2003 Dallas Observer Music Awards
Thirty or so nominators, culled from the rank and file of the local music industry, decided what names made it onto the ballot for the 2003 Dallas Observer Music Awards. Slightly fewer than 6,000 of you decided what names made it onto the 15 pounds of sculpted metal we call a music award, the trophies we handed out on April 15 at Gypsy Tea Room. Nothing complicated about that. It's as simple and plain as a Lewisville housewife.
That said, there will be griping. Also: bitching, carping, fussing, fighting, grumbling and complaining. There always is. But maybe there will be less of that this time around. We certainly hope so, because though this is little more than a popularity contest--and what election isn't?--most of your picks are right on, right now.
There was no big winner this year, as there was last time around, when Chomsky took home six trophies. The story instead was that it was a tight race on many fronts; five male vocalists were separated by little more than the length of a mike stand throughout, constantly jockeying for position. If the polls had stayed open another week, there might have been a different winner. One more week, and it could have been someone else altogether. And each one deserved it. It was the same all over: In almost every category, you could swap the winner for one of the also-rans, and there would be no dip in quality, no lack of merit.
Perhaps it's a testament to the strength of our local music community (and it is ours, whether some of you want it or not) that roughly the same amount of voters participated in 2002 and 2003, yet there are very few repeat winners. (Maybe it's something else entirely, but we choose to read the situation that way.) We wouldn't be surprised if we end up saying that next year, too.
But remember, and this is important: This is only one issue. The award show was only one night. The voting lasted only a few weeks. If you want to really do your part, drop a five-spot at the door of any club in Deep Ellum or on Lower Greenville or wherever. Go see local bands. Buy their albums. Tell your friends about them. That's how you can elect some real winners. --Zac Crain
The Polyphonic Spree
Winner for: Best Act Overall and
It was Saturday night, the last night of this year's South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, and my ears were ringing but my heart was OK. (Credit: Captain Audio.) I slipped around the side of the stage for no reason in particular, except that I'd had a few and felt like a bit of a walk, the kind of random left foot-right foot a couple of belts encourages. Past the tower of speakers on the corner, past the people sipping drinks and talking loudly into each other's ear, their conversations trying to find a footing above the music. Up a few steps and around a corner and then I was at the edge of the fray, the rugby scrum disguised as a tent revival disguised as a rock concert. Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffney of Supergrass, the band due onstage next, behind my back, eyes straight ahead, mouths turned up, transfixed. Twenty or so people in choir robes in front of me, each dancing around the stage to their own beat, stomping and twirling and singing and jumping and hugging and laughing, Tim DeLaughter, curly-haired and sweaty-faced, in the center of it all. I grabbed a pole with my left arm and swung out for a better look, just avoiding getting sucked into the whirlwind of feet and arms and trumpets and microphone cords and guitars and whatever a foot or so away. DeLaughter caught my eye, and his grin, already mirroring a 14-year-old on his first tab of Ecstasy, got a little bigger, his eyes a little brighter. The song was winding down and so was the show, and when they were both spent, everyone at Stubb's was noticeably happier than they were before, beaming like kids sharing a secret, the kind of smile that makes your face hurt the next morning. This is how you fall under the Polyphonic Spree's spell.
It happened the first time I saw the band, which was also its first show ever, opening for Grandaddy at Gypsy Tea Room in July 2000, back when the group topped out at a mere dozen members. Just about everyone there was hooked on Polyphonic from the first note, singing along with heads back and arms to the sky, even though only the people onstage had ever heard the songs--grand and giddy as a teen-age prince then; even more so now--before. And it's been happening ever since, especially in the past year or so when the ever-expanding group hit the road like an atom bomb, to paraphrase an album title from DeLaughter's former outfit, Tripping Daisy.
It began at least year's SXSW, when music journalists and pretty much everyone else took to the Polyphonic Spree like a baby to a breast, offering up public displays of affection to rival the then-forthcoming Ben & Jen romance. Same thing happened later in the year at the CMJ New Music Marathon. And again at this year's grip-and-grin in Austin. But the band's status in the U.K., somewhere between Kylie Minogue and Jesus Christ, causes all of that to seem like illegible scribbling in badly photocopied fanzines. British music bible NME rapturously relates the Polyphonic Spree's comings and goings like it's covering a prime-minister election (and recently gave the band the "Fuck Me!" Award for Innovation at its own annual awards show) and is so over-the-top in its praise that it's almost back at the bottom. Death in Vegas and Peter Gabriel have enlisted the group to remix their singles, and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker directed a video for "Hanging Around"--known as "Section 6" on the U.S. version of their debut, The Beginning Stages of.... (Cocker also donned a choir robe and sat in with the band during one of its concerts at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire last year.) They even have a major-label deal: The Beginning Stages of... was released in the U.K. in 2002 on 679 Recordings, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.
Shouldn't be a surprise if their profile on this side of the Atlantic increases in the coming months, since the group is in the middle of its first U.S. tour, and will make its broadcast television debut (over here, at least) on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live on April 30. It is, however, a bit of a shock that the winner for Best Act Overall would also be considered the most experimental band in town, especially when that town is Dallas, a city "full of unimaginative, materialistic yuppies," as someone recently took the time and energy to e-mail us. Makes sense that the band to do it (the first one ever, if memory serves) would be the Polyphonic Spree. The group may employ violin and viola, harp and horns, pedal steel and piccolo, a janitor-worthy amount of keys and a choir. But the 20-something-member band is still playing pop songs with those instruments, sandbox soundtracks with child's-play choruses such as, "Hey!/It's the sun!/And it makes me shine." The real experiment? Figuring out how to keep a couple of dozen choir robes snow-white while on tour. --Z.C.
Bowling for Soup
Winner for: Best Album (2002), Best Song (2002)
Observer readers harbor mad love for Wichita Falls homeboys Bowling for Soup: The majority of you selected as Best Album the band's peppy third CD, Drunk Enough to Dance, and as Best Song its suddenly ubiquitous jock-baiting hit single, "Girl All the Bad Guys Want." But when we reach front man Jaret Reddick, getting drunk enough to dance at a backyard band barbecue at bassist Erik Chandler's place, he still can't believe enough members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences agreed with you to hand Bowling for Soup its first Grammy nod (for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, if you're taking notes).
"How mind-blowing is it that we would be nominated?" Reddick marvels. "Everyone's been asking, 'Is this something you guys sought after?' And we're like, 'It's not even something we ever thought about!' We figured it had to be a joke--maybe a Mini-Grammy, or a Grammy 2. I mean, you watch the Grammys to see Bono and Don Henley, not us."
This is true: Even the band's baby-blue tuxedos weren't much of a match for all the high-wattage star power motoring Madison Square Garden that night. But Reddick's just pumped that the tuneful, efficient pop-punk he, Chandler, guitarist Chris Burney and drummer Gary Wiseman have been making for nearly a decade is starting to gain some mainstream recognition.
"I listen to Top 40 radio," he explains, "and pop-punk bands are in the top five on every single station right now: Good Charlotte, New Found Glory, Bowling for Soup, Simple Plan. We want to be a band that people like, and we catch a lot of shit for that attitude, but we didn't start this band to break new ground--we started it to write songs that people want to hear."
Despite the newfound glory, Reddick insists the band is keeping it as real as ever. "We're absolutely the same," he says of the group's attempt at big-balling. "It's so exactly the same it's scary; whether we're at band practice or on the tour bus, playing to 100 people or 200,000, it doesn't matter. And musically, the proof is in the albums: If you can find one, buy our record that came out in '94, and you'll see that we're the same band we've always been. We understand that we need to enjoy this while it's here."
In the short term that means playing a handful of radio-station festivals over the next few months, a choice spot on the Warped Tour this summer and writing and recording for a new album to be released in 2004.
"We've been nominated for an Observer award before, for Best New Band," Reddick says, laughing. "We didn't win, but the ceremony was one of the drunkest states I've ever been in. See, there was free tequila, and there's this equation you learn in pre-algebra: tequila = bad." Still drunk, still dancing. --Mikael Wood
Winner for: Best New Act
If the story didn't already exist, perfect in so many ways, if you didn't see it with your own eyes, hear it from their untrained lips, you'd swear it was fiction straight from an imaginative publicist. Or maybe the work of an old-school band manufacturer along the lines of Andrew Loog Oldham, someone who knew what journalists wanted before they knew they needed it. Yet, no, there it is: three sisters (guitarist Chauntelle, singer-guitarist Sherri and singer-keyboard player Stacy DuPree), their brother (drummer Weston) and their bass-playing best friend (Jonathan Wilson), ranging between the ages of 21 and 14. Straight outta Tyler, by way of Dallas, and into the welcoming arms of Warner Bros. and Coldplay's go-to guy, Dave Holmes of Nettwerk Management. And this has all, pretty much, happened in the past few months. There have been made-for-VH1 movies that have more complicated plots. But, then, that's part of what makes it such a great story; it's so simple, so pure, it feels as though it was meant to happen. And if that's true, you couldn't pick a better band--a better family--for it to happen to.
Of course, everything in the above paragraph, save for the description of who does what onstage, matters little as soon as you hear Eisley. At that point, words don't really work anymore. Every comparison fits a size too small; every easy answer just brings up tougher questions. Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke certainly wasn't up to the task, comparing the band (looks-wise) to Avril Lavigne and (musically) to "a female Flaming Lips" in a recent review of its South by Southwest performance. (Fricke and Rolling Stone do, however, score some points for separating the wheat from the chaff, singling out Eisley--along with Kinski, Pretty Girls Make Graves and Kaito--from the other 1,000 or so acts at SXSW.) There's not one other band readily available as a reference point for Eisley, though once Laughing City, the group's debut EP for Warner Bros., drops in a month or so, just watch rock writers scramble for their best blank-meets-blank correlations.
Thing is, one plus one never equals two when you're talking about the music Eisley makes. You can take a picture of sunlight streaming through a bank of clouds, but it doesn't make you feel the same way as when you saw it and felt it and smelled it, and the same goes for seeing Eisley live. There are plenty of things I can say about how Sherri and Stacy's voices wrap together like a hand holding another one, how Chauntelle is the first real guitar heroine I can think of, how Wilson and Weston's rhythm section often could be its own song. But they wouldn't do the group justice. I will say this: It's staggering to think where they can go from here. --Z.C.
Carter Albrecht and Trey Johnson
Winner for: Musician of the Year (Carter Albrecht), Male
Vocalist (Trey Johnson) and Songwriter (Carter Albrecht)
Figures that Carter Albrecht would have a nice jump shot, even with a cigarette smoldering from his lips. He does everything else pretty well, so why not? I know about his shooting skills because I wriggled my way into the weekly basketball game that happens every Monday night at the place Albrecht and Barley House co-owner Richard Winfield share near the SMU campus. (Also on the court: Ward Williams, who plays with Albrecht in Sparrows and, lately, Sorta; Todd Pertl, pedal steel and guitar player for Deadman; and Paul Williams, producer of Sparrows' debut, Rock and Roll Days.) The night before that backyard game, Albrecht was onstage at Barley, sitting in with Shibboleth, twisting and shouting his way through a cover of the Guess Who's "These Eyes" and making pretty much everyone jammed into the bar forget someone else ever recorded that song. He cradled the crowd in one hand and held tight to the mike with the other, Shibboleth making like Booker T. & the MG's to his Otis Redding. And he's even better with his own material.
Flash back a couple of days to Sparrows' set at Liquid Lounge the Friday night before, or Saturday morning, if you wanna get technical. Leading the band through a set of songs from Rock and Roll Days, as well as some new ones the group plans to lay down with Paul Williams at Last Beat in a few months, Albrecht proved that he might be Dallas' one true rock star. No matter that Sparrows (which includes Ward Williams on slide guitar and pedal steel, bassist Dave Monsey, guitarist Danny Baylis and drummer Brent Cole) are still playing the small rooms instead of the big stadiums, or that Albrecht is too nice, too humble and too talented to be relegated to that kind of corrupt celebrity. He certainly looks like one, though, tall and skinny as a stop sign and charismatic as a con man. And he sounds like one on Rock and Roll Days. True to the title, the disc is rock and roll all over, but it's also soulful in spirit and singer-songwriter-smart in sentiment. Albrecht writes lyrics that can trace the history of the world from Adam and Eve to Avril Lavigne ("Rockinrocknroll": "Then there came a man/And then there was a girl/A murder, a flood, a virgin, a martyr, a Hitler, a Jagger/A radio") or reduce the history of a relationship to one fuck-you couplet ("Placebo": "And all I wanted was all you are/And all I got was all you are").
Flash back an hour or so from Sparrows' set that night and you'll see why Albrecht takes home Musician of the Year: He's just as happy playing sideman as he is standing in the spotlight. Playing guitar and piano and organ for Sorta, he blended into the background, chaining smokes and changing instruments, often in the same song. Sorta singer-guitarist Trey Johnson did more than keep center stage warm for Albrecht, showing off the voice that wins here for Male Vocalist. The pig-tailed Johnson has a set of pipes as comfortable in a caterwaul ("Boobjob") as a croon ("Look Like a Fool"), and sometimes both ("Chinese Feet"). Johnson's vocals are one of the highlights on Sorta's full-length debut, last year's Laugh Out Loud, and even more of a draw on the newer More Myth EP, as low-key and intimate as a good first date. The band (Johnson and Albrecht are joined by drummer Trey Carmichael and Baylis on bass, as well as Williams on pedal steel) is set to follow up those discs later this year, recording a new full-length with Paul Williams at Last Beat, around the same time as Sparrows. Maybe the bands should just release them together as a double-disc set; Sorta Sparrows kinda has a ring to it. --Z.C.
Winner for: Female Vocalist
Maybe it's too common a comparison, but what the hell: Darla Oates is a living female version of Jeff Buckley, trilling and thrilling with a range so unencumbered it recalls the dramatic vocals of the late singer, with maybe a little Yma Sumac thrown in. Her genre is, well, there isn't just one; bluesy at times, ethereal and folky at others, she's always charismatic, which isn't really its own genre, but maybe it should be. Once a solo artist, Oates pretty much stuck to Mondays at Muddy Waters and a night here and there at The Cavern and a few other clubs, but now that she's got a full backing band, the gigs are more frequent and the venues bigger. It's doubtful, though, that even the expanse that is Gypsy Tea Room could contain her full-throttle dynamics. Oates' style revolves around her voice, as it would and should with any singer, but not every singer has the knack to write songs that harness her raw skill and still let it dip and dive into show-off runs now and again. Regular audience members have called her a virtuoso, and the general opinion agrees in spite of the varied crowd Oates usually draws. Maybe her choice selection of covers was the initial enticement (just listen to her version of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes"), but Oates has proven herself as a truly original artist. And a truly original voice. --Merritt Martin
Winner for: Country
He could have been a contender and still is, go figure; how did Sony miss with Jack Ingram, anyway? Maybe at that label, you have to sue to be saved, especially on the country side of life. Consider: He's the literate songwriter with movie-star good looks, a city boy who crossed over to the country crowd long before it found its longneck saviors at the bottom of a cracker barrel, but he's so barely on Sony these days you're closer to being signed if you belong to the Columbia House Music Club. (The label released his new EP Extra Volts, and by released I mean they gave him copies to send out to press and sell at shows.) No mystery why the label treats Ingram like a rumor: He's a tough sell, because unlike his frat-house-dance-hall peers, Ingram believes you gotta work for the good time, that the party at the end of the week has to mean something other than the hangover forthcoming.
His body of work, which creases with a few extra wrinkles of wisdom with each release, suggests a man who believes in consequence and responsibility, guilt and accountability--and faded love mixed within, if there's room enough and time enough between the wonderin' and the worryin'. In Nashville they're writing star-spangled anthems, hackneyed hymns to spur radio play and album sales (If you don't buy Darryl Worley's new CD, you must hate America); in North Dallas, Ingram's writing about "Red, White and Blues" and feeling bad about feeling bad about not paying his dues. It's not quite his anti-pro-war song--such a thing's never before existed--but comes damned close; such are his talents he can make you think before you take that drink, which is pretty much the last thing the country audience wants (the thinkin' part, not the drinkin' thing). Then, Ingram's about this close to country these days and further distancing himself quite valiantly; if last year's Electric was a tenuous jump into the deep end, Extra Volts is where he goes under and holds his breath till his lungs start to burn. Next year he wins singer, songwriter and musician of the year; if he doesn't, then you must not love America. --Robert Wilonsky
Winner for: Rock/Pop
In the beginning, I completely dismissed South FM, stiff-arming them with a few one-liners and high-stepping away. I heard the malady instead of the melody, thought they were just another lowest-common-denominator band playing to the lowest-common-denominator crowd at, say, Curtain Club. I missed the point, heard but didn't listen, shot first and never got around to asking questions. But I was the only one: On the strength of their debut (think: Deftones making a straight-up pop-rock record), South FM (singer Paco Estrada, guitarists G.I. Sanders and Chad Abbott, bassist Doug McGrath and new drummer John Humphrey) has gone from bottom-of-the-bill to king-of-the-hill, from battle-of-the-bands busts to a deal with MCA Records.
In the process, they proved themselves to be, arguably, Dallas' most radio-ready band. Which isn't the slur it once was, not if you've heard "Dear Claudia" (a narrow second for Best Song) and "My Sanity," songs with choruses that burn themselves onto your internal CD-R on first listen, intense and tender at the same time, like a rabid dog with a thorn in its paw. For the re-release of Drama Kids, which hits stores May 20, MCA enlisted high-profile producers Chris Lord-Alge (Green Day, Bad Religion) and Tim Palmer (U2, Pearl Jam) to remix those tracks (along with "Seven," another standout). By summer, they should be on the radio more than station IDs. And I'll pay attention this time. --Z.C.
Winner for: Funk/R&B
There are several ways to explain why you voted Erykah Badu best Funk/R&B act for the third year in a row. The first, of course, is the enduring quality of her two studio albums, 1997's Baduizm and 2000's Mama's Gun, both of which time has only given the opportunity to unfurl at a pace suited to Badu's brain-melting voice and her sassy/sweet songwriting. Even "On & On," the big MTV hit that first brought the 32-year-old Dallas native national attention, sounds fresher today than a lot of the C-grade filler the neo-soul scene's produced in earnest since.
Then there's her famously incendiary live show, captured on '97's Live, where she refers to herself in the third person, says she's an artist and is therefore "sensitive about my shit" and tells a no-good suitor to get his own damn cell phone. And her collaborative work demands its own visit to the virtual ballot box: "Love of My Life," the self-styled "ode to hip-hop" she and boyfriend Common had featured on last year's Brown Sugar soundtrack, flowed some heavy allegorical nostalgia over a tasty flute loop; before that, Badu donated crucial juice to "Humble Mumble," one of the weirder numbers on Stankonia, the breakthrough by her ex-boyfriend Andre Benjamin's group OutKast.
All that aside, though, anyone who saw Badu present a Grammy a couple of months ago--complete with killer hairdo, rabid eyes, dead prez T-shirt and TelePrompTer backtalk--knows the real reason you've deemed her worthy of this here prize: You were scared to death not to vote for her. Afraid she'd pillage the Observer's offices and find your name included in a file of dissenters'. Afraid she'd take that information to the public library, find your address, come to your house and hurt you. The woman remains a force to be reckoned with. --M.W.
Earl Harvin Trio
Winner for: Jazz
You do not catch up with Earl Harvin; you do not even attempt to keep pace, lest your lungs collapse and heart explode. For as long as anyone can recall, he's been the Barry Allen of the local music community--the drum-kit blur that blows past you as he answers the call of someone in need. That's how he wound up playing with Richard Thompson, the beloved composer of the wry and wrenching rock songs since Harvin was a kid in New Jersey still dreaming of playing the trumpet; that's how he ended up with Seal and Joe Henry and The The long before that. They phoned, needed the front man who plays behind the band, and he came from the sticks with his sticks to lay down the beat they needed but only he knew how to give. Turns out you can't keep a secret weapon hush-hush when he plays like Harvin--jazzer, punk-rocker, space cowboy, motherfunker, collector of paychecks from pop stars, keeper of backbeats for old folkies, a maker of music who's in such a rush (and who is such a rush) he has no time for making distinctions. He likes what he likes, plays what he plays, is who he is--everything, always.
One day, perhaps, voters will realize that you can be Musician of the Year even if you don't play guitar, sing about heartbreak and hangovers or front Up With People. He's the perennial favorite in this category, though he's just a jazzer the same way Randy Johnson is just a baseball player. (Besides, Richard Thompson says, "Earl's not allowed to play jazz in our band. We have a jazz fine system. I jest." Beat. "Slightly.") Look only at Harvin's résumé over the past two years: an album with his eponymous trio co-starring league MVPs Fred Hamilton and Dave Palmer (Unincorporated, a Wurlitzer-wind of a disc labeled "free jazz" only because you can't buy this kind of brilliant), another with the Black Frames (upon which Harvin, Mike Dillon, Skerik and Brad Houser funk with whatever's lying around the woodshed), a guest appearance on NYC-based AwRY's deep-n-dark debut, a laptop-electronica stint with Wanz Dover and Bill Longhorse on the Terilli's-Sambuca circuit and now a U.S. tour with Thompson. He still craves writing for and performing with another rock band, long after the dissolution of rubberbullet, and somewhere down the long road plans on making an instrumental disc for Lift to Experience drummer Andy Young's Bella Union spin-off; "me and weird instruments and a G4 and whatever the hell happens," is how Harvin envisions it.
"I always try to do a little more than strictly being a drummer and playing with people, which I love and would never give up doing because I love playing with different people and playing all these different kinds of music," Harvin says. "As a kid, I listened to all kinds, and what I'm doing keeps me fresh. But I am more and more into the idea of putting together music as a whole, if nothing else for me and the 10 people who might buy it."
Harvin ended up touring with Thompson when Michael Jerome, who'd been playing with the Fairport Convention founder since the late '90s, took a gig with James Hall and the Pleasure Club. Jerome didn't want the gig going to just anyone, but a good friend whose playing he admired. Thompson knew Harvin had a jazz trio, heard his recordings with Seal and caught a Black Frames show. "And I thought they were absolutely fantastic," he says. "What I liked about them was apart from the vague similarity from a band called Gong from the '70s; I thought it was uncategorizable music. It certainly isn't jazz, it isn't classical, it definitely isn't rock and roll. It's something kinda unique, and I thought the way Earl played in that band was very original." But Thompson would have hired Harvin anyway--not just on Jerome's glowing recommendation, but for far more simple reasons.
"Michael recommended Earl for the band, and I thought we'll take him, because he's called Earl," Thompson says. "Earl Palmer, Earl Harvin--anybody called Earl is just fine. I've always wanted to play with somebody called Earl, anyway, so I didn't even have to hear him. I figured he could do anything--he can--and his name is Earl, so I didn't think there'd be much of a problem. Then he turns up for rehearsal and bang, from the first downbeat, away we go." --R.W.
I Love Math
Winner for: Folk/Acoustic
Since John Dufilho started his one-man band the Deathray Davies four years ago while he was in his other group Bedwetter, the joke has been that he believes idle hands are the devil's playground. That he's constantly writing, playing, recording, whistling, whatever. There's music and it must come out somehow. The same can be said for his bandmates in I Love Math, the side project to the Deathray Davies he started with Jason Garner (also formerly of Bedwetter and currently the bassist for the Deathray Davies). Something had to take up those spare minutes when Bedwetter disbanded, right? Rounding out the quartet are fellow overachievers guitarist Aaron Kelley (who writes and records for his Edge of the World Studios) and drummer Philip Peeples (on hiatus from The Old 97's) who stepped in when Deathray Davies/I Love Math drummer Bill Shupp moved to Los Angeles. As proof, I Love Math's self-titled album on Summer Break Records hasn't been on the racks long, and already six tracks have been laid down for the next album. More will be recorded once Dufilho and Garner return from the Deathray Davies' West Coast tour in the coming weeks. To this band, the quasi-regular Sunday-night gigs at the Barley House--rife with obscure British covers and guest appearances by friends in such bands as Lucy Loves Schroeder and the Happiness Factor--are like a break instead of the marathon, brain-picking sessions they would be for others. You don't have to do the math, let alone love it, to understand this is a busy band, and not just some folkies sittin' on stools. --Shannon Sutlief
Winner for: DJ/Electronic
Kid Icarus is in the DJ booth at Zero Degrees in Austin, looking like Steve Buscemi at a rave, breaking beats like Middle East peace treaties, nodding to his own bass lines, spinning the hard house tracks he loves like family. His new 12-inch single, "Hello Tomorrow"--a release on his own Prototype Platinum label that already charted on BBC Radio One DJ Judge Jules' show--kicks in the front door and slips unseen out the back, the music never stopping or slowing, every cut pumping its arms toward the finish line. There is an edge to his set, an aggression, each new song big-shouldering its way into the mix like a street-corner thug, trying to punk the others out. Doesn't matter, because they all end up getting sliced from stem to stern by Icarus, who keeps it all weird and wired in the way you'd expect from someone whose favorite bands are Sonic Youth and New Order. The rhythm changes your heartbeat; the bass completely stops it. He's manipulating his audience as smoothly as he manipulates his decks, bringing them in then pushing them right back out.
It's the annual South by Southwest Music Festival, so this set should be making him a star. Except that no one is here. Two bartenders, an older couple who have clearly turned up at the wrong venue, a couple other Zero Degrees regulars trying to adjust to the massive amount of room on the dance floor. If Icarus cares, or even notices, he's not showing it, dancing in the dark by himself to himself. The SXSW gig is a rare occurrence these days. Since the 24-year-old Kid Icarus first started making his own mix tapes at home a few years ago, he's slowly risen to the top of the local electronic-music scene, currently holding down a residency at Tunnel on McKinney Avenue and producing his own records on the side, speed-freak sprints that kick you in the junk before you even see them coming. Maybe next year, he can get a crowd in the double digits. --Z.C.
Winner for: Rap/Hip-Hop
Finally a Dallas-based rap group that doesn't beat you over the head representing where their apartment lease happens to be. Close your eyes while listening to Dot Matrix's music and you might just think they were from Detroit or Brooklyn. Lots of old-school call-and-response stuff, traded verses, real horn charts and a frenetic live show to beat the band. No hint of that slow-and-low Dirty South crawl, just a banging party on wax from a lucky-seven gang of kids who truly appreciate all the right influences; from the Pharcyde to Coltrane, J5 to the Jungle Brothers, you can tell their hearts (and ears) are in the right place. In the hyperkinetic, transitional world of sixth-gen hip-hop, I have a feeling Dot Matrix may be around a while. Hope so, because besides The D.O.C., Dallas has yet to produce a hip-hop artist who successfully beats down our image as Vanilla Ice's hometown. Maybe DJ BMX, Lord Regal, Anoimis and the rest of the relentless Matrix crew are ready to put all that to bed. Raise a glass and bust that ass--Dot Matrix is jumping off right here and now, y'all. --Jeff Liles
Winner for: Label
Idol boss Erv Karwelis has a knack for spotting humble, hard-working musicians; bands on Idol actually know how to play their instruments, and they probably even (gasp!) enjoy it. The groups on Idol's roster--Macavity, [DARYL] and the Fags, among others--try and try hard--and Idol gives back in kind. Karwelis gives baby bands a fighting chance and he'll support said bands, and their better-known labelmates, in boardrooms and back yards and wherever else they need him. He must be doing something right, because every group associated with Idol has done well and/or is still doing it. This label's showcase at last month's South by Southwest in Austin is a case in point: A packed and enthusiastic house greeted each act, and major-label business cards landed in the merch booth after every set. Even Spinal Tap's Harry Shearer came by and checked out Chomsky. That's why, as far as local labels go, Idol is living up to its name. --M.M.
Winner for: Producer
We still don't know exactly what Matt Pence does when he's recording bands, but we're completely certain that's a good thing. He wouldn't be him (or as good) if you heard him all over the recordings. He's both the Invisible Man, and a pied piper of unknown and underappreciated talent. This year his work schedule has included everyone from old-school bluesman CeDell Davis (who recorded with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and his fellow Minus 5 musicians) to multinominated Dallas band Sorta to Tulsa's Rhodes-happy, Magnetic Fields-ish Aqueduct. And that's just a sampling of more than a dozen locals/regionals/nationals seeking help on their albums. One or two per month doesn't sound very taxing until one factors in the amount of time Pence hasn't been in the studio. (Hint: not much.) Besides a huge renovation to the Echo Lab--the space he co-owns with fellow engineers Dave Willingham and Matt Barnhart in Argyle--he also spends several months each year behind the kit with Centro-matic and its spin-off South San Gabriel. He's prolific, but you'd never know it without poring over liner notes. And that's the highest compliment. --S.S.
A Hard Night´s Day
Winner for: Cover Band
These fellows, fab and all that, played a friend's wedding not long ago, and for weeks after I had no desire--no need, let's say--to hear a Beatles song. The reasons were clear enough: A Hard Night's Day has it down, every note and phrase and echo--everything in its place, everything played for a reason. They're chained to history, fetishists first and musicians always, respectful without a hint of irreverence slipping into their game. They're very much like all those early cover-tribute bands to get regular Club Dada gigs: dead things keeping hope alive for all those too young to see the real things in their prime.
But there's a difference between a band like A Hard Night's Day and fellow nominees Queen for a Day: When the former play, they satisfy a particular jones by giving you not merely what you want but what you've known by heart since you were a child; they provide a sing-along soundtrack, nursery rhymes so familiar from womb to tomb. There are no surprises, because there can't be (these are songs made in, and for, the studio, for the most part), and they're such good musicians they're dying to show off how well they can carbon-copy the carbon-dated. Queen for a Day, on the other hand, sends me running to the CD collection because it's less a slavish offering than a spirited interpretation--a hint of what I missed, in other words, rather than the smorgasbord that leaves me sated for weeks. Still, A Hard Night's Day gets to play "Across the Universe," and has the added advantage, as a colleague says, of playing the Beatles--and you can't screw up the Beatles. --R.W.
Winner for: Metal
Pete Thomas is the kind of guy a girl could take home to Mama. He's quiet; he's polite. He has short hair and dresses spiffy in his black-rimmed glasses and cardigan sweaters. On all counts, this should completely disqualify him from fronting a band that qualifies as Dallas' best metal act. But here he is--again--along with his Slow Roosevelt bandmates, guitarist Scott Minyard, drummer Aaron Lyons and bassist Mark Sodders. (Seriously, Slo Ro's fans should just start engraving these things themselves. Or using their collective powers for other purposes.) Last year, we used this space to complain about other bands getting record contracts, hit singles and platinum plaques, while Thomas and company got some free drinks, another DOMA for the practice space and not much else despite having the intensity, the hooks and the smarts that metal lacks these days. While there are still no gold records or magazine cover photos, Slow Roosevelt's third album, Weightless, will be released June 3 on Reality Entertainment and distributed in Europe by Sony. In addition, there's a summer full of national and European tours, a song on Discovery Channel's Monster Garage and another in the HBO movie Gristle. They joke that they've finally sold out. We think they're just finally getting their props. And another fancy doorstop. --S.S.
The Adventure Club
Winner for: Radio Program That Plays Local Music
Sunday nights offer little to look forward to but Six Feet Under and, for the past nine years, The Adventure Club on 102.1 KDGE. Every week, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., the Edge loses its Clear Channel-y vibe and lets a DJ make your day, offering up the kind of music freaks and geeks seek out and own. Captain at the Adventure Club helm, Josh Venable will throw on Bright Eyes, follow with the once local Pennywhistle Park and let the ghoulishly romantic Nick Cave take the audience to commercial. No other radio show so effortlessly dishes up Idlewild and the Libertines and Ash alongside locals such as Eisley and Panda and Taylor Reed, and maybe even a little Kermit the Frog (really, as in "The Rainbow Connection"). Venable has taken his share of criticism over the years, but in defense of the only DJ we could call "shy," he supports local music on the air and in person. He goes to shows, stays for the whole gig and if he approves, adds it to the AC playlist and supports the hell out of it. That's the dedication an audience should expect from their musical tour guide. --M.M.
Reverend Horton Heat
Winner for: Rockabilly/Roots
I'm sorry I said this about the Reverend Horton Heat's 1998 album Space Heater: "Honestly, it took me three tries before I even got halfway through, but it took only once to realize it wasn't really worth it." I'm even sorrier I said this about the group's 2000 album Spend a Night in the Box: "The Reverend Horton Heat has been going downhill for so long, it's difficult to remember exactly what made the band worthwhile in the first place. And, obviously, they don't remember either, or else they might have hit the brakes before landing at the bottom, which is exactly where the group has ended up with Spend a Night in the Box." And saying in one of my Scene, Heard columns that Jim Heath tried to find us at Trees one night so he could put his fist against my face, and not in a nice way--well, that was pretty inexcusable, especially since it wasn't true. There's much more I'd like to apologize for regarding my treatment of Heath and the band that carries his stage name, but those are the main three. Or, at least, those are the three I can remember off the top of my head.
Bottom line, Jim Heath is one of the last links remaining to the old Deep Ellum, back when it was dangerous and daring, a little slice of NYC just off downtown, instead of a sea of roof decks and dollar-drink specials. He's always been one of Dallas' best ambassadors, taking that knives-out feeling with him everywhere he goes. The group's on the road from now until August without a break, supporting its latest album, Lucky 7, which, by the way, contains a de facto tribute to those old days, "Loco Gringos Like a Party." It's no coincidence that it's the band's best record in years.
If you think I'm setting up the Rev so I can knock him down again, don't sweat it; we've already made our peace with him. Not that it was our idea. Heath called us late last year, out of the blue, and we had a come-to-Jesus meeting. Specifically, he wanted to know why I hated him. I explained that I didn't, all evidence to the contrary aside. And even if I did, in fact, hate him, there was no chance of that feeling continuing after Heath's phone call. Just by picking up the phone, he proved who was the better man. We hung up, agreeing to a fresh start. With that in mind, I did, I can admit now, say some things in the heat of the moment, words you can't really take back once they appear in black and white. All I can do is apologize. Maybe I was a little angry because the Rev's later albums (Spend a Night in the Box, Space Heater, It's Martini Time) didn't live up to the earlier ones (Smoke 'em if You Got 'em, The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of...), and how could they? Looking back, if the group lost a step over the years, it was one they had to give. --Z.C.
Winner for: Blues
Deep Ellum, the section once known for its hometown and just-passing-through blues legends and the dives and juke joints that housed them, is now home to precious little blues music. There are the weekly jams, the occasional concerts and a cast of Stevie Ray Vaughan-a-bees. But luckily the "ringmaster of the blues jams" is also a master of the blues as a history and a performance art. Calling himself Hash Brown, Brian Calway plays literally dozens of shows a month, including every Tuesday at The Bone on Elm Street in Deep Ellum, every Wednesday (and, in April, every Sunday) at Hole in the Wall on Harry Hines Boulevard. And those are just the jams he hosts. In addition, there are gigs alone and with The Browntones, plus recording albums on his own and session work for other musicians. After all that, he's become a bit of a legend on his own. Hash Brown once gave a 15-year-old named Todd Deatherage a chance, and was repaid when Deatherage named his own band the Calways after his mentor. Not bad for a pale-skinned Yankee who found his niche in Deep Ellum. --S.S.
Winner for: Reggae
OK, so Sub Oslo isn't technically a reggae band. There is no "Buffalo Soldier" in its set, nor does the group play anything that even remotely resembles something performed by Bob Marley or any of his many offspring. There are, however, plenty of sounds that might be mistaken for buffaloes and/or soldiers and/or who knows what lurking beneath the thick cloud of sweet-and-sour smoke that hangs over every song on its 2000 debut, Dubs in the Key of Life, the kind of disc that creeps you out and creeps up on you at the same time, until you get comfortable being uncomfortable. The group has been fairly quiet since, turning up for the infrequent live gig and, recently, adding one of its songs (a live version of "Prisoner of Dub") to Babylon is Ours: The USA in Dub, a collection of--what else?--American dub artists released by Select Cuts. The reggae purists might argue that Sub Oslo is something else. Which is exactly why we're praising them. --Z.C.
Winner for: Latin/Tejano
Dallas has apparently pardoned Tio for his appearance on TV's fascinating romance-reality show Elimidate--just one example of the many arenas into which the young guitarist has forayed. He's dazzled the diners at Terilli's with his expertise in all things flamenco and a few things rock star, and now Tio and his spiky hair have stepped up to the mike in a different way, with the Flamenco Rock Concept. If the first single ("Grueso") and the addition of word-slinging MC Spookie to his feisty plucking is any indication, Tio and the group are definitely onto something new: flamenco-hop, I guess you could call it. But, that said, the Concept isn't just a dressed-up rap outfit, and it's not a Latin funk band, either; the music has too much respect for old-school composition and guitar technique to be lumped into the loose style of funk. Whatever they're doing, it's working: The audience reaction at the Deep Ellum Arts Festival was positive, KNON-FM DJ Kool Kris keeps playing "Grueso" on Friday afternoons and flamenco-rock fans trail Tio like the opening scene of Austin Powers. --M.M.
Gypsy Tea Room
Winner for: Live Music Venue
There's no fun, no poetry, in writing about a building; nice bricks, eh? During the day, it's an empty bar (two, actually) with wooden floors and a barren stage (two, again), a place not so different from any other anywhere. The Gypsy Tea Room has become the yardstick by which all other comers (should) measure themselves, which is why it wins by a mile each and every year. Still, though it's a two-headed beast--with its cozy side and family room (meaning, Willie Nelson and the Family, who packed the place not long ago)--it's still just a club, just a spot where people congregate most every night to pour down a drink, pull on a smoke, pick up a stranger, tune in a band.
But it will forever remain a constant winner as long as its doors stay open--and as long as it maintains a booking policy that lures in the big-top acts, the young comers and the 'tweeners tired of looking for love in all the wrong spaces. Whenever it's announced a band like Wilco or Gomez or the Flaming Lips or The New Year's gonna play around, you know it's going to be in the Tea Room's ballroom, where sight(lines) and sound are topped by no one else in town. And even those acts once relegated to the likes of Poor David's or, jeez, Billy Bob's are moving in: In coming weeks, bluesman John Hammond, folkie Dar Williams and honky-tonk diva Deana Carter are booked to play the intimate Tea Room, which feels like home. And the newcomers are never turned away; at this rate Eisley's going to get its own wing. --R.W.
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