1995 Dallas Observer Music Awards (Part II)
BEST ACT OVERALL: Reverend Horton Heat
ALBUM RELEASE (1994): Liquor in the Front, Reverend Horton Heat (Interscope Records)
LOCAL MUSICIAN OF THE YEAR: Andy Timmons
ROCK, ALTERNATIVE ROCK/POP: Toadies
MALE VOCALIST, SONGWRITER: Todd Lewis of Toadies
NEW ACT: Old 97's
MOST IMPROVED ACT: Vibrolux
FEMALE VOCALIST: Kim Pendleton of Vibrolux
COUNTRY AND WESTERN: Cowboys and Indians
JAZZ: Earl Harvin
AVANT-GARDE/EXPERIMENTAL: Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks
BLUES: Hash Brown
ALBUM PRODUCER, INDUSTRIAL/DANCE: MC 900 Ft Jesus (Mark Griffin)
FUNK/R&B: Beef Jerky
INTERNATIONAL/LATIN: Brave Combo
COVER BAND: Dallas Brass and Electric
CLASSICAL PERFORMANCE ENSEMBLE: Dallas Symphony Orchestra
LIVE MUSIC VENUE: Trees
RADIO PROGRAM THAT PLAYS LOCAL ARTISTS: "The Adventure Club," KDGE-FM (94.5)
SINGLE RELEASE (1994): "Infested," Course of Empire (Zoo Entertainment)
LOCAL RECORD LABEL: Crystal Clear Sound
To the average drunken bar patron, the blues seems to be a monotonous, three-chord pattern slogged out in perpetuity; to the purist, even the most modern blues must sound old to be authentic; and to the revisionist--the Jon Spencers of the underground rock world--the blues is a dated form that must be deconstructed, ruined, for it to be taken seriously.
But to a student of the blues, a man such as Brian "Hash Brown" Calway, the blues is an expansive, ever-evolving music genre--one that runs the gamut in its forms, one open to a thousand different interpretations that bound from profound sorrow to gleeful joy. Calway ranks among the area's most gifted blues guitarists and singers, headlining the bigger blues rooms with his Hash Brown Band (featuring bassist Terry Montgomery and drummer Bobby Baranowski); Calway's also a regular host at various jam sessions at numerous Metroplex blues clubs each week.
Yet he's also a historian and archivist, among the few blues musicians left who cocks an ear toward the past even as he keeps his eyes forward. When, a couple of years ago, he released his debut CD, the internationally lauded T is for Texas, he asked such local luminaries as the late ZuZu Bolin and Texas Tenor Marchel Ivery to guest; it was a jump-blues affair drenched in history, old blues standards recast with men who knew them like scripture. Calway--who has just finished recording his second CD, Rollin' Blues--also has performed on albums by the likes of Bolin, Fort Worth legend Robert Ealey, "Big" Al Dupree, and Henry Qualls; just last week, he headed to Chicago to record with some of Little Walter's old sidemen.
In fact, it is almost with some tiny irony that Brown should beat out Qualls for this award. Qualls, the unassuming man from Elmo, is one of the few honest-to-God bluesmen left around these parts, a man whose music is cut from the same tattered cloth worn by Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. Though he has been performing in Elmo for decades, playing at his home and at a general store for friends and family, he only made his recording debut last year on Chuck Nevitt's Dallas Blues Society label with the hypnotic Blues from Elmo, Texas.
Calway's support of musicians such as Qualls, however, is a contribution to local blues awareness that cannot be overemphasized. It was a video of Qualls playing on the porch of his East Texas home that led Calway and Nevitt to seek out the artist. Calway knew he had to not only perform with Qualls but expose the musician to a generation of blues fans who thought the form originated with the Vaughan brothers. As such, he performs on Blues from Elmo and often sits in with Qualls at such clubs as Blue Cat Blues.
"A lot of people use the blues as a vehicle to go somewhere else musically, whereas I'm into the roots of blues," Calway says. "Playing with Henry is the roots. He has the style of a country gentleman, and his playing is based strictly on feeling rather than a boxed-in style."
Those who have witnessed Qualls' performances with Calway can attest to the spontaneity and raw energy of the music. Qualls invents turnarounds and structures as he goes, spawned by the emotion of the moment. And Calway follows close behind, never letting Qualls disappear from sight.
"It's exciting playing with him, taking that ride over every bump and rock in the road," Calway says. "Henry plays what he wants to play, says what he wants to say, and that's it. And that's the way the blues were meant to be."
It has long been perceived that there is a bias against Pantera in this newspaper (if not all the papers in this town, most of which ignored the band during its rapid ascension to the top of the metal heap). But that's a grand misconception: Pantera--which has only won this award once before, two years ago--ranks with the best of the new breed of hard-rock bands, those that merge metal with punk as well as an indefinable third element (rage, power, perhaps even sheer madness) until it becomes a sub-genre of its own. To listen to Pantera's third album, Far Beyond Driven (which debuted early last year at the top of the Billboard charts, then made a quick descent), or to witness the band live is to understand that when performed at breakneck speeds, at deafening volume, and with unbridled dementia, rock and roll can be both life-affirmingly cathartic and numbingly disheartening.
If metal is indeed dead, if has devolved into a mass of stereotypes, and if its angry messages of empowerment and apathy have been absorbed by so-called new-punk bands such as Green Day and Offspring, then Pantera is even that much more of an anomaly. The band, which began almost a decade ago as a glam Judas Priest-Van Halen-Krokus rip-off, now exists in its own universe--as both tired clich and powerful spokesband, as laughable exaggeration and larger-than-life manifestation of its own message. "I'm broken," Phil Anselmo roars on one track, singing for an entire audience that considers itself incomplete, owed something bigger and better; on another song, Anselmo identifies himself as "the bastard father to the thousands of the ugly, the criticized, the unwanted."
"With most metal bands, it's the same ol' thing," drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott tells the Observer. "They're either faster than Slayer or they've got more hair than Poison. With Pantera, the sound has changed, the songs have changed. We haven't been trend followers. I think we've been trend setters. I feel like one of the most important reasons Pantera has been successful is because of Philip's cold hard facts--street-level stuff that's happened to him and the band--and they mean something to our audience.
"A lot of heavy metal is Dungeons and Dragons and corpses and shit people don't do, and that's why they listen to it--as a novelty. I think our audience relates to it. I listen to a song like 'Shedding Skin' [off Far Beyond Driven], which is about peeling a past relationship, and it gives me a lot of strength and motivation to move on."
The music on Far Beyond Driven amplifies its two predecessors (Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power) by a thousand: each song blurs into the next, guitars and drums and vocals turned up so loud they distort into one another, each passing as quickly as a bullet from a machine gun. When the band performed earlier this year at the Fair Park Coliseum, it revved up the sold-out crowd into a manic frenzy--the music providing the sound track to a well-behaved riot.
Those on the floor ripped up the wooden boards that covered the ice the Dallas Freeze play on, hoisting them in the air as surfboards for the risk-takers. To witness it was to be swept up in the fever--to raise one's fist and shout "Fuckin' hostile!" each time the bald, beefy Anselmo put out the call. One doesn't merely witness Pantera from the sidelines; rather, you're forced to jump up from the bench to participate in the winning scoring drive, no matter what the price.
ALBUM PRODUCER & INDUSTRIAL/DANCE
MC 900 Ft Jesus/Mark Griffin
Since the dawn of time, Griffin has walked away with the industrial-dance award, but never has he won the best album producer accolade. And yet his winning this year should come as no surprise to those who've followed Griffin's career as the Mighty Big Jesus and witnessed how he evolved from a twisted hip-hop artist into a hybrid jazzer-spoken-word artist who now takes his cue from the likes of poet Charles Bukowski and such Miles Davis albums as Bitches Brew and Live-Evil (one day, perhaps, Griffin will even be nominated in the jazz category, alongside compadre and fellow Music Award-winner Earl Harvin).
Griffin moved to Dallas from Cleveland in 1979 and played trumpet with the Telefones till the summer of '83. He began his career as MC 900 Ft Jesus almost as a whim, working behind the counter at VVV Records; the idea was to release a vinyl 12-inch single, then recoup the investment and put out another album.
Now, he is on a label that also boasts on its roster Johnny Cash, Jesus and Mary Chain, Lucinda Williams, the Jayhawks, and Stereolab; his Spike Jonze-directed video for "If I Only Had a Brain" was a "Beavis and Butt-head" favorite; and on April 8, Griffin and his full band completed a European tour that included a month's worth of gigs in such places as Vienna, Paris, and London.
Griffin released his first two full-length albums on Nettwerk, then jumped ship to Rick Rubin's American Recordings label in 1993 when artist-and-repertoire man Mark Geiger made him an offer no artist could refuse.
"The deal with American is much better, because I told them I'd have the record done last summer," Griffin said last June, "and it took me a year to do it. And no one ever gave me one ounce of shit about it at all. It was always, 'Just take your time and do a good record.'"
For months, Griffin toiled in front of his Mac, tweaking months' worth of music on his sequencing software, learning his way as he went. The combination of anxiety brought on by wanting to top his previous work, Welcome to My Dream, and the difficulty in assembling a live band (that included Harvin and former Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, along with several Dallas-area jazz artists), caused several delays in the album's release. But the result was astounding: One Step Ahead of the Spider, released last summer, is a hallucinatory, hypnotic trip though the minds of beggars and lunatics, laced with murder threats and suicides.
With the assistance of Harvin, Reid, pianist Dave Palmer (on loan from Harvin's band), bassist Drew Phelps (formerly of Caf Noir), Billygoat percussionist Mike Dillon, singer Analisa Ripke, and tablas player Nikhil Pandya, Griffin creates a disconcerting musical landscape--part free-jazz, part funk, with hip-hop beats on top of trumpet on top of flute--over which he recites his psychobabble. "My purpose here is to clearly demonstrate to all concerned that you are indeed insane," he says in a monotone on "Tiptoe Through the Inferno," his voice distorted just slightly; another track he simply titled "If I Only Had a Brain."
The album is a complete mood piece, rambling yet coherent--as driven by the jazz instrumentals as by the loony spoken-word pieces. A song like "Gracias Pep"--on which the main sound is one of those long, flexible tubes that howls when you twirl it--and the groovy cover of Curtis Mayfield's "Stare and Stare" (featuring the delirious work of Reid on guitar) sound like different artists when taken separately; and yet, when heard sandwiched in between the other tracks, they work to disquieting effect--like half-remembered snatches of dreams and nightmares so tangible you wonder if they are real.
"The whole point is to make it feel like [the album] took you somewhere," Griffin says of One Foot Ahead of the Spider. "That's one thing I really like about this album--it just goes in all these crazy directions, and yet makes sense to me. I mean, it starts out with this big long jazz cut, goes right into this bossa-nova funk tune, then this rap tune, then 'Stare and Stare' comes out of the blue. Then 'Buried at Sea' is a nice antidote to that, then it goes right into another jazz trip for 'Tiptoe Through the Inferno,' then again out of the blue here comes 'Gracias Pep' that doesn't relate to anything.
"I just like the way it goes through all these different things. It's not just one mood it's setting up; it goes through a whole bunch of different ones, but they work well in succession against each other."
Listening to the opening track of Beef Jerky's Guaranteed Fresh CD, one doesn't need to be a rocket scientist to guess that these boys hail from Denton, where every other band has a mammoth horn section and 132 members, all of whom play at the same time. When it seems all the funk bands have broken up, yet another one from Denton pops up to pick up this award--Whitey last year, Goodfoot before that, and so on down the line.
To understand Beef Jerky and their ilk you have to understand Denton, or any small college town, with its nuances and hybrid culture and its insatiable lust for entertainment (and a not-so-insatiable lust for education). Most of these bands contain at least a dozen members who descended upon "Hell's Lobby" (as a recent Denton rock compilation called the city because of its status as an entryway to Dallas) to attend the University of North Texas, a damned good music school. Even better, the place is notorious as a fine party town, and Beef Jerky is, if anything, a fine party band that most certainly listened to Parliament-Funkadelic and the Red Hot Chili Peppers records when not in the library studying.
Frontman Bubba may sound a tad unconvincing when he sings about "soul power" and makes references to James Brown (though he's quite believable when he insists, "We ain't Tripping Daisy"). But that's a moot point as long as the rhythm is infectious and the pure energy elevates you to a stage of euphoria on a Thursday night with a gut full of beer and a swarm of sweaty members of the opposite sex dancing around you. The trio of horns slices through every important riff from the funk fakebook, and the rhythm section is as tight as can be.
The seven members of the group bound giddily from song to song, whether they're copping rap riffs in "Leave Me Alone" or borrowing from War's "Low Rider" to come up with "Easy Squeeze." As if the band members' names weren't indication enough--Flog on bass, Freaky Burgeson on trumpet, Monchici on sax, and so forth--the song titles (including "Let's Get Naked and Funk" and "Party") and dope-smoking anthems bear ample proof that Beef Jerky is the musical equivalent of a 10-keg frat party. Without the hangover.
There is no disputing that Brave Combo easily fits criteria for this category, just as there is no disputing the ease with which they win this award each year. Since its inception more than a decade ago, this band has broadened its palette of influences to include such a wide spectrum of sounds that it is more international than the United Nations. In the past few years alone, the Combo has added traditional Japanese music (ondo), French cabaret, and classic-rock standards to its repertoire, fleshing out a sound that already was well-grounded in conjunto, salsa, polkas, cha-chas, waltzes, and what-have-you.
And yet, each year Brave Combo is nominated only in this category, ghettoized to "International/Latin," though Brave Combo is among the best bands this town (including Denton) has ever produced. Not once have Carl Finch, Bubba Hernandez, Jeffrey Barnes, and the other members been given a shot at the top honors (songwriting, best act overall, local musician of the year, best album) because we have come to think of them as this ill-defined beast that falls in the crack separating the intellectual from the novel.
Old habits are indeed hard to break, but Brave Combo--and, for that matter, fellow nominees Caf Noir--deserve a shot at something larger, an award that does not so narrowly pigeonhole what is so damned hard to pin down.
Only a few weeks ago, Brave Combo released an album that ranks among its finest: the Japanese-release-only Allumettes, recorded over a four-year period with former Washington Squares lead singer Lauren Agnelli. Though it skitters toward the familiar Latin-lounge sound of some of the Combo's earlier albums, it is a far darker, far more somber piece of work--one that concentrates more on the smoky torch songs than on the whacked-out new-wave-cha-cha-cha. Agnelli's vocals on the lush, frightening "Burn Slow" and the jazzbo oom-pah "J'ai Faim Toujours" (covered by Little Jack Melody on his 1994 World of Fireworks) are the desperate, sad yin to Brave Combo's giddy, frenetic yang. Yet Brave Combo never loses its sound to the music, always remaining identifiable even as it branches out into a thousand directions.
"Every time we do a record, it's, 'What do we do now?'" Combo founder Finch explains. "We always need something to give us a new angle. When you're in a band that throws in everything including the kitchen sink, that should give you plenty of freedom, but that's also a real problem. I don't like a directionless album. When you have the freedom to do whatever, that's frustrating. I like to have limits."
And yet it's the sound of what exists outside the boundaries that defines Brave Combo--a band that is preparing to release another all-polka album even as it attempts to release the record made with Tiny Tim over several years (featuring a martini-with-a-twist remake of "Stairway to Heaven"). So here's a hearty mazel tov for this year, and a cautionary word for next year: Brave Combo deserves this award, as always, but you'd have a hard time explaining why they aren't also the best band overall. Anywhere, anytime.
That Dallas--an enormous urban landscape, less dense perhaps than Los Angeles or New York City but every bit as barren and unfriendly at times--has not bred a proportionately larger rap/hip hop scene remains a demographic mystery. Sales of national rap acts are soaring, the Beastie Boys are on their way through here for the second time in less than a year, and De La Soul packed the Bomb Factory during their most recent visit, but the scene itself here is small, if not invisible. Some local rappers blame the media for inadequate coverage of the local scene; others suggest that only the coasts, West and East, are fertile grounds for rap and hip-hop.
The members of Mad Flava--winners last year, nominees most recently--vehemently criticized the local media (and this award) for not "being really true to what's going on" in the rap community. It remains underground, they insisted, only because it is so ignored.
But truth be told, the vast majority of rap music buyers are young teenagers, black and white, easily awed by the larger-than-life personas of Ice Cube or Snoop Doggy Dog, less impressed with those rappers who refuse to buy into the stereotype. The gun-totin', gangsta-pimpin', bitch-slappin' image those rappers portray is far more impressive to young ears and eyes than easy-going, funky-groovy acts like a Tribe Called Quest or the Digable Planets. Add to the equation the distance that separates Dallas from New York or L.A., and the atmosphere becomes ripe for the hostility born of futility.
Denton's BassX, on the other hand, is a homegrown talent that created its own niche here in Texas, existing on the farthest ends of the spectrum--as artists making music for the love of it, as performers unwilling to package their product inside the cardboard machismo of gangsta rap. The five-piece combo is fronted by rappers Kid Homeslice (real name Hal Hilliard) and Snicka G. (Gerald Young), with the fine grooves laid down by real musicians--namely Chill-EV (a.k.a., Vince Reynolds) on guitar, Bendonesia (Ben Bocardo) on bass, and Bobgoblin's Rob Avsharian on drums. All the players are jazz-trained, and their musicianship shines in an effortless way.
"We started as a group of people jamming, and the whole thing crossed to hip-hop," Reynolds says. "In a lot of ways we are an 'alternative band,' since we mostly play to college audiences. But definitely we wouldn't want to group ourselves with that Denton funk stigma. We're going in more of a jazz direction."
BassX defies pigeonholing by blending smooth Kenny Burrell-style guitar licks with slick bass chords and old-school funk rhythms upon which the two rappers rhyme, interplay, and collide. Quite often, the five Dentonites offer a slice of what groups like Us3 promised but never delivered--a merging of 'round midnight jazz with modern hip-hop sensibilities. Where Us3, the Blue Note band best known for its hit "Cantaloop," samples old jazz records and plays off the old music, BassX is all about live, breathing musicians who create the same powerful sound in front of you. They pride themselves in saying they are "a live hip-hop quintet."
"I don't like it when groups put a piece of vinyl on and claim it's their own sound," Young insists. "Our live show is what really says it all."
The chemistry between the musicians and the rappers is also evident in the recorded output of BassX (their debut CD is due shortly), on which they show the only thing that can confine you musically is your own limited perceptions. The band is not afraid to venture out, mixing rock and psychedelia into the music. And for their part, Kid Homeslice and Snick G. rap about life in Texas--about the everyday highs and lows, their love for Coltrane and beer, about "inflation of the mind and not the pocket," and, of course, girls.
"Our whole philosophy is get off your butt and have fun," Young says. "We only have one life to live that we know. With BassX, I do what I love and enjoy it to the fullest."
No music ever dies--not disco, not rockabilly, not ska, not new wave, not any of those so-called short-lived sub-genres that have been written off, dismissed, erased from the history books. Try telling Reverend Horton Heat (or Ronnie Dawson, for that matter) that "rockabilly is the purest of all rock & roll genres...because it never went anywhere," as Peter Guralnick wrote in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll; try telling Bobgoblin that "by the mid-'80s, new wave was old hat," as Ken Tucker wrote in the same book.
And try telling the Grown-Ups that ska is dead, that it was supplanted by reggae in the early '70s and suffered a second death in 1979, after Madness and the English Beat and Selecter had their shot at it. Grant them this: the Grown-Ups, however much their shtick may be a direct lift from the British Two-Tone movement, are at the very least one hell of an exciting band. Theirs is a sound--enormous, brassy, propelled by the chukka-chukka of two electric guitars and the faux-Brit accents of singer Grant "Stoom" Cornett--that's rooted in an old-school dance craze but gets by enough on the wild-eyed love for the stuff. The legs never stiffen if you don't stand still.
Though the Grown-Ups get little attention outside the area--a recent issue of Alternative Press failed to include them in a massive listing of ska bands in the South that included the likes of Provo, Utah's Swim Herschel Swim--but their 10-inch EP for Direct Hit was among 1994's swellest local releases. Packaged with loads of stickers and posters and complete with its own cut-out mask, the album (pressed on white vinyl, no less) contained the band's now-immortal anthem, "I'm a Grown-Up," which encourages you to be a grown-up, too. "The responsible ones keep questioning me: 'Whatcha gonna do when you run out of youth?'" they wonder, knowing full well that when you listen to--or play--ska, that won't ever happen.
Dallas Brass & Electric
Dallas Brass and Electric, a musical institution in the Metroplex since the days when Tripping Daisy were in high school, operates out of the office that houses their parent company, Solid Brass Productions. And if that sounds a bit corporate and sterile--artists holed up in an office, sitting at desks and fielding calls and booking appointments like regular Joes on the clock--maybe it explains why musicians would make a career out of playing copy music: for the money.
"Actually, it's a hard way to make a living," says Don Bozman, DB&E's trombonist and spokesman. "In the mid- to late '80s, when the economy was cool, you could make a good living. But now, though the band is our primary source of income, the musicians all pretty much do happy-hour gigs or session work. But no one's flipping burgers."
Hard times or not, Dallas Brass and Electric has survived the ever-altering stylistic and financial landscapes of the Metroplex music scene since the early '80s. And if they haven't garnered a reputation for writing original material (one critically acclaimed EP, released a few years back, met with indifference in the marketplace), at least they've consistently attracted great musicians.
"DB&E has always been about having the best players available," Bozman insists. "I hesitate to call us a 'variety' act, which connotes cheesy tunes and cheesy arrangements, but this is an extremely versatile group."
The band's playlist, which evolves on a monthly basis, is heavily R&B flavored, but also includes contemporary jazz, rock and even a few alternative-rock tunes--all rendered with a distinct DB&E flavor. Bozman stresses many copy bands have no other musical goal than to replicate the chosen material note-for-note, while in DB&E a song might change from night to night.
"Because the players are so good," Bozman says of his band, "it's possible for us to get to the heart of the song--copy or original--and go beyond the song and get to the music...There's a ton of original bands whose music sucks. There are plenty of good ones, too, like Ten Hands. But just because you write your own stuff doesn't mean it's good."
CLASSICAL PERFORMANCE ENSEMBLE
Dallas Symphony Orchestra
The 1995-96 season for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra holds much promise: mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who canceled her only North American opera appearance, with the Dallas Opera, last year because of illness and injury, is scheduled to perform with the DSO on October 2 at the Meyerson Symphony Center; violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will make her debut with the orchestra in February 1996; and such classical superstars as pianists Emmanuel Ax and Andr Watts will return to town. If there is any doubt that the DSO can top last season, which marked the full-time debut of conductor Andrew Litton, the schedule for next season should quiet the doubters.
Certainly, last year was marked by the death of conductor emeritus Eduardo Mata in a plane crash; just as the jubilation over Litton's taking the baton was calming, the tragic news cast a pall over things. (John Ardoin's "obituary" in the Morning News, which read more like a scathing attack on the dead, did little to soften the blow, outraging even Mata's greatest detractors.)
Undoubtedly, the DSO ranks among the best orchestras in the country, selling out each season and garnering critical acclaim with each CD release. Litton's arrival and the now-legendary Meyerson only add to the prestige the DSO has built up since the days when George Solti was music director for a brief time in the 1960s. But this award goes to the DSO for the same reason McDonald's wins best restaurant in the Best of Dallas issue each September--because it's familiar, easy, what readers know best.
Cafe Noir, which won last year, may not explicitly fit the bill--no more than they are a jazz band or a Western swing group--but theirs is a background firmly entrenched in classical music. But like Kronus Quartet or any number of avant-garde groups, they experiment with the form, attacking Stravinsky's "Andante and Gallop" (from his "Five Easy Pieces") and Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again" with the same passion, the same respect. Nothing against the DSO, ever, but like Miles Davis says in much stronger terms, theirs is "dead European music" whereas Caf Noir's is very much alive.
LIVE MUSIC VENUE
All night, throughout the Cartwrights' set and continuing through the New Bohemians' highly anticipated reunion concert, the bass reverberated throughout the club like a train off its tracks. The godawful thump was like a sledgehammer to the chest, so painful it drove men and women from the place like rats from a burning building.
In the days that followed the show, both the Morning News and the Observer commented about the horrendous sound, blaming the sound man for the mix. Only later, after stumbling across much derisive graffiti concerning the personal habits of a particular music editor, would we discover the fault lay with New Bos' bassist Brad Houser, not with the guy behind the board. Apologies followed, on both sides.
It was, as memory best serves, the only time Trees ever sounded bad, and for that reason alone, Trees deserves this award--good sound, after all, being such a rare commodity in Deep Ellum, where the tone-deaf are apparently hired without qualification.
No doubt about it, Trees has much going for it as a nightclub--good sightlines, friendly bartenders, groovy upstairs hangout, delightful people at the door, a decent-to-excellent roster of touring acts (from Paul Westerberg to Throwing Muses, Nick Lowe to Cyndi Lauper), and so forth. And if the readers prefer it over Club Dada, the Galaxy, or the jukejoint on the country side of Deep Ellum, Naomi's, so be it. (Honorary mention to Sons of Hermann Hall, though, the jewel of Dallas music venues.)
But Trees is just that--a nightclub, no more or less. Which means, for the thousandth time, Dallas is left with relatively few "live music venues" that do not require a valid Texas I.D. for entry. Since the Bronco Bowl never re-opened (and what happened with that, anyway?), the Majestic rents out for concerts with such infrequency, and the Arcadia's still sweatin' with the oldies, Dallas has been without a decent mid-sized venue for far too long.
Fact is, after all these years of moaning, the best live music venue in town still goes unused most of the time--the Fair Park Bandshell, which slowly decays beneath the searing summer sun and the wet, cold rain of winter. With its spacious front section, room enough for blankets and those who want to stand, and the rows of bleachers, the Bandshell is a treasure that is dusted off so infrequently it has been all but forgotten by promoters. Instead, shows get stuck in the way-too-cavernous Bomb Factory or Deep Ellum Live--crowds forced to stand when they ought to sit, eyes and lungs seared from the cigarette smoke that stagnates inside those structures and the other clubs.
RADIO PROGRAM THAT PLAYS LOCAL ARTISTS
"The Adventure Club," kdge-fm (94.5)
Josh Venable's fixation with Morrissey and Hagfish aside--way aside, if you know what we mean--"The Adventure Club" is like an oasis in the desert that is Sunday night radio, so good you almost wonder whether it's a mirage.
For so many of the Edge's listeners, "The Adventure Club" serves the same function as the old "Rock and Roll Alternative" did in the mid-'80s. With a rich, varied playlist that runs the gamut from brand-new Brit import to advance tracks from forthcoming indie LPs to golden-oldies to local talent, this show serves as both an introduction to what's new and a reminder of what was once so great about "alternative rock and roll."
Coming through the speakers, Venable and co-host Kevin McAlester sound more like devout music fans than polished jocks (hence, the main difference between "Adventure Club" and "R&R Alternative"), each arguing his case for a favorite song while the other feigns disinterest or dislike. Theirs is a unique relationship in local radio, one built on friendship and respect (for each other, for the bands), and one that always includes the audience in the listening experience.
"Infested," Course of Empire (Zoo Entertainment)
This time last year, Course of Empire snagged this very award for this very song (notice to nominating committee: this isn't the Grammys; no repeats), which, as we stressed then and now, was meant as a joke--the fusion of Benny Goodman's galloping "Sing, Sing, Sing" with Course's brooding, apocalyptic disco-rock. And, as guitarist Mike Graff added, the idea belonged not to the band but producer David Castell, who assembled the whole concept into a brilliant package.
"We're trying to hold back the reins on [Zoo Entertainment, the band's label] pushing the single too much because we don't want people getting the idea we are a joke remix," Graff said last year--though, in retrospect, it might not be a bad idea to redo all of Initiation with big-band remixes. (Sidebar: "Infested" was eligible this year because it was released in November 1993, but the album from which it was taken came out in January 1994.)
Ironically, of all the "singles" nominated this year--also the Grown-Ups' giddy 10-inch on Direct Hit and Bedhead's mini-masterpiece 4SongCDEP19:10 on Trance Syndicate--only the rubberbullet "Entangled/Grinning Bitches" seven-inch on Last Beat Records fits the strictest definition: it's a 45 RPM slab of vinyl with a giant hole in the middle, to be played on one of the 284 turntables still left in America.
LOCAL RECORD LABEL
Crystal Clear Sound
Throughout the years, Dallas has been overrun with tiny independent record labels; there were probably more 30 or 40 years ago than today. From Star Talent to Blue Bonnet, from Longhorn to White Rock, from Abnak to GPC--some boasted legendary names, others were vanity projects, all faded from memory even before they released their last single.
The so-called "indie" record company once flourished here, long before Dragon Street scooped up Tripping Daisy and Hagfish, long before Last Beat and Direct Hit and Leaning House and Carpe Diem ever set up shop. Though they all have the potential and the bands to flourish, only time will tell whether these names will be remembered as the Sub Pops or Drag Citys (or, in the case of Leaning House, the Blue Note) of Texas, or whether they, too, will vanish from the history books.
Whatever its fate down the line, Crystal Clear has already made its mark as Dallas' own version of a miniature major record label--with its own studio, the means to distribute and manufacture CDs, and owner Sam Paulos, likely the most powerful man in local music. Paulos is so powerful, in fact, that Crystal Clear manufactures and distributes almost every other label in town.
When Paulos bought the crumbling Crystal Clear Sound in August 1990, it was, as he has said, a "demo-class studio with an album-class engineer" in producer Keith Rust. After funneling thousands of dollars into a major redo, bands began renting out the studio to the tune of nearly 300 hours a month; this year's Best Album winner, Reverend Horton Heat's Liquor in the Front, was recorded there, as was the Old 97's Hitchhike to Rhome. Though it distributes dozens of albums, some of which bear the Crystal Clear logo, it has released only two albums that actually belong to Crystal Clear--Mildred's 1991 Whippersnapper and the brand-new Sixty-Six debut CD. Sixty-Six's album is actually on the Steve Records label, an imprint Paulos created to separate his label from Crystal Clear's distribution side, which has also handled the likes of the Dixie Chicks and, once upon a time, Killbilly.
Paulos has Sixty-Six, among the best bands in town, signed to a moderately long-term contract, which means that if a major label wanted to sign Bill Longhorse and the rest of the band, they would have to buy out the contract and the recordings from Crystal Clear. But Paulos and Longhorse's intentions reach far beyond one release. Like the smart businessmen and wise artists they are, they approach their partnership as an investment, allowing the band to build a following even as its members grow as musicians rather than trying to pursue a major-label deal that may or may never come.
But make no mistake: "For us, we're concerned with selling records," Paulos told the Observer last December. "Every step of our involvement in recording, manufacturing, and distribution is geared toward selling records. Having the band signed to a major is secondary to us.
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