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The 1997 Dallas Observer Music Awards

I wandered around the Dallas music scene lonely as a freelance cloud, the Dallas Observer Music Awards were about as interesting to me as a medium-sized rock in a coffee can. Who cares what anybody else thinks?

Ah, the carefree ways of callow youth. Now that I'm the Observer music editor--in charge each week of a few pages of cheap newsprint where music, the people who make it, the people who make their living off of it, and the people who listen to it all come together--the dynamics of the Music Awards are downright fascinating. Really.

Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, music played to an empty room has little effect, and the vital role of the listener is what is honored each year when we solicit votes for your music scene favorites. Although it sometimes defies logic or common sense, the results of this poll are as valid as an unimpressed audience sitting on their hands throughout a brilliant set. No, Ooga Booga isn't a reggae band, but the fact that they were nominated as one tells you something--either about the band, the Dallas reggae scene, or the people who vote in the survey; maybe all three. Yes, the Sutcliffes are aggrieved to be voted a cover band, especially when they do a lot of original material, but the fact that Cover Band is the category where they showed up...

Anyway, that's why we have write-ins. Nobody here presumes to know more about the local audience-performer dynamic than the participants--you, and you, and all y'all. The fact that Funland got so many votes based on things they did in '95 isn't so much wrong as it is a sign of lingering affection for a great band. Those feelings are exactly what these awards are about.

--Matt Weitz

Afton Shack
Nominated for: Funk/R&B
First it was Goodfoot. Then Whitey. Then Beef Jerky. Now it is Afton Shack's turn to be the new head of the Hydra called white-boy college funk. You know the line-up: a whole bunch of guys on stage dressed in pimp gear from Goodwill--for the requisite funkeh look--carrying horns. Lots of them, a multicolored centipede with one goal in mind: to funk yo' lame ass.

Whether people choose to play funk because they can't write any melodies is a moot point. Bands like Afton Shack provide fast, disposable entertainment, and their musicianship is as undeniable as the desire to par-teeee. Afton Shack practices its own religion, wherein George Clinton rules supreme and the Red Hot Chili Peppers wash his socks.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

American Fuse
Nominated for: Rock
There is absolutely nothing modern or now about the American Fuse, and this is their most endearing quality. They are not post-modern or post-punk; in fact, these guys don't give a damn about post-anything. Instead, they simply play loud and proud, like a head-on collision between the New York Dolls and the MC5. The band creates a big racket supported by sturdy melody, and it wouldn't be a surprise if it turned out they traced their name back to the MC5's "American Ruse."

The Fuse is infatuated with the ragged edges of rock: You know, Lemmy's warts, Johnny Thunders' habit, Iggy Pop's self-mutilations. Ten or 15 years ago, this Dallas trio would be a laughable anachronism when contrasted with the possibilities still left in punk. Today, their no-frills approach is almost heroic.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

Bedhead
Nominated for: Album Release
One of the more surprising successes to come out of Dallas last year was that of Bedhead, who received glowing praise for the album Beheaded from national as well as local critics. Comparisons to such notable bands as Galaxie 500 and Luna placed Bedhead on a rather tall shelf, but this album clearly deserved it. Beheaded is the first fully realized effort from Bedhead, and it's garnered them the respect of international audiences. Shaped by droning guitar noise and My Bloody Valentine vocals, Bedhead are architects of sound, constructing melodies that slowly gain speed and force until they've got your full attention. And Beheaded finally captured the spirit, making it undoubtedly one of '96's best local releases, if not one of the best in the nation.

--Richard Baimbridge

Bobgoblin
Nominated for: Alternative Rock/Pop
Like an insurgent from the future unveiling his plan to battle some all-too-probable oppression, singer-songwriter Hop Manski introduced Bobgoblin three years ago as futuristic fighters for artistic expression in the "Black Market Party Revolution." At least that sort of explained the numbered jumpsuits and the video monitors lining the stage.

The out-of-this-world concept may have set Bobgoblin apart, but it also made them look like a low-rent Devo. Yet Bobgoblin puts out crisp, well-rounded power pop that sounds smart, so perhaps it isn't surprising that Bobgoblin signed a deal with MCA last summer. The resulting album, The Twelve-Point Master Plan, features all kinds of CD-ROM enhancements to explain the band's alleged history and prove that Manski and the band have still bigger fish to fry.

 

--Scott Kelton Jones

Colin Boyd
Nominated for: Folk/Acoustic
If it seems like years since Colin Boyd's Juliette exploded like a bottle rocket, well, it's because it has been. Boyd, an engaging entertainer, has had to rely on a gig as a school-bus driver to support his art; as such, conveniences like CD budgets and tour support have been the stuff of fantasy.

In the meantime, though, Boyd continues to refine his talents, collaborating with Austin's Monte Warden, and has had one of his own tunes covered by a major-label artist. Jack Ingram selected "Flutter" for inclusion on his debut Livin' or Dyin' CD, produced by Steve Earle. Obviously, Boyd's days as chauffeur to the schoolkids are numbered.

--Rick Koster

Brutal Juice
Nominated for: Metal
Brutal Juice died on February 22, 1997, after struggling with creative fatigue. "We suddenly came to this realization that there wasn't any point in going on," says bassist Sam McCall, recalling the day when he, lead singer Craig Welch, and lead guitarist Ted Wood accepted the passing.

Brutal Juice was born five years ago in Denton, signed with Interscope, and toured the United States and Europe, opening for acts like GWAR and the Toadies.

The label, McCall says, didn't know what to do with the band, but the cause of death was not Interscope. "We'd been [playing] for so long, and not a whole lot was coming from it," McCall explains. "We were becoming bored with the limited scope of Brutal Juice; it just got old."

Brutal Juice is survived by Ted Wood, who plays trumpet for Dooms U.K. and teaches guitar; drummer Ben Burt and guitarist Mike Gibson, now donning jumpsuits for the Tomorrowpeople; and McCall, who contributes to the band 357 Lover and the "white-trash parody" group Cornhole.

--Howard Wen

Buck Jones
Nominated for: Most Improved Act; Female Vocalist (Gabrielle Douglas)
Buck Jones combines seemingly incompatible influences--emotive noise like that of Swervedriver and Medicine, Pixies-ish power pop, Wilco-like currents of alterna-country, and the dual vocals of Burette and Gabrielle Douglas that sometimes recall X. Each of the 11 cuts on the band's 1995 debut independent CD, Shoegazer, is a disparate entity, as if created through different processes. But during four years, the myriad directions of Buck Jones have fallen into place like planets finding their proper orbits.

Gabrielle's sweet voice is the most accessible of those spheres. That she also is adorable--bobbing back and forth on stage while fingering simple bass lines--is no small part of the band's overall appeal. But the contributions of each member are essential to the group's shifting balance.

Last year Buck Jones distributed a three-song demo of new material; it got some local radio play, and Shoegazer was reviewed in Billboard. The band was courted by several major labels before signing to Dallas indie steve records.

--Alex Magocsi

Cafe Noir
Nominated for: Avant-Garde/Experimental
Cafe Noir is probably destined always to wear the Avant Garde/Experimental label. That's the lot of an ensemble that defies convenient categorization--no one ever knows quite what to make of them. The band is forever reinventing itself, not from some manic drive to find a popular niche, but the wish to make good and different music.

The music of Cafe Noir has a gestalt that comes from immersion in their whole artistic conception. Their music might be occasionally unfathomable, but it's always interesting and unique.

--Arnold Wayne Jones

Shelley Carrol
Nominated for: Jazz
Tenor saxophone player Shelley Carrol--along with Earl Harvin--has been anointed by local media as the living representation of the next generation of Dallas jazz. Oh, sure, there are others of perhaps even more skill, or more gigs, or more of any other yardstick, but Harvin and Carrol are the deserving poster children.

A UNT jazz student from Houston, Carrol stood out early among a talented bunch; his senior year (1989), he was playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, skipping Friday classes to make the Orchestra's weekend gigs. The DEO--a mixing bowl of generations and styles, old- and new-school jazz--was perfect for Carrol, who has a similar remarkable ability to assimilate styles. With a tone that is every inch "Texas tenor" (he hung around with Illinois Jacquet as a lad in Houston) yet still completely up to date, Carrol is obviously one of the messengers who will carry jazz into the next millennium.

--Matt Weitz

Centro-matic
Nominated for: Single Release (Forget the Sixth Step); Songwriter (Will Johnson)

Even before Funland broke up, Will Johnson was working on Centro-matic, his one-man lo-fi concept. The first official releases, The Transistor EP and Forget the Sixth Step, both seven-inches, feature cuts he'd recorded alone in his kitchen on a four-track, and show Johnson to be a songwriter with a talent so pure it shines even brighter in its rough setting. His songs mix short, addictive hooks with an absurdist sensibility, throwing everything--rough guitars, hyper-kinetic drums, his distinctive harmonies, even an accordion--at the wall. It sticks. Now that Johnson's had a chance to put some of these tunes on his new full-length album, Redo the Stacks, he's confirmed that even solo, he's still worthy of our attention.

 

--Scott Kelton Jones

Comet
Nominated for: Most Improved Act
Lately the word "post-rock" has been getting around a lot, usually as a compliment. It is applied to bands that use traditional rock instruments without typical song structure and presentation. In that sense, Comet is a splendid post-rock band: They use guitar, bass, and drums, but the noise they make is much more.

"Rocket Flare," the opening track of their major-label release Chandelier Musings, owes a lot to the Flaming Lips. In different times, it could have been a fine pop song; now it lurks beneath a cloak of droning noises and weird effects not conducive to pop, an MO that continues through the album. Chandelier Musings should make every North Texas music fan proud--this is not your typical pop-rock album, and Comet is not your typical pop-rock band.

Comet likes to wonder and wander. How many bands would sign with an eclectic British label and throw in a bunch of cellos and violins, progressing from shy Velvet Underground clone to mean post-rock machine in such short time? Comet, for one, and with such flair that you'd believe that "local band" is just for description's sake.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

Corn Mo
Nominated for: Avant-Garde/Experimental
What the hell is "avant-garde," anyway? It's one of those words left over from when the French invaded England and deposited an expression into our language that people toss out whenever something or someone new, weird, or highly intellectual comes along. David Byrne is sorta avant-garde, isn't he? And if that's the case, well, Corn Mo is right up there--standing tall and fearless with his accordion, like...Woody Allen. And, hey, Woody Allen's avant-garde, too. In the same way you've gotta love Woody Allen, Corn Mo needs and deserves your attention too. The guy's just too honest and pathetic. Who else can sing Journey songs that'll bring tears to your eyes? And it's all because the guy actually means it.

Shine on, Corn Mo, shine on.
--Richard Baimbridge

Cowboys and Indians
Nominated for: Best Act Overall, Country & Western
Eric Swanson is too young, but he sings '40s Western swing all the way. His deep, resonant baritone, which slides effortlessly along the lower vocal register like the trombone he often plays, stirs thoughts of a different era, a mix of Bob Wills, Count Basie, and Louis Jordan. Their jive is toe-tapping more than foot-stomping, and their big-band roots make you yearn for bygone days when swing wasn't "respectable," when dance halls and whorehouses were more alive with music than Radio City and Carnegie Hall. When they perform, you half expect Cab Calloway to leap from the rear and launch into "Minnie the Moocher" or "We the Cats."

The tall, beefy Swanson--who founded the group and writes most of its original songs--sets the tone, but it's the powerful horns that give his vision clarity and punch. Cowboys & Indians offer something unique: an authentic sound that is the jukebox soul of country music.

--Arnold Wayne Jones

Elvis T. Busboy
Nominated for: Funk/R&B, Blues
A local scenester has pointed out that Elvis T. Busboy sings off-pitch. This revelation is unlikely to bother folks who like to dance and strut to this raucous, irreverent R&B-based foursome. "Busboy"--whose real name is Stephen Shaw--sings like Sleepy LaBeef and looks like a cross between Dick Manitoba and a thoroughly corrupted game show host. A loathing for mall rock steered him toward R&B, and his catapult to fame was a gig as a singing fry-cook in a Lubbock beanery, where he found that his he-man pipes were well-suited to R&B shouting. You could compare him to the jock who talks the band into letting him sing at the frat party, but that would detract from his ability to tuck into material by Little Joe Blue, Freddie King, Marvin Gaye, and Big Boy Crudup.

--Tim Schuller

The Enablers
Nominated for: Avant-Garde/Experimental
The Enablers formed over three years ago. They had an idea--playing at a volume that would allow the audience to decide if the band would be the foreground or background to the evening. "It was lounge in sensibility and atmosphere," keyboardist Neal Caldwell explains. "But more than that, it was our art; you could listen closely or not." Unlike much of the current lounge movement, the Enablers don't reference the classics of the past as much as they do their own post-modern versions of those touchstones. "We're not really borrowing from or dwelling in the past," bassist Bart Chaney says. The Enablers capture a vibe that's much more continental than many cocktail troubadours, more mysterious than suave, and often more winsome than cool. Their subtlety, dedication, and finesse make them a local treasure.

 

--Matt Weitz

Jenny Esping (Cresta)
Nominated for: Female Vocalist
Jenny Esping's voice is like cotton candy: sweet, fleecy, and bright. As everyone knows, however, cotton candy is a sticky delight. It gets all over everything it touches.

Esping's voice does stick to everything Cresta attempts--so what you have is a band fronted by a singer who's all cute smiles, twinkling eyes, blonde locks, and sweet timbre. All of the band's attempts at fuzzy techno-funk or stylized heavy rock can't hide it, and Cresta and Esping are better served when they drift toward a cradle-song atmosphere reminiscent of Mazzy Star.

As she sings on the chorus of My Reminder, being sweet like candy is a reminder of all that's fine. When Cresta relaxes into this sort of joyous pop, band and singer mesh wonderfully into an indulgent treat, and you can see why the band landed a demo deal with MCA Records. The challenge for Esping and her bandmates is to figure out how to balance that sugar reverie with a tangy bite.

--Scott Kelton Jones

Donny Ray Ford
Nominated for: Country & Western, Songwriter
The God of Honky-Tonk Irony has long considered Donny Ray Ford a cruel punchline. Never has this been more apparent than now, when the more-or-less-impoverished Ford shares the Best Country & Western nomination space with LeAnn Rimes. And while Rimes has major pipes, she's clearly a product of that ol' Nashville machine--one that has no interest in a lovable curmudgeon like Ford, whose old-school C&W is pickled in the musical livers of George Jones, Hank Thompson, and Buck Owens.

On the other hand, after years of sweatin' it with his bands the Honkytonkers, Liberty Valance, the Cartwrights, and now the Widowmakers, it's possible that the world may yet come to know Ford's innate genius and smooth-as-Crown Royal warble. The debut album by North Carolina's Backsliders, features a Ford song, "Cowboy Boots." At long last, it's a break; one can only hope it leads to greater, much-deserved things.

--Rick Koster

Grand Street Cryers
Nominated for: Best Act Overall; New Act; Most Improved Act; Alternative Rock/Pop; Single Release (Angie Wood); Male Vocalist (Tim Locke)

Without question, the Grand Street Cryers have conquered the local scene--the only act with more nominations is the deeply entrenched Old 97's--a momentum built largely on the deceptively buoyant hooks of the lugubrious hit "Angie Wood." Smart money says it's only a matter of weeks before this effusively melodic unit takes its act national.

To a certain extent, they've already done so, having recorded their debut CD, Steady on the Shaky Ground, in California under the direction of big-time rock dudes Stan Lynch and Rob Jacobs. And though the hype factories are describing their brightly colored pop tunes as country-tinged rock, hoping no doubt to hop on that hay- and dung-encrusted "insurgent country" bandwagon, the Cryers have as much in common with Badfinger as they do with Pure Prairie League.

Whatever; singer and chief tunesmith Tim Locke has the voice and the choruses that render hype unnecessary.

--Rick Koster

Hard Night's Day
Nominated for: Cover Band
"Cover band" has long been something of a pejorative, but at least Hard Night's Day retreads a can't-go-wrong institution, rather than spitting out Huey Lewis and Journey anthems. Although they've recently undergone personnel flux and inner turmoil, their reverence for the Beatles and ability to replicate their material renders HND a civic treasure. Their performances are all-embracing displays of affection for the Fab Four--from the sad-glad rhymes of the "I Want to Hold Your Hand" era to the orchestrated Joycean efforts of "I Am the Walrus" and side two of Abbey Road. With Hard Night's Day, "tribute act" takes on a rare, pristine, and unusually dignified meaning.

--Rick Koster

Earl Harvin Trio
Nominated for: Jazz, Local Musician of the Year (Earl Harvin)
The fact that Earl Harvin can still be seen playing local jazz clubs where there's plenty of breathing room is both a blessing and a crime. Talent like this doesn't come along often, and when it does, it usually soon packs up and joins the big leagues with nothing but a gracious bow and a few thank yous to the hometown folks in the liner notes. For whatever reason, though, Harvin is still with us, and it's clear that he is no victim of the slacker disease. This is a man with serious initiative and leadership, the likes of which made Duke Ellington a great band leader. It's rare, indeed, that a drummer takes the foreground and spotlight in a band, but whether he's performing as Earl Harvin the Jazz man or as Earl Harvin the rubberbullet man, Harvin is the man. There's no doubt whatsoever that he will go down in our annals as one of Dallas' great musicians, but the jury's still out on whether or not he'll make it to the next step.

 

--Richard Baimbridge

Bugs Henderson
Nominated for: Blues
Bugs Henderson cut his teeth on pre-Beatle guitar instrumentals, toughened up in a local psychedelic sewer called the Cellar, murdered Ted Nugent in a guitar duel at the Texas Electric Ballroom, and was poker pals with Freddie King. His shows are dizzying drive-throughs of blues, rock, and country. He can play feverishly fast, but is still a cogent soloist with jazz-like improv chops and a repertoire broader than most continents. Bugs has dabbled with horn sections but is at his best in a trio mode, where he can stretch and take chances. He does precisely this on his greatest recordings, the recent live albums That's the Truth and Gitarzbazanddrumz; his best studio work can be found on Daredevils of the Red Guitar.

--Tim Schuller

Casey Hess
Nominated for: Local Musician of the Year
For Casey Hess and his band Doosu, 1996 was marked by a number of highlights: winning a Grammy-sponsored contest, snagging money from Sony Music, and attracting the interests of dozens of record labels. Unfortunately, last year was also marked by the multiple corrective surgeries that Hess needed for a defective heart. He's well on the road to recovery now, though, and looking to the future. "The only thing that I have planned for the rest of my life is playing in this band," he says. "We're going to play our hearts out."

The return of Doosu to Trees on June 7, after about a year off, will mark an EP release--and a new, tighter sound for the band. Hess is proud that his songwriting has evolved to the point where most of his new material runs under four minutes. "You can't ignore a couple of bouts with death," he says. "So a lot of the new music centers around trying to get through that. There is more of an urgency to embrace the strength to overcome, and the compassion to help. That's pretty much the music, for what it's worth."

--Howard Wen

Marchel Ivery
Nominated for: Jazz
Tenor saxophonist Marchel Ivery has always been touted for his lengthy stint with pianist Red Garland, and for gigs with other jazz greats (Art Blakey, Cedar Walton, Bud Powell, Wynton Marsalis). It's like no one wants you to know he also played behind Jimmy Reed, Lowell Fulson, and Al "TNT" Braggs. But it's with these blues-R&B acts that Ivery developed his famously huge, lowing tone. Couple it with a technical prowess that puts the whole of bebop at his command, and you have a forceful inheritor of the vaunted Texas tenor tradition. Tireless improvisational skills and a deep-dish soul are his other hallmarks. His debut album, Marchel's Mode, came out on the local Leaning House label in 1994. He is Dallas' foremost vector of genuine jazz.

--Tim Schuller

Kim Lenz and her Jaguars
Nominated for: New Act; Best Female Vocalist (Kim Lenz)
Red-haired rockabilly filly Kim Lenz is a fairly rare amalgam of determination and devotion, aimed not at commercial success, but at honoring the music she loves. Although she toes the stylistic line--she's seldom seen out of poodle-skirt-ponytail uniform and toodles around town in a '62 Thunderbird--she manages to imbue such ritual with a sense of fun that escapes many fans of "cat music."

She and her Jaguars debuted a year ago. Even then, Lenz showed a remarkable facility for all the characters--the drag-strip kitten, the snarling reform-school girl, the broken heart of gold--while avoiding contrivance. As the band matured, working out on covers so obscure that many mistook them for originals, they built up the kind of momentum that often leads to major-label attention.

That's not much concern to Lenz. "I don't care nearly as much about some record deal as I do about doing justice to the music that I love," she says. Many bands push their limits, finally rising past the edge of their competence and falling on their faces. Lenz--sure of what she wants and what she loves--is concentrating her abilities and cultivating her skill. She might just end up completely inhabiting a spot of her own choosing, from which she can do exactly what she wants. It may not be the big time, but it's the place from which most good music comes.

 

--Matt Weitz

Light Bright Highway
Nominated for: Avant-Garde/Experimental
On the surface, Light Bright Highway sounds cold and dark. Their "songs" take whole sides of cassettes, and they can play two-hour long shows that seem like exercises in stasis. Band members seldom look at the audience, much less go near the mike. Light Bright Highway captures the essence of inertia--the ambivalence that precedes movement. They play ultra-ambient music that happens to be loud. Like true ambient, it is not meant to suggest anything or induce any kind of mood. Rather, it gives you time to think, as the sound engulfs you in its slow dirge, until latent emotions start to surface. It may sound self-indulgent, but it is actually user-friendly--non-specific and open to countless interpretations, giving you the choice of mood. Repetitive and as effective as a mantra, their pieces go through peaks and valleys--mostly valleys--with sweeping guitar washes, glum bass lines, and busy drumming, coalescing in a seductive wall of sound that encloses you in a meditative haze--a wall painted with the shapes and colors of your choice.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

Mad Flava
Nominated for: Rap/Hip-Hop
"Feel the Flava," taken from the Priority Records release From the Ground Unda, was an understated and overlooked little gem that established Mad Flava as the most promising traditional hip-hop act in these parts. An organic piece of music that reeked of reefer and good intentions, "Feel the Flava" almost overshadowed the rest of the album. Full of wholesome, vibrating beats and cool raps, it fell short of tickling the fancy of major markets. Too bad. Even worse, local sales were not exactly phenomenal. Local rap fans perhaps found the music a little too euphoric, lacking the sheen and cinematic appeal of hyperbole-laden acts like Cypress Hill or Ice Cube.

Mad Flava and other local hip-hop acts point the finger at the media, but it takes two to tango; the buzz usually goes from the street to the media. After all, Mad Flava possesses enough raw talent to prick the ears of any that are willing to listen.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

Mazinga Phaser
Nominated for: Avant-Garde/Experimental
"Completely different," says Wanz Dover of space rock and electronica. The guitarist for Mazinga Phaser adds, "We subscribe to neither. I think they're fads, but in the end, those who've been doing it for years are still going to be around after the hype's dead."

Leading a roster that includes two people for "multimedia and visual interpretation," Dover and Mazinga Phaser walk the fine line between rock band and performance art-light show. "A lot of people categorize us as 'record-collector rock,'" Dover admits. "There's really not a tag for it."

Whatever Mazinga Phaser does was worth mentioning favorably in Rolling Stone last year. Before a month-long tour in July, the band will record a third album; the second is being finished up.

Along with fellow nominee Light Bright Highway, Mazinga Phaser has ushered in a new music culture to Denton's scene. Now is the age of the Argo, where groups like Mazinga perform their music. "The Argo and Denton have both gotten a really good rep for--as much as I hate to use that word--'space rock' or whatever," says Dover, who also books acts for the Argo. "People are more receptive to that stuff up here than in Dallas."

--Howard Wen

Mess
Nominated for: Album Release
You are in your twenties, and things don't feel quite right. In fact, they suck. New music doesn't sound as good as your old records. You hear your favorite songs about teenage depression and realize you're still depressed. This is some ugly deja vu. Furthermore, you realize that all the extra props you used to fight misery--drinking, pills--are the same ones you use now. You start to panic. Teenage blues feel the same as quarter-century blues.

You start a band. You call yourself Mess, because this is how you feel. You hope it will kick the blues away. You start writing songs about beer, pills, and girls. You play your favorite songs--pretty much--but you change the lyrics to fit your reality. It feels great for a while, then all of a sudden it hits you that instead of escaping the blues, you sing about them. You put out an album called Pretty Ugly, and you wait for your friends to commiserate with you. You celebrate with them for a while, and then get drunk and stupid and pass out--only to wake up the next morning to face the same life. You play the old punk rock and try to make it sound like new punk rock until you realize that the definition is so abused there may be no punk rock anymore. Even so, you thrash about, write a bunch of catchy hooks, and hope things will change for the better.

 

--Philip Chrissopoulos

Meredith Louise Miller
Nominated for: Folk/Acoustic, Female Vocalist
Ever since a friend compared Meredith Miller to a china doll some years ago, the metaphor has stuck. The association was meant to convey her porcelain features and good posture, but it goes further. Her music is deceptively fragile and simple at first glance, yet is solid to the touch and earthy at its core. Maybe it's her pebble-laden drawl, or her matter-of-fact observations that sting with honesty as well as cleverness.

On ifihadahifi, Miller gives the public a take-home version of the songs she's been singing for years--alone, with Broose Dickinson, and now with a full band. Granted, the album doesn't hold any of her live show's dry, fun, Miller moments, or any of Miller's jokes. But all the classics--songs like "Dreams of You and Elvis," the haunting "His Heart," and her popular cover of the Everly Brothers' "Wishing," are here in all their simple glory.

--Scott Kelton Jones

Mood Swings
Nominated for: Cover Band
This Denton quartet is a true powerhouse with the sole mission of re-introducing all the gems of '60s psychedelic garage punk. As cover bands go, they serve a noble cause: Instead of pounding your brain with rock "favorites," they act as a Cliffs Notes for the magic of pre-FM rock from the likes of the Sonics and Love along with other unsung, worthwhile obscurities. They are as scratchy, edgy, and trebly as those old 45s, and they have an attitude to match.

Only a handful of the songs--be they psychedelic, garage, '60s punk, or whatever you call it--trigger vague recognition. This music was overshadowed by the Summer of Love and the bloat of Woodstock, the raw energy and pure adrenaline swept away by the influx of new rock stars taking rock seriously. After that it was all hour-long guitar solos and rock symphonies.

A big hand, then, to the Mood Swings for looking through rock's back pages and fine print to find these treasures, then presenting them with such demented reverence.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

The Necrotonz
Nominated for: Cover Band
"That totally cracks me up," says Necrophilia, Diva of the Dead, when informed of her band's nomination to the Observer music awards ballot. "We've only played like five gigs. People are sick."

The Necrotonz originally hail from Las Vegas. "We all ended up in the same graveyard, out in the desert, owing to various gangland-type, ah, problems," Necrophilia explains. "When the city started to grow, our graves were disturbed, so we came to Dallas." Once in the Big D, the quintet formed the Necrotonz as a "tribute to bands that are dead, or rock stars who have enjoyed spectacular deaths--Jim Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd--and pretty much death in general.

"The whole lounge thing, that's so dead that it's come back again," Necrophilia says, explaining the band. "So it's the whole ugly musical circle come 'round again." Right now the band's specialty is spooky covers of crypt-rockers like Alice Cooper's "I Love the Dead," but they're working on original material in the same vein, and they don't discriminate as to their fans. "We're always looking for willing participants," Necrophilia coos.

--Matt Weitz

Old 97's
Nominated for: Best Act Overall; Country & Western; Single Release (Cryin' Drunk); Male Vocalist (Rhett Miller); Local Musician of the Year (Rhett Miller); Songwriter (Rhett Miller)

Although the Old 97's lost their tag as Dallas' best unsigned band when they went with Elektra in 1996, they remain our city's most visible adored band, an affection borne out of long association.

The group has four members--Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea, Murry Hammond, and Philip Peeples--but singer-songwriter Miller has always been its central figure. He's been a driving force in the country-tinged-with-folk sound that makes the Old 97's instantly recognizable. Miller has introduced "Victoria Lee" as "a song about prescription drug abuse. And a girl. Of course." It's that frankness that leads audiences to think that he is leaving his personal life open for examination; his songs feel therapeutic, like good country music should. They have a smart and distinctive lyrical sense--a storyteller's clarity--that's not diminished by the band's strong musicality; when they lay into a furious guitar riff as they do during the closing seconds of "Doreen," you feel like you're listening to a missing track from the heyday of Sun Records.

Their new album, Too Far to Care, emphasizes rock 'n' roll motifs, but the Old 97's continue to confirm Willie Nelson's dictum that country music isn't about the song, but about the singer. If it's a question of attitude, the Old 97's have it in spades.

 

--Arnold Wayne Jones

Ooga Booga
Nominated for: Reggae
It takes a wild stretch of the imagination to call Ooga Booga a reggae band. Either that or there's such a shortage of the real thing in Dallas that our respected voters got desperate. Their latest CD, Fragile World, has life-affirming lyrics that would give Stuart Smalley a hyperglycemic fit ("Lift your eyes/See the eyes of children"), sung by voices imitating Afro-Caribbean accents. The music sounds like it's being played by an underpaid cruise-ship band in its third shift.

The earnest, smiling faces of the five musicians on the back of the CD suggest that this is not a campy joke. Apparently Ooga Booga believes that a few clubfooted tropical rhythms can help the audience forget its troubles for an hour--maybe even enlighten and soothe them--so they made the most politically correct album of the year.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

Bobby Patterson
Nominated for: Funk/R&B
Bobby Patterson is a true-life soulster who started his career fronting the Mustangs, a band that featured present-day blues notable Andrew "Junior Boy" Jones on guitar. Patterson also cut 45s for Jestar, the R&B wing of local label Abnak, but Junior Boy reports they were too "wild" for Abnak (believable, given that the label's main act was the Five Americans), so they left the fold. Patterson then either wrote or produced recording sessions for Albert King, Ted Taylor, Little Johnny Jones, Bobby Rush, and more. He cut records of his own, including "How Do You Spell Love? M-O-N-E-Y," which was later covered by the Fab T-Birds. After an interval as a promo man for Mississippi label Malaco, he heard Golden Smog's version of his old "She Don't Have to See Me" and was inspired to get back into performing. R&B fans are glad he did, because he's very much the real thing. Backed by the skintight Lazzar sextet, he soars through sets of his own material and cookin' covers of "Bo Diddley," "Ain't No Sunshine," and other chestnuts. Press for him is near-rapturous, and when you watch him work you'll know why.

--Tim Schuller

Pimpadelic
Nominated for: Rock, Rap/Hip-Hop
If the name alone isn't enough, the fact that the band is nominated in both the Rock and Rap/Hip Hop categories should clue you in to just how Pimpadelic fits into the scene. Take just a casual sampling from their album Barely Legal, with its testosterone talk about dongs that last longer than grandfather clocks, bongs that burn all night, and some woman referred to as "ho," and you've got the gist of Pimpadelic's "message." It's easy to say the Pimpsters are nothing more than a redneck take on the white-boy wannabe rap-rock first made popular by the Beastie Boys, but that misses the point: Pimpadelic is hard, fast, and fun, full of baggy-pants hopping, stupid-mother stomping, and misogynistic good times.

--Scott Kelton Jones

pop poppins
Nominated for: Alternative Rock/Pop
That pop poppins resurfaced in '96 with the hook-filled Non-Pop Specific was akin to Richard Nixon rising from the dead and winning the California gubernatorial race. Unless, that is, you asked the band members, who said all along they'd be back.

It's been a few years since pop poppins went on an extended hiatus at the height of their popularity. Word was the poppers would return when the music was pure again--and, by God, they've kept their word. It remains to be seen whether they can regain their following and status, but Non-Pop Specific is a glorious dreamscape of tunes, combining the trance-inducing hypnotica of Hawkwind with the shimmering craft of The Cure.

--Rick Koster

Professor D and the Playschool
Nominated for: Rap/Hip-Hop
With their Wild Tchoupitoulas stage show, multi-ethnic and pan-sexual line-up, and grooves blending '70s radio funk, '90s hip-hop, and high-energy techno, Professor D and the Playschool are truly a musical Frankenstein's monster.

The group has been around since the late '80s, evolving from a party band to a slick, highly visual dance machine spewing as much original material as radio hits. The band has sold more than 2,000 units of their debut album, Certified Funky, currently being remixed for re-release with three new songs.

While there is nary a rap number to be found in any of the Playschool's musical classrooms, its rabid followers will happily attest to the band's otherwise comprehensive curriculum in all forms of danceable music.

--Rick Koster

Pump'n Ethyl
Nominated for: Album Release, Male Vocalist (Turner Scott Van Blarcum)
Pump'n Ethyl is a collective of veteran Dallas punks--led by the inimitable and highly tattooed Turner Scott Van Blarcum, the galvanizing force behind the quartet. Van Blarcum is charismatic and nothing if not striking: A tall, hulking figure, he has skull tattoos dripping down both sides of his head, seemingly leaking out from under his irregularly cut mohawk. From beneath the sleeves of his torn shirt, more skulls and bones spread out across his upper arms. Turner doesn't so much walk out on stage as he storms, growling and roaring his barrage of anti-society, anti-government, pro-gun, self-empowering rants with titles like "Too Punk to Fuck," "Jesus was a Homo," and "Heavy Metal Dickhead." Thank God I'm Living in the U.S.A. came out last March, full of skatepunk gobbing and plain ol' smart-ass bad attitude. Several songs since have garnered airplay, but most successful has been the quirky local hit "I Hate Work," which has helped sell nearly 2,000 copies of the album so far.

 

--Alex Magocsi

Henry Qualls
Nominated for: Blues
Spin magazine just wrote up Black Possum, a label specializing in Mississippi bluesmen whose sound is so rugged and violent, mainstream blues fans flee in terror. Texas' version of these Delta badmen is Henry Qualls, killer of feral hogs and possessor of the deepest, darkest blues voice since Lightnin' Hopkins. His guitar sound is distorted and dirty; his playing technique depraved. Discovered playing for drunken fryfests behind his country home, Qualls cut the exceptional Blues From Elmo, Texas for the Dallas Blues Society label in 1994 and began making the rounds of blues festivals here and abroad. The UK's Juke Blues magazine called him "the surprise hit" of Holland's Blues Estafette '94, citing a performance that left the crowd "open-mouthed in delight and disbelief." Nothing wrong with the city slickers that presently personify blues, but for a look at the loam from which their idiom sprang, consult Qualls.

--Tim Schuller

Quickserv Johnny
Nominated for: Most Improved Act
To say Quickserv Johnny is vastly improved somehow suggests that--what, a year ago?--they awkwardly pawed chords like Cub Scouts in their fathers' flannel shirts.

Actually, a year ago the band had a Shiner Bock sponsorship and a hit tune, "Larry," in heavy rotation on area radio stations. Even so, on the strength of a hummably consistent new CD, Satellitely, and another radio fave, "Janitor Man," one could argue that Quickserv Johnny has improved. At least to the extent that the driving, melodic rock band is now considered hot on the heels of the Deep Blue/Old 97's/Grand Street buzz-makers that passed before them.

--Rick Koster

Radish
Nominated for: New Act
"Silverchair? I love them, man!" exclaims 15-year-old Ben Kwellar, leader of Greenville's Radish. "But [there's] one thing I've noticed: They were really cool, but they would fart and burp all the time and be dumb-asses and never talk about anything serious, you know? I couldn't carry on too many conversations with them." Kwellar sounds disappointed, but quickly reiterates: "But they're cool, man--I love their music."

Ben's obvious youth inevitably translates to the band's audience. At this month's Deep Ellum Arts Festival, scores of preteen and early-teenage girls squealed and hopped to the beat as Radish performed their signature "Dear Aunt Arctica."

Appropriately, "We call our music 'sugar metal' because it's kind of like the Monkees with loud guitars," Kwellar says. "We're not afraid to let our pop side show or to be happy. Everybody in the '90s is like, 'this sucks, life sucks.'" Their first major tour hasn't yet started, but Kwellar is already looking ahead. "I'm working on the second record, and it's going to be more of a concept: the [music] industry and how much it can suck." Fans needn't worry about Kwellar baring an angst-filled soul any time soon, though. "I don't know," he says. "I'm just...happy, I guess."

--Howard Wen

Johnny Reno
Nominated for: Cover Band
In the space of a year, tenor saxman and longtime local fixture Johnny Reno's made Thursday "lounge nights" at Red Jacket a lava-lit hub for the young and hip

In the process, Reno and his band, the Lounge Kings, have introduced them to a whole style of music: the warm jets of a Hammond B-3, the retro restraint of a guitar amp turned up only to 4, brushes on drums. More importantly, he's introduced the nightclub set to the idea of music as something more than a canned addendum to gin-crazed rutting rituals. Folks who otherwise might have been content to focus on trash disco for 15 more years have another option.

Of course, the sodden ritual and cigar-sucking remain, but at least there's a chance that somebody, stimulated, might actually learn something, a happenstance unlikely with, say, KC and the Sunshine Band. In exchange, Reno, often a sideman, has grown into his role as a bandleader and emcee. From the Red Jacket on Thursdays has sprung a relationship that's beneficial for both the artist and the audience, a symbiosis all too rare these days.

 

--Matt Weitz

REO Speedealer
Nominated for: Metal, Album Release
With the release of their self-titled album last year, the bad boys of hard-core boogie in REOSpeedealer made it clear that their roots lay in white-trash territory. That holy land of hot-dog barbecues and $1.99-a-six-pack beer, where KISS is blasting out of the double-wide so loudly that the aluminum frame rattles on its cinderblocks. A place where girls are named Tifny and Desiree and work in places with names like "The Beaver Shack." This is REO Speedealer's Oz, a land they cruise through in a beat-up Impala with Motsrhead in the deck and a cooler in the back seat.

REO Speedealer is the soundtrack to this trashy rock 'n' roll utopia cast with lovable characters ("Sticky Alan," "Cocaine Joey," "Showgirls") who "Binge," do a lot of "Swingin'," and sing praises to female anatomy ("Viva La Vulva"). Supercharged with interchangeable buzzsaw riffs, it kicks up a quick storm before its 25-minute (as short as their live shows) length is run--as if their level of adrenaline cannot be maintained for too long before veins start popping. Their public service is to stimulate every gland in your body and get you flailing around like a spastic dervish.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

LeAnn Rimes
Nominated for: Country & Western
LeAnn Rimes has long labored under the label "the new Patsy Cline." Skepticism can be forgiven: Cline was a lush, peerless songbird whose velvety voice soared plaintively into the night like the echo of a whispered prayer. How could Rimes, barely even a teenager, hope to compare? I'd seen enough bad thrillers claiming to be "Hitchcockian" to maintain a healthy skepticism about the link between marketing and reality.

Then I heard "Blue," Rimes' rabidly successful first single, written by Bill Mack for Cline and unrecorded until Rimes tackled it with a mix of vocal gusto and assertive sensitivity; you could almost believe that Cline was channeling herself through Rimes. Rimes is too talented to become a one-song wonder. She's already had another, lesser hit with "Hurt Me," a retro number like "Blue." The challenge will come when she moves out of that safe harbor: The other songs on Blue are uniformly weak, and her affection for the scenery-chewing "Unchained Melody" shows that her choice of material is far from sophisticated. In an established artist this would be cause for concern, but Rimes is so far away from an adult identity that it's hard to get that worked up about it; the feeling persists that she'll do just fine.

--Arnold Wayne Jones

rubberbullet
Nominated for: Album Release
If Bad Brains had a sexy white-trash female singer, they might sound a bit like rubberbullet. This is where drummer and band-founder Earl Harvin comes to blow off steam after his bread-and-butter jazz gigs at Sambuca. It's a powerhouse excursion into hard-core brought to you by people who know funk. During their existence, rubberbullet have overcome some of the tendencies that before left them less than listenable, and now seem to be more successful at creating material that's enjoyable beyond the noise factor. Not that they've toned it down. It's more that they've shaped it up. Releases like Open, which rated a slot on an Alternative Press indie sampler, pave the way for what promises to be an interesting future funk.

--Richard Baimbridge

Shabazz 3
Nominated for: Rap/Hip-Hop
Sampling standard jazz riffs and melodies and laying them over phat hip-hop beats is a great idea. When it works, either commercially or artistically, bringing those buried treasures out again is definitely worthwhile.

Ty Macklin, Bobby Dee, and Fatz, collectively known as Shabazz 3, do just that, and it works, if only for the way the cool blends with the hot. There is a slippery smoothness that surrounds the rhythms in fine satin, and the beats themselves are smooth, never the clunking, boxy rhythms of pedestrian rap. The fire that powers Shabazz 3 burns with an evenness that is almost sublime.

Credit is due to Macklin's acute sense of melody and sharp mixing techniques. As a producer, he has a lot of expertise, and members of the local hip-hop community often come to his home studio. An ex-member of the now legendary Decadent Dub Team, he was fiddling with black boxes and turntables and messing with the funk long before Snoop raised his hind leg.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

Slow Roosevelt
Nominated for: Best Act Overall; Rock; Metal
"I guess I've got to be careful so I don't sound bitter, but my attitude is still pretty much that it's always been a joke," says Peter Thomas--lead singer and head smart-ass of Slow Roosevelt--about getting passed over for this year's South by Southwest.

 

A Deep Ellum brat in the '80s who sang for Black Rites--a funk-rock group once posited as the next next big thing--Thomas has personally seen where local media hype often goes (nowhere) and considers that the rejection may have been a good sign. So maybe it's a little unsettling that his new band--having existed less than a year--is one of this year's heavy hitters, nomination-wise, but the members of this metal-with-a-punk-attitude group repeatedly say they don't take themselves seriously.

Thomas wasn't even sure about joining drummer Aaron Lyons, bassist Mark Sodders, and guitarist Scott Minyard, three admitted neophytes. But the collaboration worked, buoyed by the four men's affection for sarcasm, and soon led to a CD, Starving St. Nick, published by the local indie label One Ton Records.

"We're trying to figure out now why people like us, so we can 'correct' that," sasses Thomas. Taking into account his history and personal experience, that remark is more cautious than it is dismissive.

--Howard Wen

Spyche
Nominated for: Folk/Acoustic, Female Vocalist
When asked what singing personally means to her, Spyche responds with long, silent pauses. "God, you're killing me with these!" she exclaims.

Off stage, she's downright cheerful. On stage, at intimate venues like Club Dada--usually alone with her guitar--her breathy singing is angst-heavy yet intoxicating. But she's reluctant to reveal her inspiration past chuckling, "Whatever is making me crazy at the moment. I'm trying to figure that out. I quit playing and singing for a long time because it was making me crazy," she says. "And when I think about why I'm doing it again, if I start thinking about what's driving me, it makes me crazy. Because I don't know.

"I've never really liked playing solo and yet continue to do it; it's a weird dichotomy. When I play, I just freak out. Last time I played Dada, I got done, ran outside, and wanted to blow my head off. If I'm not enjoying this and I don't really like doing these shows, why the fuck do I continue to do it? That, I guess, is the eternal question." Spyche giggles while considering these questions. But she sounds far from crazy.

--Howard Wen

Stink!#Bug
Nominated for: Metal
The line blurs: Stink!#Bug in the metal category. Tell that to a Megadeth fan, and he'll furrow his eyebrows like Beelzebub. None of the four nominated bands in the Metal category this year is traditionally heavy metal. None of these guys is wearing Spandex, proving that metal as we knew it is as gone as David Lee Roth's hairline. Long live the new metal. Don't you just love the Nineties?

Stink!#Bug swaggers with the hard-core force of industrial, throwing a few hip-hop beats in the loop to make it more mod. This way the metal kids, the industrial kids, and the hip-hop kids have something to relate to and can mosh their little hearts out. Derivative, yet stubbornly determined to unleash their feral passions, the members of Stink!#Bug leave no beat unborrowed. Their music is made to provide instant thrills to those who have to meet a curfew. What if it is one-dimensional and almost forgettable? It still serves its lower purpose, hitting with a visceral thump.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

Strap
Nominated for: Rock
There's a misguided notion that Dallas hard rock is best left to imitators with long hair and ill-fitting pants; only they can enjoy their Zeppelin or Sabbath fixations and have fun. Matt Hillyer, Steve Berg, and Chris Antonopoulis--the erstwhile Lone Star Trio--decided to debunk that myth. They changed their name, stopped playing rockabilly, and dug out their ZZ Top and Motsrhead albums. Hillyer even grew his hair long.

Strap got a lot of flak for abandoning rockabilly in favor of passe hard rock--as if greasing your hair and swearing by Elvis is the ticket to some kind of newfound hipness. Strap anticipated that reaction and saved all the answers for their debut CD, For Those With Contempt. There is a lot of anger and bitterness in its grooves, but there's also a fine sense of humor and total lack of ennui, something that separates them from many of their peers.

It's liberating not to have to live by others' expectations. Strap's playing is more free and natural, and the songwriting has improved since Hillyer's tongue and fingers are no longer tied to the obligatory cliches. The poignancy of "I Represent" or the bitterly sarcastic "Everybody's All American" and "See You In The Next Life" are only a few examples of Strap's new potential.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

Hunter Sullivan
Nominated for: Jazz
Johnny Reno probably didn't expect to have the ever-so-hip lounge scene's live music action sewn up forever, and sure enough, Hunter Sullivan showed up not too long ago for his slice of the pie. Like Elvis T. Busboy, Sullivan was elevated to featured performer after advertising his talents as a singing waiter. While Reno is long, tall, and cool, Sullivan is more compact and energetic, closer to the over-the-top stage presence of, say, The Royal Crown Revue. There is a definite air of Bobby Darin about Sullivan, especially in his finger-poppin' stage presence. The singer--whose repertoire includes numbers like "Pennies From Heaven" and a hepped-up "Lazy River"--favors highly coordinated outfits, usually either bright suits or dark-on-dark combinations of tie/shirt/ vest/pants that--like Darin--references a sense of East Coast Goombah slickness rather than Reno's West Coast hipster detachment. His voice is fairly ordinary--again, no danger to the greats here--and he lacks the air of scholarly discipleship that Reno shows in between bursts of his smarmy-smooth emcee persona. Sullivan's currently working with Hollywood producer Nik Venet, who did two albums with Darin.

 

--Matt Weitz

The Sutcliffes
Nominated for: Cover Band
The mark of a great cover band is the ability to render tunes identifiable, but also identifiably your own. That isn't a problem for the Sutcliffes; not only can they perform lively, wonderful versions of songs by everyone from Hank Williams ("part of our white-trash repertoire," singer-harmonica player Jeff Hill jokes) to Lionel Hampton, they also explore the realm of how many instruments they can play. (When a Fisher-Price xylophone makes it on stage, you can stop counting.)

In addition to their covers, though, the band has some great original material, like "Gin Blossom Girl," full of the mocking sound of the British invasion. The Sutcliffes have a goofy, playful stage presence too--singing a distorted "A Bicycle Built for Two" in homage to HAL from 2001, for example--that's instantly ingratiating. They thread together covers and originals fluidly; at a recent concert, they started the set with a shit-kickin' hoedown number, and by the end had seamlessly segued into a jazzy pop sound. It reminded me of the joke whose punchline is "You can't get there from here." But of course, you always can; you just need to know how. The Sutcliffes know.

--Arnold Wayne Jones

Tablet
Nominated for: Alternative Rock/Pop;
Best Male Vocalist (Steve Holt); Best Songwriter (Steve Holt)

Few anticipated the sudden breakup of one of Dallas' best prospects for national recognition. If you ever caught Tablet at one of their better live shows--when Steve Holt allowed his soul to come soaring out from deep within his throat, music hitting every beat--you'd have been a believer, too.

But looking back on it all, something just wasn't right. Holt is a master architect of the pop song, and he's as prolific as a North Dallas homebuilder. Maybe that was part of the problem. Instead of directing so much energy into building the ultimate pop song via the perfect pop band, Holt needed to let the reins hang a little looser and see where his creativity would lead him. It worked for Frank Black, and his hit-and-miss approach to pop songwriting is exactly what makes him so attractive as an artist. In its best form, music is essentially about art. About screaming, whispering, howling, painting, writing because you feel it. That's where Holt's career began, but it got off track. He might be delayed, but the boy ain't canceled just yet.

--Richard Baimbridge

Cricket Taylor
Nominated for: Blues
Cricket "I Am Not A Blues Singer" Taylor won renown singing blues with hardliners like Hash Brown at such events as the Benson & Hedges Blues Festival pubcrawl, and at clubs like Schooners, Muddy Waters, and Blue Cat Blues. The pint-size Mississippian flounced about in feather boas and sported an onstage persona like that of a cheerleader who gets lots of cheers but not for the game. A fitful career marked by starts and stops was followed by a period where she stressed her original material, then dropped out of sight. Back in town in February of this year, she popped up at a Greenville Bar and Grill jam night and did "Walkin' The Dog" and a torchy, slow blues number, garnering far more applause than famed soul-blues belter Vernon Garrett. Cricket's right to want to spread her stylistic wings, but blues will always be at her core.

--Tim Schuller

Andy Timmons
Nominated for: Blues, Local Musician of the Year
If Timmons ever retires, the Observer will probably name the Musician of the Year award The Andy Timmons Trophy. After all, Timmons has won the honor two consecutive times. Considering that Timmons is a shred instrumentalist with a magus' sense of guitar poetry and the songwriting acumen of Eric Johnson by way of Elvis Costello--decidedly out of the Metroplex musical mainstream--it's an amazing vote of community confidence. Given his new CD, ear X-tacy 2, it's not out of the question he'll win again.

 

As for his blues candidacy, it's actually a tribute to Timmons' all-star blues-based Pawn Kings, an amazing group for whom "blues" is actually just the exoskeleton that holds together their musical explorations. Whatever you call it, Timmons cooks in any environment.

--Rick Koster

Toadies
Nominated for: Best Act Overall; Single Release (Paper Dress); Male Vocalist (Todd Lewis), Songwriter (Todd Lewis)

Problems, problems--the Toadies have had a few over the last couple of years. They didn't like touring with Bush. They're also sick of singing that dark little ditty--set in a Texas campground--about murder or rape or vampires or homosexuals or childhood crushes or something. Of course, "Possum Kingdom" is the song that catapulted their previously ignored Interscope release Rubberneck into the platinum stratosphere, and you can imagine what a pain in the ass it must be to deal with that.

As you can see, the Toadies have the problems that just about every other band on the planet would kill to have. It's what they get for being one of the best acts playing today--recorded, live, local or not. Their songs are coarse and catchy, so simple in structure they're primal. Todd Lewis' vocals, resonant with emotional subtext, give away more than his lyrics report.

Last year, the Toadies faced a lineup change that brought pin-up guitar hero Clark Vogeler in to replace Darrel Herbert, and the death of soundman and good friend David Kerher. Still, as a band, they have a new cohesion, and the new songs are said to be a product of the whole band, not just Lewis' twisted vision.

--Scott Kelton Jones

The Tomorrowpeople
Nominated for: New Act
From the ashes of Brutal Juice, a pop phoenix rose so quickly that few have had time to see and appreciate it, but those who have are unanimously blown away. From its past as a personal side project for Gordo Gibson to its present as a national buzz band (with former Toadies guitarist Darrel Herbert), the Tomorrowpeople have always seemed to have God's own seal of approval, as if it was meant to happen. To say it's a perfect Hollywood ending to a split between two bands and Gibson's troubled life would be cheesy, so let's just say it's more like the ending to the movie Say Anything, when John Cusack ends up with Ione Skye. From the rocked-out reminiscences of "Mercitron," which brings to mind all the good aspects of Cheap Trick's "Surrender," to the Big Star bliss of "Youth in Orbit," The Tomorrowpeople are the brightest thing on the horizon.

--Richard Baimbridge

Ras Tumba and Ashanti-I
Nominated for: Reggae
Ras Tumba's cover of "No Woman No Cry" sounds like true reggae, faithful to Bob Marley's pain-and-passion original. Next to it, the Fugees' version sounds like coffee-table background music for those who think reggae is all right as long as it's slick and sponsored. It's the difference between passion and fashion.

A regular to these pages--once a year--Ras Tumba and Ashanti-I always get the well-deserved nomination but no plaque, and it has nothing to do with some sort of Rastafarian karma. Maybe it's because the reggae category is skipped altogether by voters or filled out mechanically, but unless you hang out with the reggae elite, Ras Tumba's name isn't one you know.

This reggae renegade prefers to stay true to his roots. Instead of flogging his music--which to him is religion--to the weekend party crowd, he keeps it safely under his cap most of the time. For him, the spirit is more important than the commercial potential.

A native Jamaican who moved to Dallas in 1984, Ras Tumba plays pre-dancehall reggae because he grew up listening to it, and his love of roots rock and lovers rock is intact. More Mighty Diamonds than Shabba Ranks, he believes in mighty Rastafari rather than the almighty dollar; hip-hop beats and rap will never enter his repertoire. Even when he throws in the obligatory, recognizable Marley covers, he never fails to sound spirited.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

UFOFU
Nominated for: Most Improved Act, Alternative Rock/Pop
Too much has already been said about Joe Butcher's sordid life, so let's move on to better things--and thankfully there is something better to move onto...namely, UFOFU's music.

In many ways, this is a band that's never gotten a fair shake. Their music is so weird and complicated, yet so outwardly simple, that it tends to take the untrained ear a while to catch on. Perhaps that explains the whole "Most Improved Band" thing, which really is a joke. These are three of the best musicians in Dallas; yes, they are getting better--and perhaps less intoxicated--but perhaps that's just the effect of a good studio-produced CD versus a cheap demo tape. But again, semantics. It's probably gonna take a while for UFOFU to catch on, owing to their quirkiness and lack of PR initiative. But once they do--stand back, honey. Don't insult them or show your musical ignorance by voting them Most Improved two years in a row. Vote your heart. Vote your mind. Vote Butcher for sexiest male singer, if nothing else.

 

--Richard Baimbridge

Watusi
Nominated for: Reggae
It doesn't exactly hurt Watusi's collective feelings when they're referred to as a "party band." But Watusi is a lot more than boozers' background music. The group, which turns 15 this August, refers to their music as World Beat, and it is indeed a riddum-happy paella of Caribbean-Latin-African-Polynesian influences, all seasoned with jazz harmonics and Eastern flavorings. Along with club and festival dates, Watusi frequently performs at schools and colleges, promoting a theme of one world/one aim/one God/one destiny/one love.

"If you can reach kids," says founding member Jimi Towry, "and make them understand cultures, then they can move forward to appreciate and respect those same cultures. And maybe then we can overcome the racism so prevalent in their parents' generation; what we do is a bit of a wake-up call--it's just that you can dance to it."

--Rick Koster

Kirk Whalum
Nominated for: Jazz
Are there two Kirk Whalums? We can do without the one who makes those gloppy, awful albums awash with synths and simpery singing, but we'll keep the one who does the live dates.

Whalum is a student of Houston sax legend Arnett Cobb, who was so noted for his wild tones that his finesse with melody was often overlooked. Whalum certainly holds melody dear, and manages to be an advocate of pretty music without being a total wimp. His catchy, pleasant tunes will never gain praise from fans of the deep stuff, but his musicianship and tendency to field high-quality bands keeps him well above the pop-jazz norm. His break came in the mid-'80s when he opened a show in Houston for Bob James, who flew him to New York less than a month later to blow on his 12 album. Soon Whalum was cutting records of his own, and his fame got another boost when he backed Whitney Houston for much of '91 and '92.

--Tim Schuller

Elizabeth Wills
Nominated for: Folk/Acoustic
The concept of hierarchy seems particularly entrenched in the acoustic-folk realm. Because the artists are generally solo performers, their identities are carved slowly and indelibly. As such, the fact that relative newcomer Elizabeth Wills has already made significant waves in an arena where Sara Hickman, Josh Alan, Meredith Louise Miller, and Colin Boyd have long held court is impressive indeed. Then again, so is her debut CD for Crystal Clear Sound, Rivers, a thoughtful, literate work which is at once melancholic and spirited, and which non-folkies can absorb pleasantly without necessarily rallying around a farm workers' strike or fearing an immediate pledge-drive solicitation.

--Rick Koster

Live Music Venue

Club Dada
2720 Elm
Club Dada, located in the heart of Deep Ellum, is an institution, a friendly and comfortable venue that celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. Dada has consistently showcased live, mostly local music seven days a week, as well as other art forms like theater and film. Dada grew symbiotically with young bands like the New Bohemians, Fever in the Funkhouse, Ten Hands, and countless others. It now is more than three times its original size and houses two stages, three bars, and an art gallery.

Dada no longer charges a cover and rarely books more than one band per night Sunday through Wednesday. The free admission is a boon for patrons, but not for struggling new acts. While Dada has been criticized for its conservatism, its ability to read and adapt to hard realities has allowed it to survive, and it remains an intimate environment where regulars gather to enjoy quality live music. The sound system is great, and Dada's back courtyard--under illuminated trees--is one of the more magical places in town to see a show.

--Alex Magocsi

Deep Ellum Live
2727 Canton
They never have limes at the bar, and most of the big shows in the past two years--Oasis, Bjsrk, Social Distortion, Chemical Brothers--sold out, leaving lines of people begging for tickets outside. Still, Deep Ellum Live is the best mid-size venue we have. A no-nonsense rectangular room where you can see well from the floor, the acoustics at D.E.L. are always superb. It is as serious about live shows--and the frills many expect--as its laconic and fully descriptive name implies. It's the kind of place where you go to see a show when you don't care about distractions like pool tables, pinball machines, or annoying scenesters.

 

From bands like Danzig, GWAR, or Soundgarden to Everything But The Girl, the Pixies, or the Psychedelic Furs, the hall on Canton is the venue where music comes first.

Now, what about those limes?
--Philip Chrissopoulos

Naomi's
3001 Canton
Walk into Naomi's, and it's like stepping into another place and time. Naomi's has the ambiance of a saloon, complete with "dogs playing poker" on velvet and dozens of cowboy hats stapled to the ceiling. (It's also one of the few places in town where not only Shiner Bock, but Lone Star and Pearl beers are readily available.) "Dallas is about partying," owner-manager Carroll Collyer says, "and Naomi's is the headquarters." As a live music venue, Naomi's is a study in the acoustics of intimacy. The smallish, square room's capacity is a fraction of that of Deep Ellum Live, so even the smallest amplifier makes it to the back, and the crowd is often plentiful. Unlike most clubs, Naomi's never has a cover charge. "It's Robert Tilton time," Collyer reminds the crowd as they pass the bucket to pay the band. And the bands keep coming back to the only boots-and-blue jeans joint in Deep Ellum. Naomi's is a terrific hole in the wall with lots of cheap beer, good bands, and a clientele that knows what to expect. It's unlike anything else in Deep Ellum--for one thing, it's been around so long that, thanks to a grandfather clause, it's the only bar in Dallas where you can buy a six pack to go (shades of Hank Thompson!)--as such, it should be considered an essential Dallas experience.

--Arnold Wayne Jones

Sons of Hermann Hall
3414 Elm
Many venues in Dallas have personality, but few have the warmth, charm, and sheer humanity of the Sons of Hermann Hall. You can boot-scoot to Junior Brown, waltz to Cafe Noir, and sit and watch Sara Hickman. You can twirl your poodle skirt with Ronnie Dawson, jam to Son Volt, and get snot-drunk with the Old 97's, then spend a few dollars on a hamburger, fried up just the way God intended, by a woman with too-tall hair. You can drink Shiner Bock or plain old Coors, drop by once in a blue moon or be as regular as rain. Whatever the case, you'll feel like you're home when you step into this old German fraternal hall.

--Scott Kelton Jones

Trees
2709 Elm
While it's true that longtime Trees booking shaman Doug Simmons recently relinquished his duties at the venerable Elm Street showcase, there's really no reason to expect anything particularly different--why argue with success?

After all, this youngest of a neighborhood live music triumvirate (which also includes Club Clearview and Club Dada) has a peculiar, homey feel, rather like an Elks lodge if it had been taken over by Owsley, Kerouac, and Gibby Haynes. The entertainment is as consistently top-notch as it is diverse, and has proven fairly open-minded toward struggling local acts. Now, if they'd just add a second bartender upstairs for the SRO shows, it might be possible to get a beer without missing 40 minutes of the headliner's set.

--Rick Koster


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