Rock Act
In a category filled with incredibly worthy acts, long-timers The House Harkonnen finally get their due this year.
With a dirty hard-rock sound that could be considered of the stoner variety, the band is not ashamed to mess around with other inspirations, too. Whether it's covering a Nirvana song or devoting an entire set to Weezer songs, the four-piece pummels their audience each and every time. They recently finished up a short tour around Texas, and, after heading to Louisiana to record some new material, fans can expect to hear some new tunes next year.
Best Country Act
It wouldn't be a farfetched notion for the Observer to consider renaming the Best Country Act award The Eleven Hundred Springs Award. In other words: This is hardly the band's first time taking home this prize. But the fact that the band, now in its 13th year, has won this award again, well, that's an impressive feat.
And Matt Hillyer and crew don't seem to be in the mood to let someone else claim their PBR-drenched crown, either. Recently, Hillyer and stand-up bassist Steve Berg have increased their entertainment portfolio, hosting a weekly country radio show on KHYI-FM 95.3 The Range that highlights good area country acts — albeit ones that aren't as great as they are.
Whiskey Folk Ramblers
Best Alt-Country/Roots Act
After last year's release of their second album, ...And There Are Devils, Whiskey Folk Ramblers frontman Tyler Rougeux said in these very pages that "the country music thing we were doing got a little boring." Local music fans clearly disagree.
Voters obviously loved the changes made to the already varied texture of the band's sound, but people still seem to taste the inherent rootsiness in the group's gypsy stew.
Change is good, especially when it makes the group harder to figure out.
Best Electronic/Dance Act
Ishi, the brainchild of frontman John Mudd and producer Brad Dale, has been a Dallas mainstay for nearly four years at this point. Their records blend indie dance with touches of folk in an interesting way, but it's their high-energy live set that has made them so popular in their hometown.
Still, Mudd has his sights set further these days: "Dallas has been good to us and been in our heart," he says, "but we want to show that we're not just a Dallas band and we have big ambitions."
The plan? To start touring, and ASAP. To prepare on that front, the band is hard at work on their follow-up full-length to last year's Through the Trees. They're shooting for a summer 2012 release date that will undoubtedly help with their goal.
Best Experimental/Avant Garde Act
Diamond Age is Dallas resident Matthew Leer's live PA project that harkens back to krautrock, combining grungy guitar with experimental percussive and melodic sampling. After starting the project in 2008 to make a reinterpretation of a release called Flaming Tunes from 1985, Leer ended up with an album's worth of tribute material that was released by UK label Life and Living Records.
Since opening for New Fumes at the Kessler Theater in 2010, Diamond Age has matured in its live incarnation, with both an LP and a seven-inch split with New Fumes on the immediate horizon.
In other words, things are picking up for Leer.
"For the most part," he says, "my policy is 'Say yes.'"
Best Punk Act
After releasing a four-song seven-inch EP in 2010, the Portland-based Dirtnap Records released Mind Spiders' self-titled full-length album in January. The act's fuzzy wall-of-sound garage punk earned plenty of raves locally and from various punk and indie websites.
Mind Spiders frontman Mark Ryan (former co-vocalist, songwriter and guitarist with The Marked Men) recorded the majority of the sounds on the band's tracks (he was also nominated for Best Producer), with a little help from his friends in the Denton punk scene. Indeed, catching the Mind Spiders live is nothing short of a watching a regional super group at work, as Ryan is joined by both Greg Rutherford (High Tension Wires, Bad Sports) and Mike Thorneberry (The Marked Men) on drums, Daniel Fried (High Tension Wires, Bad Sports, VIDEO, Wax Museums) on bass and Stephen Svacina (Uptown Bums) on guitar.
There's more coming, too: Ryan has finished recording a second album due for release in 2012.
Best Metal Act
Trendy metal comes and goes, but true metal never dies. Arlington's Warbeast, featuring members of Rigor Mortis and Gammacide, serves as proof.
The band's sound is brutal, recalling both Bay Area thrash and the new wave of British heavy metal. The band's "Unleashed" tour starts next month and runs through Thanksgiving, taking them literally from coast to coast in the process.
Yes, Warbeast's members have been around for a while now, but, as an entity, this group's clearly just warming up.
Best Indie Act
The key to the band's success over their five years of existence? Evolution. And, this year, the band changed in a big way. Their recently released self-titled record saw them leaving behind the post-punk style of their previous offerings and taking more of a new-wave approach to songwriting. The resulting sound is looser and more laid back, but really it's all an overflow of the band's new attitude.
Says Morgan: "I haven't had this much fun playing music in a long time."
Best Funk/R&B Act
When he isn't playing one of the 13 instruments he knows how to play, Ducado Vega finds time to do production work and serve as a motivational speaker.
Interesting stuff, but when he's backed on stage by the members of his Bloodrich backing band, it's all space-age funk with a little hard-rock crunch. Unafraid to blur the lines between funk, R&B and rock, Vega has an unpredictable sound when he plays live. Expect to bop your head and move your feet.
Best Rap/Hip-Hop Act
In a year in which Dallas hip-hop truly shined and started to take on a unique shape, The Mohicans, who haven't even released a mixtape, let alone an album, walk away boasting the title of Best Rap/Hip-Hop Act. Here's how: While their counterparts were stuck in town, posturing and clamoring for attention, this duo of Kashus Klay and Just Dave took their act to Lubbock where the two are undergrads at Texas Tech.
Their time allowed them to hone their impressive live show before eager college audiences and, perhaps, to gain a better perspective on the scene back home. Sure enough, their best song, "Fa Shiggadow" (released online as a free-to-download mp3) showcases that latter: A slap in the face of the D-Town Boogie movement, the song, with its lyrical content and neck-breaking electronic beats, may be the single best indication of what's to come in the Dallas hip-hop scene.
Best Jazz Act
Being selected as one of the area's top jazz acts is quite a feat, especially if you don't consider yourself a proper jazz musician. Such is the case with Denton's Paul Slavens.
"I feel uncomfortable considering myself a jazz musician, especially when there are so many bona fide great jazz musicians in Denton," says Slavens, who, since performing in the legendary Ten Hands in the '80s, has been a widely revered member of the North Texas music community.
Thing is, Slavens has equal, if not more, respect in the rock community as well. Chalk it up to Slavens' love for pop music, which is evident on both his radio program, "The Paul Slavens Show" (which airs on KXTX-FM 91.7 KXT on Sundays from 8 to 10 p.m.), and his live improvisational performances, in which he often invites guest musicians to step outside their musical comfort zones.
The results are usually quite stunning.
Wanz Dover has worn many hats in his almost two decades years of contributing to the Dallas music scene. He's taken turns as a space-rocker, a post-punker, a dubstep innovator, a festival organizer and a laptop musician ambassador, and he's had his moments in the sun with each.
There's little doubt, though, that the area in which he most consistently shines is in his role as a DJ. Despite his efforts to increase to profile of area laptop wizards through his legendary Laptop Deathmatch competitions, Dover's DJ-ing style is all analog. He spins vinyl records of all sorts, settling most comfortably on forgotten classics in the garage and punk realms. But, if need be, he can play anything — and not just because he boasts one of the largest vinyl record collections you're likely to find anywhere. Fact is, few in the region even come close to matching Dover's musical knowledge.
Best Latin/Tejano Act
As one of the few nominees on the ballot that hasn't released any albums, EPs or mixtapes, Denton's 10-piece ensemble Mariachi Quetzal has built its cred by booking shows, fostering an online presence and performing every Friday at La Milpa in Denton, where they blend mariachi tradition with decidedly non-traditional touches courtesy their covers of performers such as Johnny Cash and James Brown.
Their pedigree is unquestioned — Quetzal branched out of UNT's Mariachi band in 2008 — and so too is their simple aim.
"We set out to meet the demand for mariachi bands in the public," says violinist Sarah Knuth rather nonchalantly.
But their long-term goal of teaching the mariachi art to new generations is where the group becomes an especially endearing ensemble.
Best Cover/Tribute Act
Normally, a tribute act is dedicated to a band with quite a bit of name recognition. Let's face it: There's a reason why bands like Kiss and Led Zeppelin seem to have tribute acts based in every city in America.
Alas, Dallas' own Howard Kelly loves The Cramps, a renowned if somewhat cultist psychobilly band that came out of New York in the late '70s. So he created The Gorehounds, an over-the-top recreation (sonically and visually) of one of the seediest bands burped up in the initial wave of post-punk.
"The Cramps were the last great rock 'n' roll band," insists Kelley.
Who can argue with such passion and zeal?
Best Record Label
This year has been full of ups and downs for local record label, management company and concert promoter Spune Productions. Sure, the label signed Seryn, but back in the summer things took an ugly turn as label owner Lance Yocom fell ill with a terrible case of pneumonia. Now, with Yocom back and healthy once more, the label has become the fixation of many local bands looking for a record deal.
"I'd attribute it to bands seeing the success of activity surrounding Telegraph Canyon and Seryn over the last couple years," Yocom says, justly proud.
Salim Nourallah just plain loves working with local acts. His commitment to the North Texas music scene has always been apparent in his own songs and in the music of bands that he has produced. He most recently showcased this by producing such promising young acts as Sealion and Whiskey Folk Ramblers, but he has some heavy hitters in his roster, too, such as the Old 97's.
"I still feel like the DFW music scene is terminally underrated," Nourallah says. "We have as much or more talent here per square inch than any other city in America."
House of Blues
When Live Nation-owned House Of Blues first came to Dallas in 2007, it was to the chagrin of many local music fans uneasy with the idea of a new corporate venue.
What many music fans weren't expecting was the high level of production the venue would bring with it. Every one of the venue's seats offers a great vantage point, and the sound system can reach high volume with impeccable clarity.
Oh, and to appease the local music scene, the adjoining 400 capacity Cambridge Room hosts the area's top acts with production value just as high as the main room.
Best Records Store
In the bathroom at the back of Good Records — just past the listening stations, past the racks, shelves and display cases filled with CDs, records, seven-inches, magazines and posters, and past the green, AstroTurf-covered stage used for in-store performances by national and area acts — a stack of awards and articles from local publications stand out from among the paper towels, cleaning supplies and a signed poster promoting the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Years back, someone hung a few of the awards the store had accumulated over the years on the wall of the Lower Greenville Avenue record shop's bathroom. The rest, well, they're just collecting dust.
Still, those dusty awards tell a familiar story that's been unfolding since the shop opened (originally, in Deep Ellum) in 2000: Dallas loves Good Records. Really: Even if the far-flung record selection weren't half as good as it is, even if the store didn't host weekly film screenings on "Music Movie Mondays" and even if the store didn't throw its annual and incredibly popular Record Store Day celebration, the knowledgeable and friendly staff would alone make this shop worth visiting.
Best Talent Buyer
The seven years that Mike Schoder has owned the Granada Theater have provided him ample time to find out what works and what doesn't.
His conclusion of late? Quality over quantity. Over the last few years, the theater has scaled back on the number of performances it hosts each week in order to focus on the best acts coming through town. As a result, talent buyer Ryan Henry has been able to cherry-pick more big acts like Panda Bear, Rusko, The Raveonettes and Deerhunter to perform on the Granada stage over the last year. And thanks to the theater's widely known hospitality, getting bands to return is that much easier.
Gorilla Vs. Bear
Not content to simply be one of the most influential music blogs on the web and the launchpad for countless local bands, the Polaroid fetishists at Gorilla Vs. Bear inaugurated their Gorilla vs. Bear Festival this past summer. The fest's diverse lineup brought in Shabazz Palaces, Grimes, Juliana Barwick and White Denim. The fest also marked Dallas locals Preteen Zenith's mesmerizing live debut.
The dude just makes Dallas look cool.