The kid calls it luck, says it with a little laugh and a small smile, as if he´s sharing a secret. Says it casually, his dark eyes flitting from side to side before they land in his lap. It´s the same self-effacing manner he adopts whenever the subject of Niket Biswas and his long list of accomplishments come up. Like it´s no big deal. Like it could happen to anyone.

Don't believe it. He may be modest, but he's not ordinary. Niket Biswas is the kind of kid fathers hope their daughters bring home, high school principals single out in assemblies, college admissions officers camp out on front porches for, CEOs give signing bonuses and company Cadillacs to. He'll be your boss one day, and you'll love him.

It's not just because of that gaudy 1600 on his SAT, that dreamed-about perfect score so few kids ever turn into reality. That's only part of it. His high school résumé looks as though it were torn out of a textbook: National Merit Scholar, National Honor Society president, student council representative, Math Club, French Club, varsity tennis.

There's more: Niket graduated 27th out of a class of 1,255 at Plano East Senior High School, despite taking the rigorous International Baccalaureate course load. He helped found KRIPA, a volunteer group made up of Indian kids in his community who pitch in at nursing homes and homeless shelters. He even says things like "I wish I knew how to fly like the birds in the sky," which he actually did say to The Dallas Morning News when it profiled him in its Collin County edition.

But the 1600 is what perks up people's ears. According to the College Board, which oversees the SAT, 897 perfect scores were reported in 2003, out of several hundred thousand. Niket may call his perfect SAT score lucky, but rest assured luck had nothing to do with it.

Well, almost nothing.

"He didn't practice anything at all," says his mother, Debjani, laughing. She's perched next to him on the couch in the living room of the family's comfortable Allen home, a silent observer until now.

"I took a lot of practice tests," Niket protests.

"Kids do, but you didn't, really."

"Well, generally."

"Generally, yes, that's what the ideal child does," Debjani finishes, turning back to her visitor. "But he took his SATs once, and he got a lower score, like 14- or 13-something. Then he read for three weeks after that and then got 1600, perfect score. When we were looking at the Web site to see, he said, '800, 800.' And I said, 'I bet that means that's what you can get in all.'" She giggles at the memory. "Then he said, 'No, Mom, it says my name next to it.'"

The most recent batch of college-related correspondence Niket received wasn't as positive as that Web site visit, however. The letters came with the kind of cheery, false civility of a flight attendant. The first came in mid-April from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was the top choice for the prospective engineering major. They rejected him. Oh, well, he wasn't sure he could afford the MIT tuition anyway. At least that was out of the way.

There was always Harvard. They'd figure out the money end of it if he were accepted there. Nope, they put Niket on their wait list. Maybe Rice, then. No. He was put on the wait list there, too. What about Duke? He'd already visited the school in junior high as part of its Talent Identification Program. With his stats and that connection, Niket might as well start scouting dorms, right? Wait list. Within a couple of weeks, it was over.

A month later, Niket still can't make sense of it.

"Schools like MIT are truly elite..." he says.

But you are elite, he's told.

"I know one person who got into MIT from my school," he continues. She was ranked No. 2 in the class and had an eye-popping application. Niket knows some kids who got into Rice, too. But most of his friends didn't get into what he calls "the top of the top"--Harvard and MIT.

Niket and his friends aren't the only ones being shut out: High school seniors across the country are saying the same thing. There are no guarantees anymore. As more kids compete for admission to top-flight colleges, more top-flight candidates are being produced. And colleges are admitting the same number of freshmen they did 10 and 20 years ago.

So wannabe college students and their parents are doing their best to improve the odds. That means applying at dozens of schools, spending thousands on college consultants and test-prep services or turning high school into a four-year audition, working nonstop on everything from extra-credit homework to extracurricular charities until college seems like a relief in comparison. They flock to the message boards on Web sites like College Confidential (, looking for tricks of the admissions trade or simply to vent their frustration. Some are even transferring to different high schools so they can stand out for college admissions officers at upper-echelon private universities or safely snuggle into the top 10 percent of their graduating class, guaranteeing acceptance at the University of Texas or Texas A&M. [page]

It's what you have to do these days to avoid becoming another NBK--admissions jargon for "nice kid, but..." As in, "but we're going to pass." As in, "but he's going on the wait list."

"You know, 20 years ago it seemed like there would be a couple of kids who were on the football team and in the debate club and on the chess team and were National Merit Scholars," says Josh Hepola, who works for Kaplan Test Prep tutoring kids for the SAT. "Just a handful of kids. And everyone else was just run-of-the-mill, just Joe Average high school guy. It definitely seems nowadays that a much larger percentage of kids try and do all these different activities. There are more superstars, so to speak."

Back then, Niket's only problem would have been deciding which school he wanted to attend. It's a little more complicated in 2004.

No one can agree when applying to college turned into a casino game where, more often than not, the house wins. Some high school counselors and private college consultants say eight years ago. Others settle on five; a few say two. But everyone agrees on one thing: It's become more competitive because, quite simply, more people are competing.

"The colleges aren't accepting more students," says Veronica Pulido, director of college counseling at St. Mark's. "They're still accepting the exact same number, but they have to say no to more people."

Here's a snapshot of the playing field, according to The State of College Admission 2003-2004, a report commissioned by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC): In 2003, 2.9 million students graduated from high school in the United States, and more than 60 percent of them applied to and enrolled in college. Both numbers are expected to grow until 2010. The same year, 76 percent of the colleges NACAC surveyed said they received more applications than they had in 2002. Same goes for the previous four years.

In laymen's terms, getting into the college of your choice can be a crapshoot.

"That's exactly the terminology that my brother uses, and both of his children graduated from Princeton," says Jan Miranda, the college placement counselor at Trinity Christian Academy. "He said for every student at Princeton, there are five who look just like them on paper. So, it is a crapshoot as to who gets in and who doesn't."

Indeed, to college admissions officers these days, the vast majority of applicants differ only by name. High test scores? Check. Strong high school curriculum? Yep. Stellar transcript? Uh-huh. Great recommendations? Boom. Played varsity sports, volunteered at a soup kitchen, presided over the National Honor Society? Done, done and done. As Rachel Toor, who was an admissions officer at Duke from 1997 to 2000, says in her book Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process, "You'd be surprised at how similar many of our 14,000 applicants look."

So which students get in? Toor says the applications aren't fed into a computer that automatically decides whether to admit or deny. Instead, she says, it's an intensely personal process. Yes, there are standard guidelines that the officers follow, and yes, there are some automatic admissions. Ultimately, however, it comes down to whether the officer assigned to the case can sell the rest of the admissions department on a particular student. Someone who majored in art history may champion an aspiring artist with lower scores over a better-performing kid who's looking for a business degree. People tend to connect with those more like themselves. It's a human process, open to interpretation and capable of mistakes. That's why Toor got out.

"I am troubled by the arbitrariness of the decision-making process," she writes, "and by the qualifications and intellectual merits of those who are sitting in judgment of the applicants."

But with an applicant pool increasingly monochromatic, someone has to separate the wheat from the chaff, even when it's mostly wheat. Qualified applicants will be rejected. It's a shame, but not a surprise, then, when someone like Niket Biswas falls through the cracks. The same has happened before and will happen again. Brenda Prine, a counselor at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, tells the story of Tanya Gustafson, Pearce's valedictorian in 1998. She had everything academically, including a near-perfect SAT. Still, she didn't get into her top choice, Stanford. Prine called the school on Gustafson's behalf, looking for answers. [page]

"And they said, 'Well, she doesn't have a passion,'" Prine recalls. "'We're looking for somebody with a passion in life, whether it's chess or gymnastics or horseback riding--any kind of passion.' She was really one-dimensional with her academics and being number one. That's all she had, and she didn't get in."

As Prine and other college counselors have discovered, a varied lifestyle is the order of the day. Admissions officers are looking for BWRKs, shorthand for "bright, well-rounded kids." High numbers don't always mean higher chances of acceptance: In 1998, Harvard rejected one out of every four kids with a perfect 1600 on their applications. But then again, they also denied admission to plenty of kids with 1500s and a passion for, say, model trains.

Take Chris Bryant. I met Bryant while he was lurking on the College Confidential site, sharing war stories with fellow students. His has more bullet holes than most. He graduated from Klein Forest High School in Houston two years ago. Despite scoring 1510 on his SAT and graduating in the top 2 percent of his class (at a 5A high school) as an Advanced Placement Scholar with Distinction, he was rejected by every school to which he applied. Except for Texas Tech.

Fast-forward two years later, when he applies to transfer to several schools. He says nothing has changed about his numbers, but this time he was accepted to Rice and three Ivy League schools and wait-listed at Harvard. "Which is interesting," Bryant says, "because supposedly transfer admissions are tougher than regular admissions."

Bryant is now deciding whether to attend Dartmouth College or the University of Pennsylvania this fall, though he still hasn't counted out being admitted to Harvard. He has no idea why he was rejected the first go-around or accepted this time.

People prey on this confusion. There are books, Web sites and highly paid consultants that all promise they know the secret to "getting in." It's a cottage industry that has sprouted several other cottage industries. But none of them has the golden ticket that guarantees admission. Except for the well-heeled sons and daughters of rich alumni who donate buildings, no one does.

"I think that's one of those things that escapes parents," says Jon Mamula, who's been a counselor at Highland Park High School for six years. "They think, 'We've got to get up in that ranking. We've got to...whatever.' I truly believe the system works in that they're looking for a good fit for their class, and they're looking for diversity. So schools will take people who, for whatever reason, stand out. It could be their essay. It could be that they've done thousands of hours or hundreds of hours of community service for a good cause. It could be because they have leadership in the school, or it could be class rank, GPA and/or test scores."

This leads to kids chasing their collective tails: Prospective students don't know which colleges will be the right fit for them, so they apply to a few more schools. Flooded with more applications, the schools' decisions to admit or deny become all the more arbitrary. Leading the next graduating class to apply to even more schools. And so on.

"Here's an example," says Marsha Meyers, a consultant at Cohen's College Connection. "Last year, Washington University had, oh, I think 26,000 or 28,000 applications for 1,200 spots. OK? So that kind of says it."

Pam Mathai didn't get into her top choice either. But the recent Hockaday School graduate had so many potential alternatives by the time she finished applying, she had a hard time remembering which one was her favorite. When it was over, she had applied to 11 schools.

"Just because people were really paranoid," Mathai says. "And for good reason. So I went ahead and applied to tons of places. But I probably should have narrowed down that list a little bit." She laughs.

"I just felt like I was doing something that I had to do and that everyone was telling me that I had to do," she says. "And I was applying to schools that people were telling me I should apply to. In terms of where I wanted to go, I was pretty much happy if I got in anywhere, and I would figure out what I wanted from there on. There was no school that I really, really, really wanted to go to. Which is, I guess, why my list was so freakishly long." [page]

Mathai ended up being accepted at Rice, which is where she'll be in the fall. She's happy with the end result, happier still that it's all over, that the decision has finally been made. But Mathai wasn't as stressed about getting into a good school as some of her friends and family. She knew she'd be fine.

OK, scratch that: She knew she'd be fine after her SAT score came back. Not so much when she took her first pass at the PSAT in her sophomore year. She did well, scoring a 185--the average score, according to the College Board, is around 147--but it put her "in a scared mode, a panicky kind of feeling." (The PSAT compiles three separate numbers--verbal, math and writing, scored on a 20-to-80 scale--into an overall total.)

To alleviate the panic, Mathai's parents enrolled her at Karen Dillard's Test Prep in Plano, one of the best-known and most respected programs in the area.

"There are people that do test preparation that think it is a game," says David Dillard, who's run the business for 12 years with his wife, Karen. "Approach it as all you have to do is know the tricks, and it's a demeaning test, so just learn the tricks and go do it. If it were that simple, all you would need is a list of the tricks and a little bit of time to work on it. Life is not that simple."

The more ambitious students look for a place that will help them every step of the way. That's why many of them end up at Karen Dillard's, which tries to give them a solid base to build on. For the SAT, sure, but also for everything else.

"We're showing them how to prepare properly for any major event they're ever going to encounter, whether we're talking about SATs or whether we're talking about master's orals or whether we're talking about job interviews or presentations to clients," Dillard explains. "I can even draw the analogy to courting your future spouse."

Mathai thought her work at Karen Dillard's prepared her for her next major event: a second try at the PSAT during her junior year at Hockaday. She took the classes, hit the workshops consistently. She did well on all her practice exams. But when the real thing came along, she scored a 209. Again, well above average, but well below her expectations.

"So I was like, 'Oh, crap. I have to study a lot, because I have to do well on the SAT,'" Mathai says.

She had five Advanced Placement exams scheduled at the end of the school year, so she waited as long as she could to take the SAT, until the very end of June. Meaning: She had only one try at it.

"Thinking back, it was a huge risk," Mathai says. "I basically lived at Karen Dillard's for three weeks straight. When I actually took it, I ended up doing the best that I had ever gotten."

Her 1550 finally took the pressure off, and Karen Dillard's had another success story for its files. The money Mathai's parents dropped on her courses and study materials paid off. It wasn't as much as they might've laid out somewhere else: Seniors pay $799; a student who attended Karen Dillard's from ninth grade on would pay a $1,499 flat fee. That's about average. Generally, fees for college consultants and test-prep services range from $100 per session to a few thousand dollars for one school year.

Marsha Meyers of Cohen's College Connection won't say how much her company's services cost. Which means it's probably enough to scare away parents who might see the number in black-and-white before they're sitting across from her in an office, already committed to doing whatever it takes to get their kid in. She will say that students around here get off a little bit easier than those in other parts of the country.

"The Dallas market won't bear what New York and California will," she says.

But it all adds up. Jan Miranda has been the college placement counselor at Trinity Christian Academy for two decades. She also advises students from other schools on the side, charging $100 per hour. She had about 20 private students this year. Next year, she plans to do that exclusively, upping her rate to $200.

"I don't want to package the student," Miranda explains. "I want the student to look genuine. But I can show them things on their résumé, their high school résumé--see, we never had a high school résumé. Come on!" She laughs. "You know, but these kids have had internships, and they have all this community service work. But you have to show them how to market themselves. Just giving them pointers on how to fill out their application, you know. By moving things around on the application, you can make the application look more complete. You're still giving them the same information; you're just putting it in different boxes." [page]

So what do you get for $100 an hour? A translator, basically, someone who knows how to speak the admissions language, no matter which dialect they're using. Someone who knows that a strong batch of recommendation letters can bulk up a weaker transcript and that a follow-up thank-you note might seem old-fashioned but isn't out-dated.

Most counselors at private schools won't admit it, and Dallas ISD doesn't track it, but it's happening. Parents are taking their kids out of private schools and returning them to the public school system. It's no big deal when it happens the other way around. It's more significant when parents reverse the procedure.

Tuition for private schools can be justified because not only do they prepare students for college, they supposedly give them better access to the ones they want to attend. But some parents are finding out that's not necessarily true. In fact, some students are better off coming out of a public high school.

That's what Mike Looney learned when his oldest daughter, Sloan, applied to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The Dallas Observer spoke to Looney in 2000 ("Public Defenders," August 3), not long after Sloan switched from private (Lutheran High School) to public (Woodrow Wilson High School). This was before he knew the added benefits of public school. He was just trying to make his daughter happy.

Sloan was the one who wanted to make the change, and it wasn't because she wanted to improve her class rank or GPA, to excel in a less competitive environment. "She wanted people, a football team, drama, musicals, drill team," her father, a Woodrow Wilson graduate himself, explains today. "Even though she had never gone to public school, she seemed to know what she was missing."

When Looney called Vanderbilt to talk to an admissions officer about her application, he found out what she was getting. The woman he talked to knew all about his daughter and told him Sloan was getting into Vanderbilt whether she applied for early decision or regular admission.

"We've got all the Highland Park kids and all the St. Mark's kids we need here," she told Looney. "We need some inner-city kids."

Maybe Sloan Looney would have made it in on her own, whether the school on her transcript said Lutheran or Woodrow Wilson. Maybe not. Her father doesn't want to minimize what she accomplished in high school: the straight-A report cards, athletic achievements, mock-trial kudos. But the facts speak for themselves. And so do the admissions officers.

"Her SAT--it was pretty good--but it wasn't even as high as the freshman class average at Vanderbilt," Looney says. "They said her ACT and the fact that she was from a different background--they were trying to become more versatile in their type of student--was the deciding factor for her admission."

Woodrow Wilson also played an important part in Kate Looney's admission to the University of Texas. Kate, the Looneys' middle daughter, just finished her freshman year at UT. She made it thanks to House Bill 588 (enacted in 1997 and better known as Texas' "top 10 percent" law), whereby if you graduate in the top 10 percent of your class, you're granted automatic acceptance to the state school of your choice.

Again, Kate might have made it in if she had been at a different high school. But her father is skeptical.

"She was at a party last summer with some St. Mark's kids, and a kid told her that he made 1350 on his SAT and 31 on the ACT--that's pretty screaming--and didn't get into UT," Looney says. "Here Kate was, with substantially lower SATs and ACTs--but she wasn't as naturally cerebral as Sloan, and she took care of business. She knew the system going in, and she took advantage of it. She didn't blow the opportunity. She was straight A's, all-district in her sport. But if Kate had been at Lake Highlands or Highland Park, would she have been in the top 10 percent?"

Since the Looneys made the jump, other parents looking for his guidance have approached Mike. And he knows that plenty of them have followed suit. He's not shy in encouraging them to do it, because he knows it works, both in high school and beyond. His kids are the proof.

Of course, no one at a private school would share that sentiment, for obvious reasons. At most, the counselors at those schools will admit only that, yes, parents do broach the subject on occasion. Sure, they say, it's a consideration, especially in light of the top 10 percent law. But they say no one ever does it. [page]

Wells McMurray, the director of college counseling at the Greenhill School, is an exception.

"I know some kids who left in middle school because they took a look at the high school and said, 'I want something different,'" McMurray says. "And they've been good students; there's been no particular reason for them to leave, and they did excellent work wherever they went. But, you know, when I look at those kids--and I know a couple of them because I know their siblings--they would've done very well here, too."

Even if he knows why they left--and he seems to know more than he's letting on--McMurray won't elaborate on the students' reasoning. He does mention that one of them is a sophomore at UT now.

Jan Miranda, however, maintains that the supposed advantage of public schools over private when it comes to landing in the top 10 percent is a myth. Miranda thought there was something to it when she did a sorority recommendation for a girl at Plano East Senior High. She noticed the girl's GPA put her at the top of the second third of her class. She wondered where that would rank her at Trinity Christian. It was the same spot.

"You find your competition level within your community," Miranda says. "You find your own comfort zone. And if your comfort zone is a 3.0, you'll be a 3.0 there or a 3.0 here. If it's a 3.5, you'll be a 3.5 there or here. If it's a 4.0, you'll push yourself to be a 4.0 no matter where you are. That's my theory."

Don't feel too sorry for Niket Biswas, because he doesn't feel sorry for himself. He'll be just fine. Along with the rejection letter from MIT and the wait-list offers from Harvard, Duke and Rice came plenty of offers from state schools all over the country. The University of Arizona, the University of New Mexico and a handful of others were willing to give Niket a full ride to attend their schools, even though he didn't apply to them.

Better than that, Niket got into one school to which he applied. The University of Texas accepted him into its engineering honors program and gave him a pretty nice scholarship deal to go along with it. He's excited about his prospects in Austin, already planning to enroll in the school's business honors program as well, a double major that will help him pursue a career in management information systems. It makes sense: His mother works at Texas Instruments, and his father, Abhi, is an economics professor who teaches at SMU and UT-Dallas.

The Biswas family isn't angry at what happened to Niket. Amused might be a better word. Debjani Biswas has a story she likes to tell involving Niket's appearance at a banquet honoring the late Jerry Junkins (Texas Instruments' former CEO); at the banquet, scholarships are awarded to the sons and daughters of current or former TI employees. Because he is a National Merit Scholar, Niket received $4,000.

Twenty kids came to the podium that night, and the first four or five said the same thing: I'm going to UT-Austin, and I'm wait-listed at Harvard and Duke. Or Harvard and Rice. Or Duke and Rice.

"So Mrs. Junkins' daughter said, 'So, who actually got into Harvard, Duke and Rice?'" Debjani says with a laugh.

It's a good question, one that doesn't seem to be getting a good answer anytime soon. But Niket and his mother are tired of asking. Niket's just plain tired. With the IB program, KRIPA, tennis, the clubs, the awards banquets, the applications and just being a regular kid, his senior year has been booked up from first light to good night. "I mean, I don't sleep much," he says.

Maybe he'll get a chance this fall.

"A lot of my friends who had the IB program," he says, laughing, "say college is like a breather."

It's Saturday night at Club Indigo, and I'm staggering toward the finish line of a 20-band marathon. The act taking the stage is one I normally wouldn't see, a local and rather popular metal act whose brand of hammering, unsubtle music makes me want to shed a tear for every day Elliott Smith won't make another record. Even their name, Fair to Midland, embraces mediocrity. I'm here because some A&R guy invited me to the show, and as I elbow into the humid, cramped quarters of Club Indigo's back room, I rather wish he hadn't. I'm grumpy. I'm tired. And as the band kicks off its set, I realize this music is everything I feared--fast, hard, dark, loud.

But here's something I didn't expect. I love it.

These guys put on a show, says our photographer, Mark Graham, emerging from the mosh pit and wiping his sweaty brow. His face is obscured by swiveling lights, green and white shocks spilling across the darkness.

I have to yell to be heard. "I hate their music, but I love this band!"

Let me be more specific. Lead singer Andrew Sudderth has those old-school metal pipes, the ones that swoop from operatic to Linda Blair in seconds. When he's not singing, he's flat-out freaking; it's like being witness to an electrocution. Bassist Nathin Seals and guitarist Clifford Campbell flank him, pounding the stage while keyboardist Matthew Langley tinkles a melody that bridges the explosions on Brett Stowers' drums. Unlike the thrash metal that Pantera, and thereby Dallas, made famous, their music has a hint of melody and dynamics. They don't look like metal cliches, either. Sudderth could be in a boy band. Campbell has the emaciated, boho look of Rage Against the Machine.

With names like "A Seafarer's Knot" and "Dance of the Manatee," the songs remind me of the mystical mumbo jumbo of 80s metal bands like Iron Maiden. In a 30-minute set, the only lyric I understand is "Gather round while we wait for high tide." Umm, if you say so.

Well, maybe I wouldn't listen to these songs in my car. Or my office. Or at home. Or, you know, anywhere. But no one in this sweaty, stinking room can deny that something--something fascinating--is happening onstage.

It's the kind of thrill I've been searching for all week. It came at the right time, too. I was starting to despair. Earlier that evening, I fought traffic and rain on Interstate 30 to Fort Worth, where a cover band called Second-Hand Soul played Mayfest. The quartet of middle-aged dudes churned out note-perfect renditions of classic guitar wank like Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan. They played their set to seven audience members sitting on soggy bales of hay.

Seven. That included me. There were more bales of hay than people.

The music wasn't bad, but it left me cold. Second-Hand Soul? It's like they stole my punch line.

It's funny how unpredictable live music can be. Here were musicians dotting every "i," playing songs I knew well, and yet the performance still lacked, well, soul. Meanwhile, in the crush of Club Indigo, I stood listening to a band I normally would never like, surrounded by people I normally would never hang out with--and I couldn't stop smiling.

Let's back up a bit. This thing started on a whim. One afternoon, bothered by guilt that I hadn't seen enough local shows recently, I included in my music column an off-the-cuff invite to see any and all bands for one week only. It was a loopy democratic gesture, a random grab for entertainment.

"Isn't it your JOB to see local Dallas bands without a bullshit competition?" one musician e-mailed me. "I hope you DON'T see my band."

Fine. That was easy.

But several others did take me up on my offer. Some guy in Salt Lake City even wanted to fly me up for the evening, although my better judgment prevailed. (Well, my editor said I couldn't.) What follows is an account of the shows I did attend--not a survey of Dallas music, exactly, because what would that be without the Polyphonic Spree and the Burden Brothers? Without Erykah Badu and the Reverend Horton Heat? Without Pleasant Grove, Centro-matic, the Deathray Davies? But that's music we cover already. In fact, the complaint I hear most about our coverage is that we're too insular, covering the same handful of ordained artists like one big circle jerk.

Consider this the flipside, then. A map of local music that's existed in our periphery until now--some I plan to keep an eye on and some I can't forget soon enough. It's a survey of acts still struggling, musicians who still get a thrill seeing their name in print, who may not even care what I think of them or write about them as long as somebody, anybody, acknowledges their work. I saw 20 of their shows in seven days, which doesn't include the acts I tried to see and missed because of the perils of travel, timing or, in one case, the idiotic decision to lie down at 11:30 p.m. with a cat on my stomach. [page]

Before we get started, let me extend apologies to the bands I couldn't catch: Get So, Lady of the Lake, Major Issues, Mojo Preston, Silver Arrows and the Theatre Fire. I wish there had been two of me last week. Of course, I would have gotten twice as many parking tickets. Monday, 9:30 p.m., the Balcony Club Going to the Balcony Club is like slipping into silk stockings and heels. It's a club for grown-ups--the kind of neighborhood spot Jack Kerouac might like, full of drunks and jazz and ribbons of smoke, a place whose very walls seem to reek of good times and folly.

My first invite came from Greg Ray Jazz Group, a quartet consisting of veteran jazz musicians from other Balcony Club bands. The saxophonist is confident in his solos, guitarist Ray is understated and organic, and the rhythm section is intuitive. They're tight without being showy, strong without being overpowering. Like so many jazz musicians, they are used to playing in the background, which seems to be the case tonight. At the bar, a drunk sings Mister Mister's "Broken Wings" to the waitress. A couple curled up in the corner finish their cocktails and leave.

Kids grow up with moonstruck fantasies about being a lifetime musician. The babes, the cash, the glory. But I suspect the reality is closer to this--a slow Monday night in an empty bar, playing mostly for yourself.

Tuesday, 6:15 p.m., the Inwood Theatre "Come by the Inwood any Tuesday or Wednesday between selling tickets and see me break a lot of musical rules!" writes Tom Hendricks by e-mail. A ticket-taker by trade, Hendricks has spent his downtime for the past six years serenading passers-by outside the Inwood.

When I arrive, Hendricks is inside his booth, cradling the beat-up '64 Silvertone he calls "his pet dog Guitar." He has propped an ancient Ross Systems amp in the round glass opening, giving his simple strums a tin-can quality, like 1950s radio. He offers a cover of the Hollies' "Bus Stop" and then hands me a copy of his monthly music zine Musea, which makes the rather alarming claim that he has written more than 5,000 poems, 70 original film scripts, one board game and 1,230 songs. The lyrics to one toss-off I heard, though, are simply "la-la-la." I love eccentrics, especially those who fill an otherwise drab afternoon with campfire music. But as far as I can tell, the only rules Hendricks is breaking are in the employee handbook.

"The people at the Inwood don't mind you doing this?" I ask.

"They kind of like weird things," he says. And Tom Hendricks fills the bill.

7 p.m., Sambuca A few weeks ago, walking through Deep Ellum, I was surprised by a notice hanging in the window of Sambuca: "MOVING. New location on McKinney opens next week."

Could it be? The jazz club that spread swank to the suburbs was closing shop in its downtown, and original, location? Just one more unsettling sign that people perceive Deep Ellum as dangerous, a place for punks and pickpockets. A few days later, when a gold-leaf invite turned up in my mailbox, I decided to squeeze the Sambuca fete into my band schedule--after all, I was invited, and honey, I never turn down a free crab cake.

Housed in the former location of Salve!, the new Sambuca is a breathtaking 9,000 square feet, almost triple the size of the downtown spot. It's decorated with opium-den decadence and typical Dallas overcompensation. Wasn't this supposed to be a music club? That's what I remember about Sambuca in the early '90s, when my high school girlfriends and I snuck in wearing black and enough makeup to pass for 21. It's the first place I saw a really tremendous saxophonist, and I can still remember how he held the whole smoky place in his sway. But they've traded culture and music for valet parking and society types. Music is wallpaper here, a mere fixture, like a sconce or a red-velvet drape. And because I'm sitting outside on the patio, it's not until I get up to leave that I realize a jazz band is playing, Shanghai 5. I stop for a moment to enjoy the music, which is probably more than most people did.

9 p.m., Poor Davids Pub Maren Morris is out past her curfew. A mere 14 years old, she opened tonight's 15th annual singer-songwriter competition at Poor David's with a handful of original tunes. Wearing an orange baseball cap with her T-shirt and jeans, she glides through her set like a pro, with an effortless twang to her voice. [page]

"God, I hate kids today," mutters the guy beside me. "What were you doing when you were 14?"

Female singer-songwriters always get a bad rap, with their corny sincerity and dear-diary lyrics, but it's nice to sit down and listen to an artist who can just plain sing. Female performers tend toward one of two camps: those, like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, who can sing but not write; and those, like Liz Phair and Courtney Love, who can write but not sing. Rare is the woman who manages both. (Aimee Mann comes to mind.) So even though the six contestants at the singer-songwriter competition--including Tracie Merchant and Sharon Bosquet--offered more than a few cringe-inducing moments, I thank them for their voices. With that said, who wouldn't gag upon hearing the line, by Lynn Adler, "It was on that carousel of love that I grabbed that diamond ring"? The four-letter critique in my notebook reads: YUCK!

In the end, the judges pick the right winners: Runner-up is Josh Weathers, a likable fellow with a pageboy cap who offers some of the night's only up-tempo numbers and finishes one with the refreshing explanation "So that song's about a soap opera." The night's winner is Kristy Kruger, a longtime Dallas fixture who plays every other Wednesday at Club Dada. Alternating between guitar and piano, with a little harmonica thrown in, Kruger's set is like low-rent Tori Amos, serious-minded and sometimes impressive. And though I didn't care for a ham-handed song about Afghanistan ("In God's name we kill, and in God's name we trust/Oh, Mommy, I'm hoping God gives a damn about us"), she was unquestionably the most talented singer-songwriter of the bunch.

"I'm always amazed that our finals are lightly attended," says owner David Card. "Sara Hickman played here when she was starting out, and so did the Dixie Chicks." But unlike Austin, which practically gold-plates its singer-songwriters, Dallas is iffy on the crunchy folk scene. The people who like it don't go to Deep Ellum. And the people who go to Deep Ellum don't like it.

Not surprisingly, Poor David's is moving to South Lamar Street, beside the new Gilley's, in two months.

Wednesday, 10:30 p.m., the Elbow Room Bassist Clay Pendergrass is the former sideman to Davíd Garza and Vibrolux and (poor thing) Jackopierce. Future Sound is his band, a trio of solid jazz musicians who incorporate loops and samples into the live mix. It's a clever idea, fusing the disciplined but somewhat stale art of jazz with the exciting but scattershot conventions of electronica.

Except tonight, it's not working. Throughout the set, Pendergrass is preoccupied in front of his Apple laptop, playing with the distraction of a man talking to his wife during the big game. The band loses the groove it had going and, eventually, its critic.

11:45 p.m., I-30 to Denton The drive to Denton is a 40-minute snoozer of white lines and snarled construction. In a perfect world, there would be a supersonic portal device--some serious Star Trek snazziness--connecting the two cities. In an OK world, there'd be a lousy train. In my world tonight, it's just me and the road, baby, and I'm struggling. I'm determined to catch Silver Arrows, a band I've seen and enjoyed before, but my vision is starting to blur, those white lines before me veering off to infinity. I slap myself awake, but after a truck swerves past and I veer close to the ominous concrete embankment, I make the decision to turn back, along with a personal vow: No more pasta for dinner.

Thursday, 10:30 p.m., Curtain Club The day after his band's show at the Curtain Club, Dreamt lead singer Christian Dille e-mails me: "I watched a videotape of the show and must apologize for my out-of-tune guitar that was turned up too loud during the portion you saw," he writes. Dille doesn't mention the band's other problem--namely, they suck--although he does point out it was the group's third show. I'm always surprised when beginners submit to such scrutiny; it took me years to convince myself I had the talent for publication. And even now, some days at 4 a.m., I wonder. Yet every day I get e-mails from amateurs, clamoring for attention.

This story disproves the anecdote I'm about to share, but it somehow seems relevant. When I or my colleagues do those panels about alternative weeklies at South by Southwest, it's always full of the same people--the go-getters armed with guerrilla publicity tactics, business cards and one question asked 10 different ways: "How can I get in your paper?" [page]

There's only one answer: Be good. Friday, 7 p.m., AllGood Cafe Max Stalling is a tall, thin man with a smile so honest he could sell a bicycle to a buffalo. His Friday-night happy-hour show is standing room only, with every table at the AllGood cluttered with beer bottles and half-eaten queso.

Stalling is the performer I most looked forward to seeing. He has a strong fan base and three CDs (Comfort in the Curves, Wide Afternoon, One of the Ways) that each sell well, unusual for any singer-songwriter. After a tongue-in-cheek story I wrote about the Dallas Observer Music Awards last month, one fan (who turned out to be a band member's girlfriend) wrote a furious letter to the editor in defense of Stalling, a string of all-cap frustrations in which she managed to misconstrue pretty much the entire piece. I was so busy that I didn't append an editor's note explaining that I never accused Max Stalling of cheating. I only accused Max Stalling of rocking.

Which he does. Stalling's songs blast along on a two-lane highway of slick guitar and bass. Crowd favorite "I-35" name-checks the cities along that great scar of an interstate, and it deserves to be a classic, or at least a traveling mix-tape classic.

"We're rollin' now," Stalling tells the audience, the dimples in his cheeks showing. "Anything you got in mind?"

Loosened up by booze, the crowd starts shouting out song titles. Someone hands him a napkin with the words "Running Buddy," and he launches into a good-natured tune about losing a pal to true love in San Antonio.

"We're doing all the heartbreak songs tonight," he says. "Well, that figures, it's about 45 percent of my material." I'd venture more like 80 percent. The crowd, dotted with baseball caps and not-so-natural blondes, sings along and starts to two-step in the crowded aisle. At the end of the evening, Stalling returns for an encore. He raises his arm to wave goodbye and accidentally sticks it into the ceiling fan. Did we mention he's tall?

Friday, 11 p.m., Barley House It's 20 minutes into Rahim Quazi's set at the Barley House when I'm forced to pull myself away. Too bad. He didn't invite me, but I'm glad I caught his set. Quazi, of the band OHNO, makes smart, poppy tunes comfy as a featherbed. Speaking of, I'm getting sleepy again. I swear, sometimes the hardest part of this job is just staying awake. Back in college, the moon could beat me to bed, and I'd hardly bat an eye. Now, pushing 30, a midnight show can feel like running underwater. But I'm determined to make it to the Graffiti Rock Room for Major Issues, a band who tagged its invite with the promise of being "Dallas' best-kept secret." No kidding. The Graffiti Room's secret is so water-tight that no one at the bar has ever heard of it.

I stop by my apartment to look it up online. With 20 minutes to kill, I sit down on my bed and think about what to do. You know what's sometimes a nice way to prepare for a late night of standing up? Lying down. You know what's nicer? When a sweet, orange kitty cat pads its way across the bed and on your belly to keep you company, and it's so soothing, the way the cat breathes, the way his eyes close--slowly, slowly. The gentle rhythm of his purr. It makes me so calm, lying here. It makes me so, so, so...

2 a.m., awaking in my bed DAMMIT!!!!!!!!!!

Saturday, 6:30 p.m., Mayfest at Trinity Park Back when my older brother and I read Circus magazine every week, the music of AC/DC was rather shocking. My mother, whose musical tastes run toward Bach and early Beatles, didn't quite know what to make of the cock-rock that is "Hell's Bells." So what am I to make of Mayfest, a family festival whose main-stage attraction is an AC/DC cover band, Back in Black?

All around me, hundreds of adults and children sit in the audience, nodding contentedly and tapping their feet. Near the back, a middle-aged woman in jogging pants points to the stage emphatically with every word. "I'm on the hiiiiiighway to hell," she sings, slapping her hands with delight. The band, for the record, sounds exactly like AC/DC, full of screech and power chords, and they even look like them, too, although younger and not quite so ugly. Meanwhile, parents sit with their kids, nodding their heads and mouthing the lyrics. "Hey, Satan! Paid my dues/Playin' in a rockin' band." [page]

A friend who teaches guitar to teens was telling me recently that parents today aren't afraid of rock and roll like ours were. They grew up on the stuff. Once a sure-fire path to rebellion, rock music is now something parents encourage their kids to pursue. They see it as a viable art form. And hey, it's a lot cooler than the piccolo.

Saturday, 10 p.m., Across the Street Bar "Happy birthday, Ian!" yells a group of girls, collapsing into giggles.

Ian McRoy is onstage with a mike and an acoustic guitar, playing his own birthday party. His grin stretches for miles. He starts out his set with David Gray's frat-boy ballad "Babylon," so you can probably guess the kind of singer-songwriter McRoy is. He's a nice, sensitive guy who writes rather limp songs about love lost and love found and not being able to fight the feeling and whoa, whoa, whoa. He has a pleasant voice that sometimes reaches a little too far. But to paraphrase Leslie Gore, it's his party, and he'll crack if he wants to.

After each song, McRoy seems genuinely surprised to hear applause. "Now I know you're drunk," he tells the crowd. It's one of the many endearing things about Ian McRoy--not a great talent but still interesting enough to earn a small fan base. One girl in the audience knows all his songs, and she sings along happily. It's quite sweet, actually. Maybe there really is someone for everybody.

Sunday, 8:15 p.m., The Red Blood Club Deep Ellum is eerily vacant save a couple of skate punks, who trail me into the Red Blood Club, a scruffy warehouse tucked behind Crescent City Café on Commerce Street. They last two songs; I last three.

A Foot Ahead is a quartet of young, good-looking boys who hop around onstage and sing rote blasts of power-punk layered with '80s synth. Maybe it's the former high school teacher in me, but I find myself torn between wanting to encourage them and wanting to critique them. I mean, they're kids; of course they're green. But the truth is they're not good, and they could be one day.

So here's a word of advice, boys: The bassist should sing more, and the keyboardist should sing less.

Now, carry on.

9 p.m., Lakewood Bar & Grill It's drunk o'clock at the LBG, where the only audience watching Dan Walker is five men at the bar. ("Watching" isn't exactly the word.) Red candles flicker on empty tables, and I sit at a booth near the back under a banner that reads, "Congrats Graduate." For days, I'll find confetti in my purse and notebook.

"Any requests?" Walker asks.


Walker is a serviceable musician, a flip-flops-and-baseball-cap kinda guy with a Jack Johnson sound. He intersperses ample covers with tepid originals. It's fun, but that can be a trap; what pleases the audience is often not what pleases the performer. A few years ago, I saw Jon Brion play at Spaceland in Los Angeles. A producer extraordinaire who's worked with Macy Gray and Fiona Apple, Brion is also a songwriter whose music is far more challenging than the radio-ready pop he helps create. Anyway, as part of Brion's act he plays covers. Like, he'll play the most crushing version of Air Supply's "All Out of Love" you've ever heard, just ripping it from adult-contemporary hell and reinventing the sucker on the spot, building each instrument part individually, so the song is sort of born before your eyes. Of course, Brion plays his own music, too, but the people at Spaceland weren't listening to that part. They just kept yelling out kitschy songs to cover. "Don't Stop Believing," "Heartbreaker," "Come Sail Away." I forget which song he did that night, but it was less inspired than usual. Afterward, when I spoke with him, he just seemed depressed.

Seeing Dan Walker at the LBG, I can see why. "Any requests?" he asks.

"There is a house in New Orleans," one drunk begins to sing.

"Yeah, I know that one," Walker says, smiling. He launches into Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly" instead.

10 p.m., Club Dada Sometimes I think the real music experts in this town are the ones checking IDs at the door, the ones fiddling with knobs in the dark corners, the ones pouring drinks behind the bar. Unlike me, they can't escape when the music gets awful. They're stuck.

So when I show up at Club Dada for my last scheduled show only to discover I got the night wrong--a closing catastrophe to my week--I listen to Tom Prejean, who runs the club's open-mike night.

"Stick around for Carrie Minirth," he says. "She started playing here a year ago. And already she's chiseled on the Mount Rushmore of my mind." Man, what a compliment. [page]

Minirth is small and pretty, with the cheekbones and arched eyebrows of a young Katharine Hepburn. She's yet another songstress with a guitar, but her music has disturbing twists. "I put all my eggs in one basket," she sings in a dark Betty Boop voice, "I'm walking to my casket."

"Play 'The Traveling Song'!" says the bartender when she's finished.

"Oh, you like that one?" she asks shyly.

"Carrie, I like all your songs. "

So do I. It's funny how you just know talent when you see it.

It's a nice change of pace, because earlier that evening, photographer Mark Graham and I were there enduring a painful hard-rock show, talking about how depressing live music can be. The empty houses, the smattering of applause. I told Mark, "I just want to shake some of these people and say, 'Why? Why do you do this?'"

That's when some kid named Jeff Somers got up on the stage. I wasn't even paying attention, really, but I saw him out of the corner of my eye--hunched over his guitar, trucker cap tugged down low over his eyes. And then I heard him. A voice full of character and anxiety, atypical chords, a shade of bluegrass in his fingerpicking. It started to drag my attention away from the conversation I was having. Suddenly, I wasn't interested in distraction. I wanted to hear his songs.

"This song doesn't have a name," he says nervously, "but it's got lyrics." His music sounds like Conor Oberst, or John Darnielle, with a shaky voice that would be almost painful to listen to if it weren't so damn compelling. And I realize this kid has answered my question: This is why. This is the reason people keep playing, the reason I keep sitting around in the clubs, enduring the mediocrity and the noise. Sure, it's unpredictable. But every once in a while, maybe when you're not looking, something amazing happens.

"Thanks," he says to the crowd. He bites the edge of his thumb. "You're pretty nice to a first-timer like myself."

No, thank you.

It was one of those years. Three beloved major-label acts dominating nearly every major category, with little but their hometown in common. One a sweet, unassuming Christian family making music beyond their years. One a crew of aging but still-scorching rockers giddily throwing up the devil horns. One a chorus of gleamy-toothed optimists backing one of the city's most eccentric and compelling musical visionaries. No mistake about it: This was the year of the Polyphonic Eisley Brothers.

That makes it a frustrating year for some (with seven nominations and no wins, Sorta is officially The Color Purple of this year's DOMAs), but it's also an impressive reflection on Dallas' presence in the national scene--not one, but three famous acts duking it out for the top spot. While Eisley won Best Album honors, the Burden Brothers' "Beautiful Night" edged out that band's "Marvelous Things" in the final inning to win best song. And while Burden Brothers front man Vaden Todd Lewis nabbed the Best Male Vocalist award, he lost by an inch to Polyphonic Spree's Tim DeLaughter for Musician of the Year. Meanwhile, iconic acts swept their genre categories once more: Erykah Badu in funk/R&B; the Reverend Horton Heat in rockabilly/roots; Jack Ingram in country and western. Truth is, this year's issue looks a whole lot like last year's issue. Maybe we'll choose a different font.

I won't lie to you: I'm not entirely happy with the way the awards came together. I was disappointed by the lack of participation from the nominating board--who were called and coaxed repeatedly--and next year, I'm ready to try a totally new approach. (Not sure what, but expect free booze.) With that said, the awards themselves shook out nicely. Almost 5,000 people voted, and not even half of them were in the Polyphonic Spree. We hope you find something interesting on the pages that follow. This is our party. And we want you to enjoy it.

A few thanks, real quick like: Matt Hursh and Michelle Martinez entered hundreds, if not thousands, of ballots with their poor little hands; Todd Fletcher built the site for voting online; Lindsay Graham sorted the results; Zac Crain made me laugh; Robert Wilonsky made me cry, but he apologized profusely, and really, he knows it wasn't his fault; Rhonda Reinhart, our copy editor, shoulders blame for what she misses yet never gets props for what she catches, so, Rhonda, this be fer you. And to those who voted, who go to the clubs, who play in the bands, who lug the equipment, who close down the bars, who sit in the studio, who work and fight and scrap so you can rock us every night--we salute you. --Sarah Hepola

Best Act Overall; Best Album (Marvelous Things/Laughing City EPs); Female Vocalist (Sherri and Stacy DuPree); Best Guitarist (Chauntelle DuPree)

"Don't believe the hype." Those were the words Eisley once placed on their Web site above a link to a growing archive of articles. It was a reminder to themselves as much as anyone else. Staying humble isn't all that easy when you're on tour with Coldplay, when the star writer of Rolling Stone singles you out as the next big thing, when you land a major-label record deal, when your picture graces the pages of Entertainment Weekly, Maxim, Blender, Seventeen, the Los Angeles Times. These are kids from Tyler, Texas, after all. Homeschooled kids. Christians.

So don't believe the hype, if you must. Hype strangles our enjoyment of art, anyway. Too much hype would leach the pleasures to be found in this young, improbable and utterly endearing family band: the lush, melodic sway of every song; the eerie, otherwordly lyrics; the almost shockingly confident soprano of little Stacy DuPree. But of all their virtues, I think my colleague Zac Crain put his finger on the most important: "Musically, the group doesn't sound like anyone except itself," he wrote in his cover story on Eisley. Theirs is the kind of music made by children who grew up listening to songs, rather than watching them on MTV. Children who grew up reading in bed, drawing at the kitchen table, playing make-believe in the yard. (As a friend once put it, "Yep. That's Tyler.") Their two EPs, Marvelous Things and Laughing City, create swirling kingdoms of Narnia-style fantasmagoria: a bat with butterfly wings, an aquatic underworld, a little girl soaring above the trees. Artful and literate, their music is the best endorsement for homeschooling I've seen since my freshman English teacher assigned Ivanhoe.

Although last year represented Eisley's DOMA debut--with the band nabbing Best New Act honors--this year represents their genuine arrival. Eisley fans came out full force, with sisters Sherri and Stacy DuPree winning in a landslide for their hauntingly twinned vocals, while Chauntelle won Best Guitarist honors, although I suspect even she would admit she's not technically the best player. ("I don't know that many scales [yet] on the fret board, and I don't know any theory [yet]," Chauntelle admitted a few years ago on the Eisley Web site.) But her triumph reflects not only the band's staggering local popularity but also the powerful image of a female guitarist. Yep, two decades after Nancy Wilson, it's still a big deal. So Eisley has arrived. Almost. And that last part is tricky--it's the breath we're stuck holding until late summer, when their full-length album comes out on Warner Bros., the album they're stuck in California recording. When I spoke to their mom last week, she was anxious about the outcome; she's wondering about all the hype. Mostly, though, she was ready for her family to come home. --S.H. [page]

Polyphonic Spree
Avant-Garde/Experimental; Musician of the Year and Songwriter (Tim DeLaughter)

For three years it's been there, but suddenly it is everywhere: in the movies and on their soundtracks, on TV shows and on part of the ads between them. "Light & Day," done for a demo that became an indie release that became a Hollywood Records album, first saw the light of day pitching iPods and was then faintly heard on Jim Carrey's car radio in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, on whose soundtrack the song is perched between E.L.O.'s radiant "Mr. Blue Sky" and Beck's bummer, "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime." Gondry, famous for turning the White Stripes into Legos and putting Björk in the paws of a gorilla dentist, has even directed his own video for the song using scenes from his movie. Imposing someone else's moving lips onto images from his film, à la Conan O'Brien and his political goofs, the director creates a movie montage in which Carrey and Kate Winslet, and the occasional house and window pane and elephant, sing along to a song that once came out of cult leader Tim DeLaughter's mouth. The effect is at once creepy and kind of touching.

On April 20, at around 8:56 p.m., you can hear the song once more on network TV, when DeLaughter and his bright-white-robed Polyphonic Spree serenade the cast of NBC's Scrubs on a Very Special Episode--very special, because for the first time a show that uses pop music to tie together its myriad story lines has actually built one of those story lines around a band. In the show, set in a hospital populated by cute and wry surgeons prone to daydreams and one-night flings, a member of the band (an actor, really) is hospitalized and unable to go on tour with the Spree. One doctor, played by fetching newcomer Bellamy Young, wants to let him out; another, John C. McGinley's cranky Dr. Cox, demands he stay put. But Cox finally relents and brings the band to the hospital, where its two dozen members in white robes file into a room to play "Light & Day," which wafts through the corridors and through the episode's other plot lines.

"We're not like Beverly Hills, 90210," says Scrubs' supervising producer, Neil Goldman. "We don't have the Peach Pit, where we can just go, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the Flaming Lips.' In this case, the first inclination was just to use the song. As we usually do during pre-production, we all bring in our CDs, and everybody plays songs for everybody, and everybody gets ridiculed for the music. It gets pretty brutal, to the point where that's the most nerve-racking part of the process. It used to be having the nerve to pitch a joke or a story line, but now it's having the balls to get up there and put your song in the CD player and not just get completely creamed by the 11 other music geeks. But 'Light & Day' was one that everybody universally started bopping their heads to...and we loved the image of all these guys and gals pouring into a relatively small hospital room, sort of like a never-ending clown car. We just fell in love with that image and that joke and built a story line around it."

Yet even as the song spreads further 'cross the land, playing on a TV show that reaches some 9 million pairs of eyes and ears this week, the Spree prepares for the release of its second album, and first real one: Together We're Heavy, due for release July 13. The disc, with its 11 "sections" coalescing into 58 minutes' worth of feel-good and aw-right and golly-gee and glory-hallelujah, expands and expounds upon its predecessor till The Beginning Stages begins to sound genuinely unkempt. The new album, produced by Eric Drew Feldman (Tripping Daisy, natch), is anthemic and enlivening, a genuine up-and-down-and-side-to-side ride, as opposed to a collection of up-with-peeps choruses in search of verses. With its classical asides and narrative diversions and catchy chimes, it resembles less a compendium of pet sounds and soft-rock bulletins you can sing along with the first time you hear them and more like something stirring and singular and worthy of the swimming pools of critical ink in which the band has frolicked ever since David Bowie and the rock press adopted DeLaughter. In other words, baby, it's heavy. And light. But not day. --Robert Wilonsky [page]

Burden Brothers
Best Song (Beautiful Night); Rock/Pop;
Male Vocalist (Vaden Todd Lewis);
Best Drummer (Taz Bentley)

As soon as I heard it, I knew it was a hit. Could feel it all the way from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. It was one of those things that's undeniably perfect, like a cold beer on a hot summer day or the form on Dirk Nowitzki's jump shot. One of those things where, the moment you're in its presence, you just sit back and enjoy.

I had plenty of time to do that because the Burden Brothers were in the middle of mixing the song in question, "Beautiful Night," on a not-so-beautiful evening in Deep Ellum at Last Beat Studio. With Paul Williams at the controls, Brothers Vaden Todd Lewis and Taz Bentley listened as the song played back over and over and over, so many times that, at the end of an hour, I was pretty sure I could play just about every note and I was positive I knew the lyrics even better than Lewis. And I was still sure it was a hit, because after that hour of combing through the minutiae of the track chord by drum fill by tortured scream, I still loved it. Only wanted to hear more of it.

I can say this with all sincerity because, until then, I had been somewhat unimpressed with the group's work. They'd done only a few songs, were still finding out who they wanted to be as a band. It wasn't even a band yet, just a dynamic duo (singer-guitarist Lewis and drummer-comedian Bentley) with a love-hate relationship with the music industry and a revolving-door lineup of sidemen. "Beautiful Night," the embittered, euphoric counterpoint to U2's "Beautiful Day" that hangs a hammock between Cheap Trick and Black Sabbath, gave the upstart band a focus, not to mention a comfortable cushion on the radio. Now they've also found a home outside Dallas, by way of a record deal with Trauma/Kirtland Records, which released the band's debut, Buried in Your Black Heart, in November.

Though the group has solidified with guitarists Casey Hess and Corey Rozzoni and bassist Casey Orr, it's fitting that the Brothers' two founders are singled out here, because no matter who is filling the supporting roles, Lewis and Bentley are the names above the title that sell the picture. It's fitting as well that they should win for Best Rock/Pop, because despite the outfit's early intentions to build everything with hard edges, they've found a soft spot amid the carnage, one that suits them as much if not more. They keep mining that territory, and there'll be plenty more beautiful nights to come. --Zac Crain

Slow Roosevelt

For more than a decade, Slow Roosevelt--fondly referred to as Slow Ro--has performed for packed rooms, adoring girls and fist-pounding guys alike. But now, these intellectual heavies and Dallas-music-scene veterans are no more. Don't panic--all members of the now-defunct band are alive and kicking, and thanks to a pickup by Reality Entertainment, so is their final album, Weightless. So why stop now? Why after six, seven, well, we've lost count, and so have they--after so many DOMAs, why quit now?

"We'd been playing together for seven years," says Pete Thomas, the bullhorn-wielding front man and lyricist. "It was just time." But Thomas, drummer Aaron Lyons, guitarist Scott Minyard and bassist Zack Busby aren't giving up on music altogether. Busby, Lyons and Thomas are working on a new project, still heavy, but different from their late and uniquely gritty band. "Dallas has a great music scene, and really, there's no place I'd rather continue to play music with people," Thomas says.

Slow Roosevelt wasn't the first "heavy" or "metal" band in Dallas. After all, we do claim Pantera, but Slow Ro was influential in establishing a heavy scene on a more local, as opposed to Pantera's national, level.

"If there has to be a grandfather metal band in Dallas, that'd be us," Thomas says, and while he says it jokingly (yes, the super-serious stage character jokes), he says it with pride, because remaining influential to the last sold-out show is rare in this city. "We were always waiting for the other shoe to drop and people to get tired of us, but until the end we played to packed houses." And what of the bullhorn's future? Thomas tossed it into a writhing mass of reaching hands, where it was devoured, just like their final show. --Merritt Martin [page]

DJ Merritt

DJ Merritt knows a few things. He knows how to gauge the room, how to bring the kids to their knees. He knows that when he spins the Lee Coombs remix of "Pray for You," people spill onto the floor. He knows that it's his job to read a crowd's mood, like a weatherman placing one wet finger into the breeze to decipher which way the storm is blowing. That's what he's done every Saturday night for a decade now as host of Edge Club on KDGE-FM (102.1), not only the longest-running live mix show in America but also the highest-rated. While the rest of you suckers are sloshing your drinks and falling off barstools, DJ Merritt is hard at work. That's true for most DJs. But Merritt doesn't just play music; he makes it. He has seven different remixes coming out on various labels, like "Imagination," which teams vocals from up-and-comer MC Astro with guitar work from Sorta's Trey Johnson. Or his collaboration between Florida artist Blake Potter and local producer Kelly Reverb. So that means other DJs across the country are spinning DJ Merritt's records. Which is a good thing.

"I've noticed the newer generation of dance-music fans are liking the prepackaged, overproduced pop stuff a little too much," he says. "As far as dance music is concerned, the pop-electronic music is being sold as the 'underground' to a generation of people that grew up on Britney Spears and 'N Sync. Those people tend to have a distorted view as to what underground electronic music is really about." Lucky for those kids, DJ Merritt is around. He knows a few things. --S.H.

Hard Night´s Day
Cover Band

Sometimes, you just want music to be easy. Sometimes, you want to actually sit down in a club. Sometimes--like, say, Friday at 6 p.m., when the week has soured into a surprise visit to Planet Suck--it's nice to know the songs, to know the words. Hell, you might even dance after a few beers. Or 10. Just kidding. (Not really kidding.) This is the patented formula for comfort known as the cover band.

Now, we know plenty of people hate cover bands. They're an easier target than Carrot Top: They don't write their own songs; they don't even use props in their comedy. To these naysayers, however, we have one thing to say: Come on. These are the same people who hate Christmas, who scorn the sunshine, who would never admit the ameliorating affects of junk food on a hangover, who, who, who, who dislike pink glitter. Wait--what were we talking about? The point is that cover bands serve a purpose in the musical ecosphere, and it's not nearly as corny as the term "musical ecosphere." They are fun. They are easy. And, as bars and wedding planners well know, they are popular.

Few more so than Hard Night's Day. This is the second year in a row that the Fake Fab Four (curiously numbering five)--Bob Cummings, Mark Ehmann, Paul Averitt, Carter Livingston and Doug Cox--have won this honor. Although the band has left longtime venue Club Dada (who filled that spot with a fellow nominee, the awe-inspiring, all-request Chris Holt's Jukebox), Hard Night's Day still enjoys regular gigs at St. Martin's, the Bone and Lakewood Bar & Grill. Their fan base is devoted and ever evolving, much like the band whose songs inspire them. Sure, it's easy to knock Hard Night's Day. It's even easier to sing along. --S.H.

Best New Act

Other than, say, Metallica or Slayer or, well, pretty much any metal band, no name says more about the group that uses it than Radiant. Dictionary says "filled with light; bright; glowing; beaming," and so would anyone who's heard the band's The Sound of Splitting Atoms EP, which could more appropriately be called The Sound of Texas' Answer to Coldplay. Seven songs rarely say so much, especially when they're coming from such a young quartet--singer-guitarist Levi Smith, drummer Daniel Hopkins, guitarist Dragan Jakovljevic and Jon Schoemaker on bass and keys. From first shot ("Wondermaker") to last call ("Save Us"), the disc is spiritual without being in-your-face about it, beautiful but not fragile, fully formed with enough potential left over to keep listeners excited. Call it rock and soul, the kind of music where the lump in your throat is big enough to sit in with the band by the end of the set. Fact is, "Way You Make Me Feel" is enough to win Radiant this award, a personal prayer that comes across as a national anthem, with a chorus that sticks in your head like autopsy photos. They're the Best New Act now; much more than that in the years to come. --Z.C. [page]

I Love Math
Folk/Acoustic; Best Bassist (Jason Garner)

I Love Math could have been considered an acoustic project when it started as the lower-key, Sunday-night-at-Barley-House offshoot of singer-guitarist John Dufilho and bassist Jason Garner's main band, the Deathray Davies. But that label soon rang false, and it still does; "stripped down" is a better peg on which to hang the group's roots-inflected, record-collection-reflecting music, a set that comes off like the soundtrack to a Wes Anderson film, with sure-footed ease. And folk is appropriate only if your definition means that a) someone in the band has to be seated on a stool, b) the melodies are a point on a line that begins with Charlie Patton and hits Bob Dylan and Tom Petty along the way and c) the lyrics actually say something, occasionally without saying anything at all. You can shorten the discussion by just calling them pretty great. Garner is the heart of the band (a versatile four-string champion, here and with the DRD), Dufilho is the soul and guitarist Aaron Kelley and drummer Philip Peeples are the backbone. It's a combination that, on a good night, works even better than Garner and Dufilho's main gig. --Z.C.

The Silvertones

They say history forgotten is doomed to be repeated. But, with the blues at least, history forgotten just seems to be forgotten. The blues has become like adult contemporary with a Southern accent, something created by and for the middle-aged and older. Maybe it's because young folks don't have the hardscrabble lives of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson, men who lived fast and died young, making their furious mark on the burgeoning blues track, with its depot in Deep Ellum. Or maybe it's because Stevie Ray Vaughan is a guy kids hear about but never actually hear. But now--finally--a club called Deep Ellum Blues has brought blues back into Deep Ellum. And that's good for everybody--fans, bands and anyone willing to listen.

The Silvertones--winners of this award three out of the last four years--are excited about this club. A new venue, a new crowd, a new opportunity. The band plays all over town, from Hole in the Wall in Dallas to Up in Smoke in Keller to Tap Inn in Grapevine, spreading the blend of surf rock and traditional blues they've recorded on Cruisin', a studio album, and the live recording Hot in the Hole. The Silvertones--co-founders Randy Ball (drummer-vocalist) and Brian Wicker (stand-up bass player), eight-year member Leo Delavega (a left-handed guitarist who plays a right-handed guitar upside down) and guitarist David Smith (who replaced longtime member Walter Delesandri, who died of a heart attack in June 2003)--are completing another album, but they don't have a label or financing yet. Maybe now they have a better chance. --Shannon Sutlief

Jack Ingram

Everything you need to know about Jack Ingram you can learn from his video for "How Many Days." There's the tousled hair and movie-star good looks. The down-home guy playing pool with the men and carousing with hot girls in tank tops and tight jeans. The good ol' boy walking out of an interview with a pesky reporter. And the live footage with the packed room of beer drinkers and singers-along whooping it up. Then there's the music itself: a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, smart, smart-ass and appealing equally to indie-rocking fans of Wilco, frat-boy devotees of Pat Green and boots-wearing aficionados of Robert Earl Keen. It's a wonder that he's neither a star like pal Green nor still doing guy-and-guitar shows on weekday nights. Instead, he's somewhere in between: Hey You (the 1999 album that carried "How Many Days"), 2002's Electric and its companion Extra Volts were released on Lucky Dog, a Sony imprint. But Ingram's latest albums--the solo live album Acoustic Motel and Thursday's release, Live From Gruene Hall, featuring him and his Beat-Up Ford Band--both came out on Real American Music Records. But that's Ingram, always treading between extremes. Self-released, major label; riffs, twang. He's got it all, plus another pretty doorstop. --S.S.

Idol Records
Record Label

Idol Records rides a decade of Dallas music history into another Best Label win, but a review of the past year's releases reveals a sizable drop in annual output. After all, the label's biggest release of 2003 was Vital Idol, a 10th anniversary sampler of hits and rarities, and what's more, half of the sampler's songs are by bands no longer native to Idol. By year's end, local heavy-hitters Chomksy, the Deathray Davies and Centro-matic had shacked up with other labels, while Macavity's recent breakup dropped the roster another notch. The only hot local act left is [DARYL], whose upcoming full-length Ohio sounds promising, but the rest of the current catalog consists of out-of-towners like '90s-revival Sponge, Detroit's live blasters The Fags and Ohio's pop-punkers Watershed...out-of-towners, might I add, who haven't made a huge splash in the Dallas music scene. That hasn't slowed labelhead Erv Karwelis, though, who recently nabbed worldwide album distribution, national radio airplay (Sponge's "Treat Me Wrong" hit No. 6 on modern rock radio) and spots on hot MP3 services like iTunes. Slow local output can stagnate the hottest indie labels, but if Idol's outward expansion keeps up, don't be surprised to see its name on the 2014 ballot, too. --Sam Machkovech [page]

Dot Matrix

So right off, you can tell that Dot Matrix isn't your average rap group. There's a saxophonist in the corner, slinging out jazzy riffs and looking like Thomas Dolby in the "She Blinded Me With Science" video. There are three MCs, one of whom hides beneath a floppy hat, and one who busts out in soulful song, veins popping out on his neck, his face reddening to keep the pace. There's a mix board, sure, but also a bassist and a drummer. The songs are funked-out, high-voltage things that settle into that sweet spot between the smooth grooves of hip-hop and the sarcastic, hard-bitten edges of rap. It's 3 p.m. in a windy field at Denton's WakeUp '04 music festival, and the crowd is as tame as Sunday churchgoers. Onstage, Dot Matrix plays the set like it's their last.

It's that kind of commitment that has earned Dot Matrix Best Rap honors for the second year in a row. This 3-year-old, seven-piece Dallas crew is dedicated to the orgy of sounds, to the plain entertainment of playing live. They're not your average rap group, and they don't want to be. As Dot Matrix put it on their demo for ACM Records: "There's a possibility that we gon' change your views/About the way that hip-hop is supposed to groove. " --S.H.

The Reverend Horton Heat

The problem with a band like the Reverend Horton Heat is that when time comes to recognize them, there's not much left to say. They're well-known and well-deserving. So just to shake the normal journalistic form (as the Rev would a fine martini or a tail feather), here's a stream-of-consciousness rundown re: the Rev: hot-roddin', punkabilly, rockabilly, Billy-Badass, chasin' ladies, shootin' dice, balls-out rock and roll, "It's Martini Time," stand-up bass, cuttin' rugs, pomade, black and white, chain wallets, Liquor in the Front, you know the rest, irony not lost, fun, flashback, classic, sure bet, fresh via 1953, could kick your ass, crazy drum lines, spritz of lime, pointy-toed, kitten heels, punk-rock bombshells, comb on hand, religious zeal, genres surpassed, label-juggling, here to stay, nothing he won't say, barstools, hangovers, lash-batting, whiskey and eggs, Jimbo, Scott and Jim Heath. If you have to ask what any of that means, you've probably never heard the Reverend Horton Heat, and you sure as hellfire haven't seen them live. The Rev adds street cred and style to the roster of bands that come out of this Texas town. As proven by repeat nominations, followed by repeat awards, what the Rev says is gospel. And nobody messes with the gospel. --M.M.

The Latin Fire

Every Sunday night at Monica's, you can find them. Packing the place with fans, swiveling their hips, taking those swift, traveling steps together: one-two-cha-cha-cha. "We want you dancing," goes one of Latin Fire's songs, and they mean business. Notice the insistence of the instruments: the wild peal of the trombone, the pleading of the percussion, the sha-sha-shake of the maracas. This is serious. If you're not careful, you're going to dance.

That's the risk you take when you see Latin Fire, the nine-piece salsa and merengue band spearheaded by David Flores, formerly the leader of Orquesta Carabalí. Flores grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in a musical family whose traditions and propulsive sounds he transported to Dallas, where he has been a fixture on the scene for two decades. Along with groups like Havana NRG (who placed second in one of the awards' closest races), Latin Fire provides the soundtrack for the still-popular salsa scene, adults whose idea of dancing involves neither pacifiers nor strobe lights. It's not a bad night out--good exercise, good people, good times. Makes you wonder why we don't dance more. Oh, that's right: We can't. --S.H. [page]

Matt Pence

Every kid with a guitar has the dream. Platinum records, live CDs and an episode of Behind the Music minus the drug-riddled breakdown. Dallas musicians have the dream, too, and while it may not be as astronomical, it still includes things like record deals, successful tours and--for a lot of people--Matt Pence behind the boards. The Centro-matic drummer and Echo Lab co-owner has been serving up dreamlike album production for years, which is why you'll find him on just about every local band's wish list. While Dallas producers often take the "hip" lo-fi route or use ProTools to create a clean, precise sound, Pence nails the best of both. His studio refinement doesn't overpower the airy warmth of a live, non-computer-assisted take, and it just sounds right. Granted, his hands didn't touch many local projects this year, but Love You Just the Same, Centro-matic's 2003 LP, is proof enough of his prowess. Listen to "All the Lightning Rods" and try not to adore the way Pence coasts Will Johnson's voice atop sparse piano, guitar and backing vocals. Talk about dreamy. --S.M.


Just a few weeks ago, Watusi played another office party. During the band's break, I introduced myself to Jim Watusi, the band's slight, bearded front man.

"Any requests?" he asked, smiling. His rainbow knit cap covered a nest of blond dreads.

"'No Woman, No Cry'?" I offered with a cringe. My suggestion said it all: I know almost nothing about reggae. Reggae reminds me of tourism; reggae smells like incense and suntan lotion. But a few days before, Jim had sent me an e-mail inviting me to the show. Watusi, his band of 22 years, had once again been nominated for Best Reggae band, an honor it has shared over the years with Sub Oslo (a band Jim insists "is not actually reggae"). In the e-mail, he rightly pointed out that the Dallas Observer writes about his genre of choice exactly once a year, in this issue. We were missing a whole scene, he insisted, a world of blissed-out beats and syncopated rhythms. He didn't say it angrily or with accusation; he said it like a gentleman.

"You're probably sick of Bob Marley," I told him, possibly projecting.

"But you'd like to hear that song," he said, smiling. (He smiles a lot.) "And these people would like to hear it." He gestured to the crowd, who were sipping wine and eating salmon balls. He handed me a tambourine. "Are you going to join us?"

Whoa-ho, not so fast. I handed off the tambourine to a tipsy blond woman with a fondness for turning in circles and hitting her bottom. I stayed for only a few more songs; they were fun, but to be honest, I can't describe what, if anything, made each different. Is it me, or the reggae? Maybe with Jim's help, I can learn. --S.H.

Erykah Badu

Maybe she wins each year because she's the most recognizable name on the ballot and has been since 1997. If this is, indeed, a popularity contest, the woman with the most Grammys and Soul Train statues in her awards case and the most discs sold should win, ankhs down. Or maybe she wins because the international star remains the hometown girl above, beneath and around all; long after Edie and Norah and Lisa (Loeb, sorry) and Sara (Hickman, duh) got gone for good, the former Ms. Wright is probably some of y'all's next-door neighbor. And when she's not home, she's at the Black Forest Theater teaching dance class or giving a free show to the boys and girls from the neighborhood or in some South Dallas high school preaching the gospel of safe sex and clean living. Without her, Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Action Summit would probably fly over Dallas on its way to Atlanta or Los Angeles; instead, said Simmons when we spoke last fall, "Erykah is an inspiration to so many people, [because] her staying in Dallas reminds people who live there they have an opportunity to be successful and also gives them a good feeling about themselves and their community."

But these are the music awards, not a community-service prize, and Badu remains above all a soul stirrer swaying to the irresistible, invigorating and innovative sounds she hears in a head blanketed by an A-bomb Afro. Her Worldwide Underground, released last year, smashed to bits that "neo-soul" nonsense piled upon her when Baduizm shot out of the chute eight years back on its way to the top of the pops. With its blending of stoner-mellow grooves and speed-freak fuzz, it's a disc that challenges the listener and rewards your resolve. One track, the astonishing and epic "I Want You," lasts nearly 11 minutes and sounds like it's skipping in places before it speeds up and slows down like a car without gas rolling down a hill. It finally convulses in avant-guitar feedback, then collapses in a heap. Other moments wanna hold your hand and stroke the nape of your neck. At other times, Badu's sounding the call for change in the ol' neighborhood, which is filling with guns and garbage and going to hell. [page]

In a better world, Worldwide Underground would have been hailed as being as much the successful, soulful experiment as OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and not just because Andre 3000 and Badu have a beautiful son together. Instead, it languished without a home on radio, which likely found it too demanding for an audience that likes its music pre-chewed. But Badu doesn't mind how many copies she sells; true artists rarely do, especially those who make music to free their own minds and hope only that your ass will follow.

"If I feel it, if it sounds good to me, that's what I wanna put out, because I have to go by my own opinion," she said in October, standing in her kitchen and making the next day's lunch for her little boy. "I can't really go by what's popular or what I think they expect me to do. I would be putting myself in a prison. I'm gonna do what I feel, and I think the audience likes my truth. I think my truth has relevance in this world, and that's what I wanna share--my story, my truth. When you're different or doing something different from what's going on, there's always a big risk involved. But behind someone who makes that kind of music is an energy that is unstoppable." --R.W.

The Adventure Club
Radio Program That Plays Local Music

Ever since moving to Dallas, we've bemoaned the lack of decent local radio. Dallas has scads of wacky morning DJs, but sometimes, we prefer good music to wisecracks, which is why we've taken to spending Sunday nights on the couch, reading the Sunday Times and listening to The Adventure Club, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on KDGE-FM (102.1). Hosted for a decade now by the venerable Josh Venable, who is the station's assistant music director and also DJs weeknights, The Adventure Club has the distinction of being a show where even music geeks can learn a thing or two. Venable is that guy in the record store, combing through musty albums, who would like nothing more than to talk about music, and music. Then music some more. Which is why he makes every Sunday night his own private party, a celebration of the bands he loves and wants to share like a bong hit. Though his selections aren't all local--and in this category, he's taken knocks for that--Venable is also fond of saying he'd run out of good local bands before he could put together a decent all-Dallas show. Agree or not, it's respectable music snobbery. Venable just wants to run one of the best shows in town. Right now, he does. --S.H.

Gypsy Tea Room
Live Music Venue

Yep, the Gypsy Tea Room has won for Best Live Music Venue once again. And yep, the Dallas Observer is throwing its music awards ceremony there again, too. Sounds suspicious, right? Well, get over it, because there's no better place for the music awards to take place. More important, there's still no better place to catch a concert in Dallas. GTR strikes the perfect balance between an indie dive and NextSt--er, Nokia Live, where bands of all sizes and renown can play to a large crowd and still call the whole affair intimate. It's a fan's venue, since the sound and sightlines are the clearest in town, and that makes for an artist's venue, too. The Gypsy calendar goes in all directions, from Latin to hip-hop, from punk to singer-songwriter and from huge to unknown. It's the kind of booking caliber and diversity that guarantee a good concert on any given night, and that quality is the biggest reason GTR keeps winning this category. When the phrase "Why isn't so-and-so playing the Gypsy instead?" becomes common vernacular, you know there's something to it. --S.M.

Big Al Dupree

Big Al Dupree was of this place, but not of this time. Although he was born and raised in the section of town formerly known as State-Thomas, Al Dupree was a vestige of a period when men donned coats and ties for dinner and drinks, when women dolled up for trots on the town, when a night out meant jumpin' and jivin' at spots so hot the walls would sweat. He's gone now, but it still feels like he's been here forever. The old-timers remember Dupree from the old Café Drugs in State-Hall, the closest this town got to its own Cotton Club, where his small band, a nine-piece combo called the Dallas Dandies, swung like a big band. He played alto sax, but worked like hell to make it seem like its own horn section to beef up the music and make it sound like there was more meat on the bare-bone ensemble. Some remember him in the later years, gigging at the Clear and Simple or the Vagabond on Greenville Avenue; or maybe they know him from Southern Kitchen, where he played at suppertime from 1967 till '83; or maybe they know him from the Balcony Club, where he patiently tapped the piano keys for Lakewood regulars and faraway revelers who wanted to hear him belt out Frank Sinatra standards. [page]

In a town of so much forgotten history, a city in which Robert Johnson recorded and Blind Lemon Jefferson played and Aaron "T-Bone" Walker lived and Bob Wills owned his own club, Dupree was its last link to a proud, abandoned legacy. He made but two records in his 80 years on this earth, the first not until he was 72 years old: 1995's Swings the Blues, released on the defunct Dallas Blues Society Records label--the same label that recorded Henry Qualls after too many wasted years away from a recording studio. Four years later came Positive Thinking, and both were joyous remnants of an era that exists only on scratchy postwar 78s made by Louis Jordan or the Texas Playboys. Put them on and feel the grin creep across your face till your lips reach your ears; only a man having such a good time could make such a good time.

Dupree died last August, suffering a heart attack at the age of 79. It is with tremendous regret that we give him this award posthumously; how much we would have loved having him with us on the Gypsy Tea Room stage this week, giving us one of those giant handshakes that seemed to reach all the way to our elbows. You are lucky in this lifetime to know someone like Big Al, who was generous and kind and amazing behind the piano or over a lunchtime table. He was history, and he made history to those of us who want to know something of our city's past and lose a little of ourselves when those links disappear. He may not be with us, but he will always be part of us. --R.W.

It's nearly 6 p.m. outside The Clubhouse--Dallas' premier all-nude strip joint--and just in time for their nightly broadcast, two newscasters speak into their cameras: "Tonight a community gathers outside a local club to mourn the loss of metal legend 'Dimebag' Darrell Abbott..."

It's a solemn note for a character known for songs like "Slaughtered" and "Fucking Hostile." That isn't lost on fans at the memorial, who drop to their knees in front of his photo, take off their caps and shoot him the finger. That part isn't on the news.

A makeshift memorial is growing outside the club--pictures of Dimebag, a spray of gladiolas, a full liter bottle of Seagram's 7. Laid out across the ground is a concert banner for Damageplan, the band Dimebag and his older brother Vinnie Paul formed out of the ashes of Pantera. It's hard not to cringe at the tour's slogan: "Devastation is on the way."

The night before, Dimebag was shot at least five times in the head in Columbus, Ohio's Alrosa Villa nightclub while his audience, his bandmates and his brother looked on. It's an unprecedented event in the history of rock and roll--a genre that, until now, appeared to have seen it all.

At least three others were slain, including Jeff Thompson, aka Mayhem, a 40-year-old bodyguard for the band. Killed by a crazed fan whose delusional behavior reportedly includes passing off Pantera lyrics as his own, Dimebag is already taking on a Selena-like mythos. Last Sunday, a local artist painted a mural-sized portrait on the side of the Universal Rehearsal studios on Greenville Avenue. Cars can be seen around town with shoe polish on their windows: "We'll miss you Dimebag."

That kind of fervor can be seen here tonight with a crowd that looks exactly like you would expect: baggy jeans and black hoodies, concert T-shirts and shoulder slumps. In the song "25 Years," from Pantera's best-selling 1994 album Far Beyond Driven, singer Phil Anselmo referred to his fans as "the thousands of the ugly, the criticized, the unwanted." There's not a cheerleader or a spirit squad member among them. For them, Pantera's chugging guitar and death-threat lyrics were like a scream of consciousness. And Dimebag was the heart of it all, the innovator, taking classic metal riffs and pulverizing them into a straight shot of 100-proof adolescent id.

"Dimebag is my god," one kid tells me. He's 17 with shaggy hair. "That's why I play the guitar. He's the only one who inspired me. When I found out he died, I was like, 'Shit.'"

The kid formed a band with his cousin, who saunters up beside us and lights a cigarette. "Man, when I found out Dimebag died," he says, "I thought it was a joke. I couldn't believe it."

"Why was he so important to you?" I ask.

He shrugs. "'Cause he's the shit."

"I want to tell you a story about Dimebag," says an older man, swaying slightly and holding a bottle of tequila. "I partied with Dimebag. I bought him a shot of Jägermeister. That was his favorite."

As the guy tells the story, he hands off the bottle to a teen girl, who pours a shot in her can of Tropicana fruit juice.

"We got wasted, although that's the last shot I bought that night. We partied all night long. He was a good guy. A good, good guy."

Everyone has a story like this about Dimebag. They talk about how nice he was, how tender underneath the studded persona. It's comforting to think he remained like them, because he was once exactly like them. Long before he became part of the '90s' most influential metal band, Dimebag Darrell was just another kid from Arlington who wanted to kick the world in the nuts. Along with his brother Vinnie Paul, he played in a Krokus cover band and dreamed of making it big. When he finally did, he didn't move to L.A. or New York. He stayed in the area and opened up a strip club that caters to just about every famous musician and athlete who comes through Dallas. One sign posted outside his home in Dalworthington Gardens called him "the people's rock star." He never believed in Hollywood. He believed in noise, booze and good pussy.

As a courtesy to fans, The Clubhouse has opened its doors tonight, dropping the typical $20 cover charge. Dimebag would have wanted it that way. Inside the cavernous club, girls stand on platforms, entirely naked save for lucite heels and money clips. It's hard to dance to the thundering heavy metal soundtrack, so their moves are more of a disinterested hip sway, a flick of the hair, an occasional smack on the ass. Onstage, however, is the real action, where a stripper appears in costume and makes good on her job title. She looks for all the world like a 12-year-old in pigtails and knee socks. A heavyset bald man stands expectantly at the foot of the stage, and she struts over to him and shakes her little tits in his face.

Last February, when Damageplan released its first album, New Found Power, the band held a CD release party here. It was a good time in their lives, a fresh start. That week, I'd interviewed Vinnie Paul for the paper. He was exactly as people had described him: gruff, foul-mouthed and sweet as can be. "When Dime and I first sat down to start a band, we said this'll be a lot harder than we think, and we'll have to reach down inside and find a new-found power," he told me, describing the album's title. "But the name had to be more powerful than that. The only thing that came to my mind was that when they built the atomic bomb, they had one thing in mind, and that was a fucking damage plan."

Outside the club, the memorial is growing--50 people, then 100. Empty beer cans are starting to collect around the memorial, along with candles and pictures. One boy lifts his sleeve to show off the Dimebag tattoo on his shoulder, a flaming skull with a beard. One woman clutches her lit votive and a framed picture while tears stream down her cheeks.

"It's from a 1994 Guitar Magazine," she says after she calms down. "It's a photocopy. I have the color one at home. I couldn't give that up. It's too precious." In the picture, Dimebag's hair is flicked away from his sweaty face, pointed skyward. His shirt says, "This isn't a beer belly it's a gas tank for my love machine."

"That's kinda funny," I say.

She smiles through her tears. "That was Darrell."

It's getting chilly now, but they keep coming, hordes of them. Families and couples, some old people but mostly young. They pour in from all corners of the city carrying 12-packs and whiskey bottles, smoking cigarettes and holding hands. At least they're in this thing together, kicking back at their sadness with some beer and strippers, remembering a life lived loud and fierce.

I am going to give 13 Going on 30 too much credit, though it's hardly worth the effort; Lord knows the filmmakers didn't put much into it. It's a shame, as far as these things go, because what could have been an engaging, maybe even enlightening story about the unfairly high price a woman pays for conducting herself like a man winds up as nothing more than a worthless, harmless and ultimately charmless piffle. Even accidentally it might have stood up as a subversive fable, because until its final moments, when it just seems to surrender to the obvious and inevitable for wont of any better solution, the movie allows room for interpretation. But studio films, even those made by directors whose previous works have engendered a modicum of faith and good will, usually aren't about anything, except the pimping of empty feel-good fantasies and ascending movie stars who fill the big screen with a whole lot of nothing. To that extent, wow, 13 Going on 30 is awesome.

It opens in 1987, when a 13-year-old girl named Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) parades around her room with a stuffed bra and a women's magazine opened to the article on how to be "30 and flirty." Jenna dreams of being popular with the high school's in-crowd but is saddled with her flat chest, flat hair and a nebbishy male friend, Matt (Sean Marquette), who builds her model dream houses, covers her with "wishing dust" and serenades her with songs played on his Casio keys. But after being humiliated by the cool kids at her birthday party, Jenna tells Matt to go to hell; she's had enough of his kind of sickly sweet nice. So off she goes to bed, only to awake in a Manhattan apartment and in the body of Alias' Jennifer Garner. Confusion and wackiness ensue as Jenna discovers a nude man in her shower and a car waiting downstairs to take her to her job as an editor of the very same women's magazine she used to adore as a kid.

On the surface, the movie sounds very much like a modern-day variant of those 1980s fairy tales in which a kid finds himself in the body of Dudley Moore, Judge Reinhold or Tom Hanks and grows up just enough to realize that adults are cruel, manipulative and unworthy of aspiration or adulation. This is Big writ small, to the point of vanishing; 13 Going on 30 even has its own musical number, but instead of Hanks and Robert Loggia dancing on life-sized piano keys, Garner corrals a nightclub of disaffected New Yorkers into re-enacting the "Thriller" video. But Garner is no Hanks; if he was playing too young (more 8 than 13), she's playing too old. You can see her acting, like a teacher trying to attract and distract a fifth-grade class, and it's not something to stare at for long. Far better is Mark Ruffalo as the grown-up Matt, who's morphed into a good-looking guy but still carries himself like a kid waiting for the bully to push him into a locker. There's an endearing tentativeness in his performance, especially when he confronts Jenna about how cruel she had been to him when they were children.

The concept could have been intriguing, if only because Jenna, unlike Big's Josh, doesn't suddenly become, well, big. She's just missing 17 years of her life--and, as we discover, they were 17 years that turned a buoyant, charming girl into a rather miserable and unlikable woman. Jenna is now best friend and a colleague of the girl who tormented her in high school, Lucy, played as an adult by Judy Greer, whose face is perpetually twisted into a condescending sneer. Jenna doesn't speak to her parents, has alienated all her childhood friends, betrayed her boss to the point of nearly ruining her beloved magazine and screwed a co-worker's husband in her office on countless occasions. Needless to say, she's appalled by each new revelation. Jenna can't believe she's a grown-up, especially such a horrible one.

This is where it could have been so good, and this is how it goes so wrong; the movie gives Jenna a chance at a do-over, even though her mother (Kathy Baker, in less a role than an afterthought) tells her there's no such thing. 13 Going on 30 might have been so worthwhile had the filmmakers, director Gary Winick (Tadpole) and writers Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith (What Women Want), decided to strip the magic dust out of their fairy tale and cover it instead in the emotional grunge of real life. What if Jenna hadn't magically grown up, but instead suffered a psychotic break upon realizing she could no longer be the kind of woman her magazine sells to impressionable 13-year-old girls? It may have been downright transgressive for a Hollywood movie to doll up a grim story as fantasy, but instead the movie cops out with its final sprinkling of magic dust and coating of pink paint. Can we get a do-over?

What is it about the blues that makes feeling bad feel so good? Two new productions are singing the blues in different ways--one musically, one satirically--but there's something immensely satisfying for the theatergoer in both.

It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, the nostalgic revue that just opened the new season at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, is a sprawling, bawling tribute to America's most seductive musical form. Directed by WTT's artistic director, Terry Martin, the show features seven powerhouse singers--Rachel Arthur, Kevin Haliburton, Denise Lee, Markus Lloyd, Liz Mikel, Cedric Neal and Willy Welch--belting their way through a 37-song history of the African-American experience. They begin with the booming African chant "Odum de," sung a cappella, and gradually work into standards such as "St. Louis Blues," "I'm a Blues Man" and "Walkin' Blues."

Despite what the title claims, the show goes way beyond just the blues. As explained in brief spurts of lively patter between songs, the blues influenced and was influenced by gospel, bluegrass, country and rock and roll. So we get a bit of all of those, including get-down renditions of "Let the Good Times Roll," "Walking After Midnight," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and a catchy little ditty called "Wang Dang Doodle."

Blues traditionally is steeped in sadness, from heartache to heartbreak and back again. But on the WaterTower stage, even the most downbeat songs are sung with such tantalizing style, the audience can't stop smiling. Liz Mikel's hypnotic performance of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" brings out a mystical sweetness in the lyrics. A goddess of generous proportions, Mikel thrusts all of her womanly wiles into the sexy "My Man Rocks Me," sung from a rocking chair. Mikel and Lee's haunting duet on Lewis Allen's "Strange Fruit," given a fresh arrangement by musical director Sheilah Walker, is so clear and pure it pierces the heart. And Haliburton, memorable from Jubilee Theatre's Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues last season, visibly and vocally expresses the pain in Roy Hawkins and Rich Darnell's "The Thrill Is Gone." Neal and Lloyd provide comic relief and some spirited dance steps on many of their numbers. Neal's best moment comes at the end of the first act with the gospel anthem "Children, Your Line Is Draggin'."

It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Tony-nominated in 2000, is one of the best of the audience-pleasing musical pastiches, every bit as good as Ain't Misbehavin' and Smoky Joe's Café. Sure, it can get a little hammy, all that eye-rolling and hip-popping. But there's roof-raising, righteous fun in the thing. And you won't hear better singing on any Dallas stage this fall.

The women of Echo Theatre sing their own brand of blues in the biting political satire Dreaming America: In the Bunker With George, now playing at the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake. This is good old-fashioned agitprop theater, angry, partisan, accusatory and unabashedly feminist. It's satisfying as hell for free-speech-loving liberals like me who are sick to bleedin' death of the right-wing ravings of the woman-hating O'Reilly runts and radio ditto-heads. Bring it on and hit 'em where it hurts.

Written and performed by Echo's Rhonda Blair, Terri Ferguson and Jerrika Hinton, Dreaming America, directed by Pam Myers-Morgan, fearlessly blasts away at tight-sphinctered red-state attitudes in 75 minutes of clever, smartly worded sketches, monologues and songs. They skewer Highland Park Botox moms and fundamentalist Rapture-seekers. They march through a meticulously researched history of the vibrator. Bet you didn't know the early models were gasoline-powered. Talk about big bang theory.

They examine the frightening absurdity of the Big W by quoting him directly, reminding us that the prez once said, "There ought to be limits to freedom." Many times during the show, the women take turns repeating the phrase "I'm scared." And they have every right to be. The brand of fight-the-power guerrilla theater they're staging is in danger of becoming extinct. Ye olde First Amendment isn't what it used to be. Voices this intelligent, bold and anti-establishment are being drowned out under a tidal wave of dissent-strangling, twisted patriotism. The cultural Taliban is already enforcing the new rules. Just ask the Dixie Chicks, Bill Maher, Howard Stern and Janet Jackson.

Much of Dreaming America reminded me of the barbed comic commentaries of the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour from the late 1960s. Those guys dared to take on the Vietnam War and Presidents Johnson and Nixon under the guise of being gentle, non-threatening folk singers. Tommy and Dickie were brilliant at slipping into their comedy routines sly digs at the powers that be (Steve Martin was among the staff writers). Theirs was the first prime-time TV show appealing to kids that not only spoke out against the war but booked what were then highly controversial "protest singers," including Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. By 1969, under pressure from the White House to shut the brothers up, CBS canceled the show, even though it had top ratings.

Dreaming America, with its use of slides, video and Janis Joplin songs, as well as the spoken word, recalls some of the Smothers Brothers' stuff, which also frequently used politicians' own words to expose their hypocrisy. In the Echo show, Hinton reads aloud from Sisters, Lynne Cheney's tawdry, Sapphic sex novel, as Blair and Ferguson dance a lesbian tango. In a bit titled "Bush, God and Rhonda," Blair expresses her incredulity in the president's claim that "God speaks through me." There's a running gag about Jesus phoning the president to remind him of the true meaning of certain biblical passages about murder and greed. The Son of God keeps getting put on hold.

This isn't a slick show, and the women of Echo Theatre might have to be satisfied with preaching to the small bands of the already converted who'll buy tickets, but Dreaming America has something important and interesting to say about the effed-up state of things. Let's hope they're still free to say it a month from now. A year from now. Four years from now.

I can dream, can't I?

Mike Nichols' new film Closer is a boiling pot of lust, mistrust and double-dealing that might well be taken for outright soap opera--or, in quite a few places, soft-core porn--were it not for the sophisticated gleam of its well-heeled London desperadoes and the vicious dazzle of its dialogue. Adapted from a bitterly funny 1997 play by the fluent British playwright and former stand-up comic Patrick Marber, this wallow in contemporary bad behavior is full of intellectual stimulation as well as low, dark pleasures--Carnal Knowledge redux! So every time you catch yourself in a guilty thrill (a lewd, barking quarrel about fellatio, for instance), the movie lets you off the hook because it's so damn smart. Wet Sluts in Heat meets English Lit 301.

Unlike the midday atrocities of the boob tube, Closer is also beautifully acted by a quartet of perfectly chosen players. In Nichols' able hands, the delicate beauty Natalie Portman (last seen in Garden State), matinee idol Jude Law and the brooding lead of Croupier, Clive Owen, make for fascinating combatants in an all-out war where sex is the ultimate weapon. The surprise is Julia Roberts, who's always been more movie star than actress, more luscious mouth than mind. She finally shows something undeniably real here as a self-absorbed portrait photographer with a gift for emotional destruction. Roberts' Anna, who uses her obsession with truth to bludgeon the men in her life (and herself), looks and feels like her first really authentic character. That unworthy Oscar-winner Erin Brockovich might do well to have a look.

Moviegoers who think drama is disabled by sheer nastiness probably won't enjoy the ironically titled Closer very much, because each of the needy, bed-swapping urban savages we meet here has his or her own talent for cruelty--although some are more adept than others. Portman's Alice is a gorgeous, calculating waif recently transplanted from New York, where she apparently worked as a stripper until some unnamed crisis drove her across the Atlantic. Literally by accident, she collides with Dan (Law), a handsome but grotesquely insecure obituary writer (there's a gig for you) who ransacks Alice's life to furnish a steamy but unsuccessful novel. En route to the remainders bin, Dan submits to a photo shoot in Anna's fashionable loft, promptly falls for her and declares his life ruined when she initially spurns him. Dan's lying misadventure in a pornographic chat room unwittingly draws in character No. 4, who may be the most odious of the bunch. Larry (Owen) is a dermatologist who makes your skin crawl, whose taste for degradation knows no bounds. This Neanderthal MD's notion of the human heart? It's "a fist wrapped in blood."

Thus do four people largely untroubled by conscience or consequence set out to satisfy their appetites, which is certainly not to be confused with looking for love. Driven by self-interest and animal instinct, they are lost souls clawing their way through hell, not to mention each other's psyches. In their characters' erotic flailings, Nichols and Marber see not just obsession but imprisonment. This is a relentlessly sexy movie--the strip-club scene in which a blond-wigged Alice torments the desperate Larry with her naked detachment is a masterpiece of cold heat--but it might also be monumentally depressing if not for the playwright's scathing humor and the veteran director's impeccable manipulation of it.

Nichols is celebrated these days as the creator of the groundbreaking HBO series Angels in America and Wit, but he's not the new kid on the block. As he did so ably four decades ago in the movie version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he tempers Marber's verbal lacerations with impeccably timed wisecracks--although George and Martha might be taken aback by such raw candor. Nichols doesn't show us Closer's ever-shifting relationships in their entirety (we get only the starts and finishes of Anna-with-Larry or Larry-with-Alice or Anna-with-Dan), but he has a gift for cutting into their essence, which is to say for finding the comic delusions and dark deceptions inside. The closest thing to a warm-blooded human being we meet here is Portman's strategically armored Alice, whose identity remains always in question but who must summon up her own aggression to survive. That Nichols and Marber finally give her a break is a welcome respite from the dark. Somebody has to get a life.

Unhappy with everything this side of Donald Duck, neocons who dare to watch this disturbing, bleakly funny meditation on sexual Darwinism will see another sign that the apocalypse is upon us. In the end, broader minds may also find themselves wearied and worn, as if they've been in a bar fight or at least inundated by more bad news from Fallujah. But Nichols, Marber and this terrific cast refuse to let up, and that is to be admired: This relentless brawl among emotional cripples has the kind of bruising authenticity most movies cannot dream of.

The stories of ZZ Packer have appeared in The New Yorker, The Best Short Stories of 2000 and The Best American Non-Required Reading 2003. She has the academic pedigree of a Rockefeller: Yale, Johns Hopkins, the Iowa Writers Workshop and Stanford. Last year, her picture graced the pages of practically every grocery-store glossy as literature's Next Big Thing.

In other words: We hate her.

Well, we would hate her, if she weren't so blasted fantastic. Her debut, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, is an absorbing and quite funny collection of short stories written with an eye for satire but a heart that can't help but embrace humanity in all its broken, baffled states. In "Brownies," a troop of African-American girls plots revenge against a white troop. In "The Ant of the Soul," a shy high school debate star drives his deluded, deadbeat father to the Million Man March. Packer cracks open a window into their flawed lives and the way their poor behavior often belies their better intentions. Look at the way Packer opens "The Ant of the Soul": "Opportunities," my father says, after I bail him out of jail. He's banging words into the dash as if trying to get them through my thick skull. "You've got to invest your money if you want opportunities."

Born Zuwena (ZZ is a nickname), Packer grew up in Atlanta and Louisville and published her first short story at 19, in Seventeen magazine. Like Toni Morrison and Terry MacMillan, Packer has been neatly branded a "black writer," although, as she recently said in an interview with online magazine Identity Theory's Robert Birnbaum, "I am writing for black people, but I am also writing for whites, for Chinese, for Americans." Indeed, Packer's writing speaks to the soul rather than the skin. She does what only good writers can: She indicts us and, eventually, forgives.

Sheathed in a custom-tailored gray suit and sporting expensively barbered silver hair, Tom Cruise looks like an older, harder version of the self-absorbed L.A. sharpie he played 16 years ago in Rain Man. But in Collateral, a frenetic Michael Mann thriller that runs up a Baghdad-level body count, Cruise's character gets scarcely a whiff of the old redemption. No tragically damaged older brother materializes to bring him to his senses; for that matter, he must also get through the proceedings without benefit of a samurai sword, a race car or a Navy fighter jet. Truth be told, Cruise has almost nothing going for him this time around in the way of props, and even less than usual in the way of character.

Here he is called Vincent (no last name required), and we are asked to believe that he's the world's most ruthless contract killer, hired by a major drug cartel to murder five Angelenos in one night (in five different locations, no less) and dead set on getting the job done without so much as wrinkling a lapel. Casting Cruise as a sociopathic hit man is like asking sweet Hilary Duff to play a junkie streetwalker, but who are we to raise questions in the corridors of Hollywood power? One of the world's most bankable movie heroes evidently wanted to try villainy on for size, and he got his way. Little matter that his new suit is a much better fit.

Mann, who created Miami Vice and Crime Story for TV, is one of the great action stylists, of course. He's the guy who first brought Hannibal Lecter vividly to the big screen (in 1986's Manhunter), and thousands of Manniacs can still quote entire passages, visual and verbal, from his sublimely nasty Chicago crime movie Thief. But Mann's tough-guy stuff (remember Heat, with Pacino and De Niro knocking heads?) also tends to flirt with Deep Meaning, and that's not always a good thing once the gunfire starts. Thief was gritty and pitch-perfect, but when anti-hero James Caan started going on about the emotional gaps in his life and his need for love, you got the queasy feeling you had to eat your peas before ripping into the red meat.

Thanks to Mann and Australian screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean), Cruise's Vincent is cut from much the same cloth. Armed with cojones and an automatic pistol, he ordinarily talks like the cold-blooded professional the movie says he is, but he also has a weakness for pseudo-existential gibberish and nickel-dime philosophizing that makes him sound more sophomoric than complex. If you're in the mood to hear about "cosmic coincidences" and the alienating effects of life in the big city in the pauses between gory bloodlettings, this is the Michael Mann movie for you. But the Cruiser might have done better to shut up and shoot.

Vincent's inevitable foil is a decidedly un-Travis Bickle-like taxi driver named Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx), a fastidious, low-key guy who's spent 12 years behind the wheel without making progress on his dream, which is to start up a deluxe limo service. Instead, he Windexes every last little spot from his car windows and bides his time, which is running out faster than he knows. Through a set of highly unlikely circumstances, the high-powered, highly motivated Vincent blows into the quiet cabbie's life like a hurricane. Vincent takes Max and his cab hostage, and they set out on a long, dark night of bloody mayhem and personal revelation that becomes a little hard to take about the time Vincent shoots an appealing jazz trumpet player (Barry Shabaka Henley) point-blank in the forehead--but only after the jazz-loving Vincent absorbs the poor victim's fascinating story about the night, many years ago, that the legendary Miles Davis dropped by to sit in. This is the first of three L.A. nightclub stops we are destined to make (two of them lethal), along with a hospital visit, a grisly peek into the city morgue and an elevator ride up to the 16th floor of the U.S. Attorney's Office, where the usual woman in jeopardy (Jada Pinkett Smith) awaits. We don't know how much the drug lords are paying Vincent, but he's earning every penny.

Meanwhile, the straight-laced guy, Max, supposedly comes under his spell--the spell of Vincent's dangerous resolve, his gift for thinking on the run, his screw-the-world daring. Vincent, the movie implies, is a frighteningly radical version of the kind of man Max would like to become--self-assured and forever willing to seize the world by the throat. There's an interesting, maybe even perverse joke in play here, based on a reversal of old racial stereotypes: In this scheme of things, the black guy is a meek, middle-class square, and the white guy is an improvisational genius scarred by desperation. What they actually learn from each other is never quite clear; it will take a better mind than mine to unravel Collateral's murky social riddle.

Suffice it to say that Cruise never seems right in this part--never as treacherous as he should be, nor as mysteriously tortured. Foxx has his moments, but there's no room for his trademark humor, and we can never quite get our minds around the idea that the hit man has beguiled the cabbie. Better that we watch Mark Ruffalo as a streetwise L.A. narc named Fanning: From his jaunty silver earring to the crackling authenticity of his talk, he represents the midnight world of Michael Mann better than the hard-trying principals of the piece.

As much of the civilized world now knows, the latest Harry Potter director is Alfonso Cuaron, best known for the explicit teen sexual awakening movie Y Tu Mamá También. As such, it may come as little surprise that his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban begins with the teenage wizard-in-training hiding under the bed sheets, whacking his wand. The wand in this case, of course, is literally a piece of wood containing a phoenix feather. But the symbolism remains, and one gets the sense that perhaps Cuaron opens with the image as if to say, "Yeah, yeah, I know what you were thinking. Now here's your joke, and let's be done with it."

Co-producer Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films, seems to have taken it as his mandate to find a director as different from himself as possible who's still capable of working within the designated framework. Cuaron inherits most of the actors and sets originally selected by Columbus and his crew, though the new director has changed the geography of things a bit. Both the Whomping Willow and Hagrid's hut have relocated to a mountainside, and with the unfortunate passing of Richard Harris, original Singing Detective Michael Gambon gets to be the new Albus Dumbledore. (Gambon is actually an improvement, playing the wizard headmaster as a more deliberately cryptic character rather than an aging scatterbrain.)

As the J.K. Rowling books get progressively darker, it's wise to jettison Columbus from the helm at this stage. Though he did perhaps his finest directorial work ever on The Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets saw an increase in the director's trademark sentimentality. Cuaron's mandate appears to have been "Make it darker!" So, tonally and visually, more darkness is what we get--some scenes look almost like frames from a silent film. In conjunction with regular big-screen Potter adapter Steve Kloves, Cuaron has also taken more narrative liberties than Columbus did, and all of them are good, restructuring the film's chronology for increased dramatic impact. There are still a few loose ends that are better explained in the book (most notably the back story of the magical map used by Harry), but there's only so much one can cram into two and a half hours without younger viewers walking out.

That is, unless they've already run screaming; this is by far the scariest of the Harry Potter films and should not be viewed by little ones prone to nightmares. Harry runs away from home, is chased by an apparent werewolf, encounters talking shrunken heads (a particularly gruesome Cuaron addition), then finally makes it safely to Hogwarts only to discover that a bunch of soul-sucking zombies called "dementors" have been invited to take up residence around the school and might just kill any student who comes near them. They've been sent from the Azkaban Prison for magical criminals in search of a recent escapee, the titular prisoner Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, shamelessly and hilariously mugging), who's expected to wreak havoc upon Harry if he ever catches up to the lad.

Every English actor working today is required to do one of these films at some point, so Prisoner of Azkaban introduces numerous new Brits--though there's still plenty of time for the old favorites. Robbie Coltrane is always dependable as the half-giant Hagrid, and Alan Rickman's brooding Snape is a joy once more. As Harry's best friend Ron, Rupert Grint has finally had his voice break, but he's not a lot of use, unless you consider infinite utterances of the word "brilliant" to be useful. There are hints dropped to a future potential romance with Hermione (Emma Watson), which can only be because she needs someone helpless to take care of.

As for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), let's just say it's a shame that Star Wars Episode III has wrapped principal photography, because Hayden Christensen could learn a lot from young Radcliffe's portrayal of adolescent angst meeting magical fury. Unfortunately, perennial rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) gets short shrift this time, losing all his menace and becoming, to put it bluntly, a whiny little bitch.

In the Harry Potter film series thus far, The Sorcerer's Stone remains the strongest, perhaps because the first look at any rich new world is almost always going to be more groundbreaking than its sequels. But Prisoner of Azkaban is a worthy and stylistically different follow-up, where Chamber of Secrets often felt like an unimaginative retread. Haven't read the next two books in the series yet, but here's hoping that they avoid the running cliché of the Scooby-Doo scene that all three films rely on, in which the one character who isn't who you think he is gets found in some heretofore undiscovered room, where he proceeds to explain the entire plot so far to Harry and us. It was cool the first time because the character in question had a monster face growing out of the back of his head, but it's getting old as a narrative device. Blame Rowling, but Kloves and Cuaron so deftly rearrange other parts of the story that it stands out when they fall ever-so-slightly short.

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