Alligator Cafe
People who work downtown and in East Dallas pack The Alligator Caf ("Quick & Cajun") for lunch and post-work munchies. Yes, they do serve alligator--fried, grilled, blackened and in jambalaya, gumbo and po-boys. But the best bets are shrimp-and-oyster gumbo, followed by a basket of fried shrimp or whole catfish. Sides go beyond French fries--dirty rice, fried green tomatoes, new potato chive salad and spicy red beans and rice. You can even drive through for a lunch deal: half a muffaletta and a cup of gumbo for about $6. Make like the regulars and hit happy hour after work, Monday through Friday, for $1.75 draft beer and the $2.50 menu: six fried or raw oysters, six hot wings or six boudin balls. (If you have to ask, don't order them.) Friday nights feature live music.
Shaved, rested and ready, Stephan Pyles is ready to turn up the heat again

His hibernation lasted nearly five years. Sure, his torpid state had a few movements and shifts: consulting projects for Hotel ZaZa's Dragonfly and Ama Lur at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center, plus the travel. But he was mostly out of sight.

That was then. Now Stephan Pyles is ready to resume his historic role of slapping Dallas' conventional dining wisdom silly--all with a smile. He's in fighting trim. He's shed his beard. He's scrapped weight training and running for Bikram yoga. He's raised $3 million.

This wasn't a sure thing. After Pyles, 53, left his Star Canyon, AquaKnox and Taqueria Cañonita brood to the fickle fates of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide at the turn of the millennium, he said he had grown weary of the grind of the line, preferring instead to create, taste, orchestrate and move on--all on someone else's dime.

But that's changed. "It's in my blood to be in the thick of it," he insists.

The thick of it is the eponymous Stephan Pyles, a 180-seat restaurant poised to open in November in the Arts District in the circa 1963, George Dahl-designed Southwest Plaza on Ross Avenue. The location is an odd one for Pyles, who seemed perpetually enamored with Uptown. He admits to skepticism of the vaunted downtown revival that has been blathered and boostered about for years. But after sniffing around and locking in a competitive lease on the property, Pyles is swooning over downtown. "I used to think of the Crescent as being the center of gravity in Dallas," Pyles admits. "I think the Nasher [Sculpture Center] has pulled the entire center of gravity to the arts district. I'm right down the street from there."

A remarkable space it is shaping up to be, too. His restaurant features a glass square kitchen in its midst, so that diners can ogle the real-time artwork until they're sated. There's a tapas bar and 20-seat community table near the entrance, so revelers can gorge on the steady parade of eye candy. The entrance has a light sculpture that burbles water into a reflecting pool. A walkway over the pool channels diners to the hostess stand. Pyles still winks, too: Tumbleweed chandeliers dangle in the dining room, and he's trying to score one of the chandeliers from Star Canyon to hang in the private dining room.

What tectonic shifts does Pyles believe are tugging Dallas toward his new roost? Solid and funded plans for parks, bridges and grocery stores, the latter already a reality with the opening of Urban Market this summer in the Interurban Building on Jackson Street. "All of these high-rise people are moving in," he says. "Where the hell are they coming from, the suburbs? It's almost guaranteed that there's some energy being transferred right now, to this area."

And this is where Pyles will perform his new compositions, collectively called New Millennium Southwestern. Sure, Pyles will throw a bone to nostalgia, wedging a bone-in cowboy rib eye, that famous orphan from Star Canyon, into his new menu. But rather than an overt presence, the Southwestern/New Texas touches will form a culinary trellis upon which he will hang Latin blooms as interpreted in Europe and South America.

It's the latest course in a long, strange banquet that began when Pyles was 8 years old working at his family's Phillips 66 Truck Stop in Big Spring decades ago. For the past 25 years, Pyles has been the most prominent of Dallas culinary leaders, driving dining culture's ebbs and flows while he pulled national and international spotlights to the city. Still, it didn't turn out like he thought it would.

"In the early '80s when we were just young punks cooking, we just thought we could change the city and the world and it was going to become this great culinary city," Pyles says. "And there was that potential. I don't know what happened.

"In the '80s we thought that we had created this incredible kind of culture. Instead of importing things, we created this movement and Southwestern cuisine was the hot thing, but it never really completely ignited. Something fell flat." He isn't sure exactly what fell flat.

Maybe it was the stagnating economy in the late '80s, drained by the savings and loan meltdown and the collapse in oil prices. Maybe he and his cohorts were ahead of the Dallas dining brood, exhausting them with the sweep of their movement. It was revived in the 1990s, but whatever the reason, Pyles says Dallas no longer has the energy driving its own specific cuisine that it once had. Look around. We have spots like Nobu, but you can get that in 12 other cities. Pyles says he is often asked by food journalists what young, up-and-coming chefs will shuffle onto the stage where he and ground-breaking chefs such as Dean Fearing and Avner Samuel perform. His answer? There really is no one.

"There aren't any because the young chefs of today are embracing global cuisines," he says. "Back 20 years ago there was 20, 25 of us in the country that got all of the press. And now it's like once every year--every month almost--there's a whole new group of celebrity chefs getting all of this press. And you think, "Where are all of these people coming from?' And there's very few Texans among them."

Pyles believes that after 20 years, Dallas is finally on the edge of greatness. The city's residents--through travel, Internet and cable and satellite television--are much more sophisticated and demanding than they were 25 years ago. The city's core--the magneto for any successful metropolis--is stumbling ever closer to relevance. High-profile projects such as The W, The Ritz and the Hotel Palomar are sure to bring in new energy, style and resources, but it's hard to see how the culinary spectrum can shift to make Dallas markedly different from a dozen or so other cities.

But Pyles is convinced it will happen within three years. "Some people compare us to the new Vegas--I wouldn't go that far," he says. "But I fully expect that Dallas is going to become a great culinary city. I thought that 20 years ago, and it didn't happen. So I stopped hoping for it...But now I think we're really going to become--finally--the world-class city that we've been striving to become for 20 years." --Mark Stuertz

The beat goes on. Can Bill's Records and Tapes?

Bill Wisener does not know this story, because I've never told it to him; to others, meaning his friends and customers, I've repeated it often. It takes place not long after Wisener opened his eponymous record store on Spring Valley Road 25 years ago, which, as it turns out, is when the Dallas Observer began publication. I was all of 12 or 13 when I'd saved up some 40 bucks to buy import records that, back then, one could only find at Bill's Records and Tapes; I believe they were Adam and the Ants' Dirk Wears White Socks, a Wall of Voodoo EP and a Clash record, as well as a few others. My mother had driven me to Bill's, where I collected my vinyl and placed them on the counter. Wisener thumbed through the small stack and demanded twice what I'd brought, $20 for the Adam and the Ants record alone. I recall trying to argue with Wisener, who did not and still does not put prices on his product, but he was a veteran salesman, and I was a spindly nerd with an allowance. My mother, sensing my tirade was about to melt into tears, grabbed my hand and led me out of the store. I would not return for more than two decades, no matter how often people like Decadent Dub Team co-founder and Observer contributor Jeff Liles, The Adventure Club host Josh Venable and former Observer music editor Zac Crain insisted that Wisener had softened over the years.
Today, the place looks as it did during my first visit: as though someone had set off a bomb in 1980 and no one ever noticed. The left wall is still lined with cassettes, some from 1980 still in the shrink-wrapping; the right wall is now covered with CDs, piled alphabetically, but just barely. The middle of the place overflows with loose posters that poke out from cardboard boxes like discarded treasure maps, and next to them are boxes and racks of old rock-and-roll T-shirts. The shelves and shelves of vinyl are still here, too, and so is Bill--good ol' Bill, much, much kinder than I recall as a kid, this blessed patron saint of the vanishing record store. He has been here damned near every day, every hour, since 1980. And he will never leave, unless his landlord and his lease force him to go in about 15 months.
In April, Wisener thought he was on his way out even sooner: He got word from the landlord that an auto parts store was moving in and needed the 8,000-square-foot space. The Observer, with whom Wisener has had an umbilical-cord relationship for almost three decades, ran a story documenting his woes; the landlord's grandfather, former Dallas Mayor Robert Folsom, told the kid Bill stayed for as long as he wanted. But the mere thought of moving plagued Wisener, perhaps because he's come to realize that one day, and maybe one day soon, he will need to go after all. Business isn't what it used to be, because the neighborhood ain't what it used to be: His is one of the only businesses in the Northwood Hills Shopping Center where English, not Spanish, is spoken. Long gone are the kids who dropped in after high school to plow through the bins for the latest new wave import or local-band offering; long gone are the customers, period, save those who stop by for Friday afternoon concerts and the free beer.
"I just started thinking about what all I needed to do, and it just becomes overwhelming," Wisener says, filling up his cup of Diet Coke. It's a Friday morning, around 11, and only he and an employee are in the place. He has time to talk, and uses every second.
"I don't want to have a nervous breakdown because as you get older..." The 61-year-old Wisener pauses, grins. "I'm happier than I've ever been in my whole life about living my life. And I feel sad about a lot, too. From the time I opened--I started doing this in 1973 at Vikon Village--it got a little better every year, and then I came into some money a couple of times, and I put it all into inventory because I wanted to have something for everybody. I wanted to have no regard to what I bought. The word was out that I would buy whatever. It's just a lot of water under the bridge. It's my life. It's really hard thinking about doing anything else. From the very beginning, and I didn't know what it was, it was like magic. It used to be packed. I used to have nine people working here."
Wisener loves to talk about this store, why he's here every day, why he can't stomach the thought of leaving though he knows he ought to. He grew up here. He lived with his mother and father when he opened the store, but they're dead now. Many customers have become his closest friends; one, Jeff Liles, has even made a poignant documentary about Bill's, called The Last Record Store, which he would like to screen in the Deep Ellum Film Festival in the fall. Radiohead and Jeff Buckley, among so many other beloveds, have shopped here. Ben Harper and Wisener have even become good friends: Among the few times Wisener skipped work was to go to one of Harper's concerts. In Paris. On Harper's dime.
There is a chance Bill's will move in the near future. But pulling up roots will be akin to tearing down a redwood forest: Not only does he have this expansive mess to clean up, but also three warehouses full of clutter, including one he hasn't been inside since the 1970s. No wonder he is overwhelmed: Some people have memories kept in their heads and hearts, and others store them in thousands and thousands of feet of warehouse space.
"I think it would be OK if I had to move, but I don't know," he says, fidgeting one of his Carltons. "It's like, I've always been..." He pauses, begins again. "I like to know the results of something before it happens! I think my biggest problem all my life, and I'm sure it is with a lot of people, is fear. I think, because there's so many things I think I would have liked, that I wished I had not been fearful to do something or make a change...I feel comfortable in this routine, but I'm not comfortable in the fact that I can't pay all the bills on time here. But I'm comfortable in the fact that I've done it so long." --Robert Wilonsky

Edie Brickell is still shooting at the stars

She was just 14 years old when the very first issues of the Dallas Observer showed up in the lobby of her favorite movie theater. Back then, Edie Brickell was still a couple of years away from enrolling at the Booker T. Washington School for Performing and Visual Arts, where she had planned to study painting and drawing. At the time, her circle of friends was relatively small. "I was too shy to interact with people at the time, and visual art was really the best way for me to express myself," she explains.
Her teenage years were spent delivering pizza ("Gosh, what was that place at Mockingbird and Greenville around the corner from Campisi's? I can't even remember the name of it now."), working the box office at the Granada Theater (where she returned to headline a solo show last year) and waiting tables at the Dixie House in Lakewood. She erupts in laughter as she remembers that the latter proved to be the most dangerous. "I had to quit 'cause I was gettin' a big ol' butt from standin' around on break eatin' all those delicious dinner rolls."
At the time, Brickell had no idea that popular music would become her profession. She developed a distinctive style of painting at a young age; close friends would anxiously await her delicately drawn personalized birthday cards every year, and her funky sense of aesthetic would later drive the art direction for the New Bohemians album cover artwork.
By now, most have heard the story of how she downed a shot of Jack Daniel's at the old 500 Café and then climbed onstage with a bunch of schoolmates for an improvised jam session. She had never been behind a microphone, had never been onstage, never even held aspirations of being a professional musician. But there she was, in front of an outdoor patio filled with her closest friends, stepping into a storybook future that would eventually find her opening for Bob Dylan, appearing in Oliver Stone's film Born on the Fourth of July, collaborating musically with artists such as Jerry Garcia, Barry White and Dr. John and, most important, starting a family with Paul Simon.
Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians had two major label releases during the early '90s--the platinum Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars and its introspective follow-up, Ghost of a Dog. The group had a top 10 hit ("What I Am"), appeared on Saturday Night Live (where she met Simon) and toured the world before she ultimately chose spending time with her children over making music full time.
Still, she has never set her music aside for good. Her first solo album, Picture Perfect Morning, which was produced by Simon and Roy Halee, was released in 1994. Longtime New Bohemians fans were caught a little off guard by the succinct arrangements and polished sound, but the record seemed to connect with a more mature "adult contemporary" audience. Because of her commitment to her family, she didn't tour extensively to promote the album, and Geffen Records seemed at a loss on how best to promote the work. After eventually severing ties with the label, she continued writing songs and studying the guitar but chose not to solicit another major label record deal in the meantime.
In 1999, Brickell invited the original members of New Bohemians and local producer/engineer David Castell up to Montauk, Long Island, to try to recapture some of that original improvisational magic. The result was the self-released The Live Montauk Sessions, which included an early version of "Rush Around," a song that would later be the first single from her 2003 solo album Volcano. The Montauk album satisfied the loyal fans who had been with Brickell and the band since the beginning but never reached the vast audience that had embraced the first two New Bo's albums. Still, the group continued to perform on occasion, including a number of benefit shows and a handful of amazing "reunion" shows in Deep Ellum.
Amazingly, given all the twists and turns of her "accidental" career, Brickell has always maintained her humility and sharp sense of humor. Creatively, she also seems to have shifted into overdrive once again, with three different projects moving forward at once. Brickell has written and recorded a follow-up to Volcano, with Charlie Sexton producing and local musicians Carter Albrecht and David Monsey contributing. This new solo record, however, might have to wait, as she has also been writing and recording with the original members of New Bohemians once again, this time in Brooklyn with Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain producer Bryce Goggin. She sounds excited as she explains how this all came about.
"Well, first of all, I met Bryce through Paul's son Harper, who I have been collaborating with, too. Harper's great. He's got Paul's ear, you know, so he hears everything. He really understands melody and harmony and texture. And Harper introduced me to Bryce, who has worked with Phish and Pavement and a few other jam bands...and a light just went off. I just knew that after all these years, this was the guy who could really capture what the New Bohemians are all about. I really wanted to re-create that old sound that we had live during the early days. So I've been working with Bryce on both projects, this new thing with Harper and the next New Bohemians record."
The next solo record with Charlie Sexton might have to simmer on the back burner for a few more months. "I love working with Charlie, and we recorded quite a bit of stuff with the band from my last tour, but the first time we actually sat down and listened to it, it hadn't been mixed, it was kinda rough. I really like the songs, but it just hadn't really been produced. Then not too long ago Charlie went in and did some new mixes, and now it sounds great. But I'm just so excited about this stuff the New Bohemians just did with Bryce that the solo stuff might have to wait for just a little while."
Her family is still top priority, of course. Shortly after 9/11, they moved from a tense and fractured Manhattan to the Connecticut countryside, where the kids can play on a Slip-n-Slide during the summer, and everybody can make as much noise as they want. These days, Brickell is also becoming an exceptional jazz-influenced guitarist. She has been studying the piano and is reading far more than she ever had before.
It is rather hard to imagine how a shy kid from East Dallas went from delivering pizza in an old yellow pick-up truck to living a life that few of us could dream of. Even harder to imagine is how a gifted artist like Edie Brickell could do all of this without becoming a pretentious diva or a blatant parody of herself. She's still grounded, she can still pass for a 25-year-old and is so well-adjusted mentally that you have to wonder how she does it. To borrow the simple theme from her biggest hit single, what she is is what she is. --Jeff Liles

The Dallas Cowboys' All-Pro carouser, Michael Irvin, tries to walk the straight and narrow

Number 88 is slashing through a Green Bay Packers secondary, evading hapless defenders who fall headlong just as he slips from their grasp. Someone snags a tiny piece of jersey, and soon his shoulder pads are out and flapping as he makes a cut and throws his long body into the end zone.
Michael Irvin is transfixed by the overhead video screen at Texas Stadium. "Do I look fine in my uniform!" he says, with a cocky little jerk of the head.
Six years after his retirement from football--the result of a frightening neck injury in Philadelphia, with Eagles fans cheering as he lay motionless on the field--Irvin still shows traces of the guy who'd throw down boasts about everything from his reputation as the Dallas Cowboys' "Playmaker" to his predilection for "'hos, limos and Pappadeaux."
All of that would change. Irvin bottomed out; the whoring and partying for which he was notorious became joyless habits. He'd gone on trial for cocaine possession in 1996 (he got probation); he'd been busted by the cops in 2000 while he was with another woman. His wife, Sandy, was hanging in there with him, but he felt powerless to break away from his lifestyle. He would end up at the altar of the renowned Bishop T.D. Jakes in February 2001, during a sermon with a pleading refrain, "Come in from the rain."
Like his buddy Deion Sanders before him, he'd turned to Jesus.
I met Irvin in August 2002, when he eschewed a lemon in his ice water because he didn't want people to confuse it with an early-morning cocktail. He'd begun a broadcasting career with Fox, and the same passion he applied to football was evident in his sessions with a speech and diction coach and his raucous laughter on the set of BDSSP--that's what he called it, anyway. He didn't want to say the word "damn," as in Best Damn Sports Show Period.
Last week, as the former All-Pro wide receiver appeared at Texas Stadium for his induction into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor alongside 1990s greats Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, Irvin was his ebullient self, laughing, gripping and walking around in a sleek gray suit with his characteristic swagger. He signed autographs, posed for cell phone pictures and was unfalteringly gracious to the fans, Texas Stadium employees, reporters and guys in wheelchairs who followed him everywhere like an entourage on a scorching day that heated up the playing field to what seemed like 150 degrees.
Irvin sat beside his fellow Triplets at the on-field set for ESPN, his broadcasting gig these days. There's no pretending with these guys; they obviously get along great. While they were joking on-air, musing about the upcoming Ring of Honor ceremony, Cowboys wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson warmed up on the field. Thoughts of Terrell Owens and Randy Moss flashed in my mind: Here are three prodigiously gifted receivers who seem to play for a team of one.
Nothing like the Michael Irvin we knew. Crazy as he was off the field, Irvin was a total team guy, and unlike Owens and Moss, he always got along with his quarterback. At a brief news conference earlier in the evening, he told a story from his rookie year about meeting Cowboys great Drew Pearson, who asked him if he could identify the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver. The answer at the time, of course, was Pearson. "I really didn't know," Irvin said. "And I said in my brash, ignorant way, "I don't know who it is, Drew, but I know who it will be in about 10 years.'" Former Coach Jimmy Johnson credited Irvin, in fact, with sparking the team turnaround that would ultimately lead to the Super Bowl. To the three-time champion Cowboys of the 1990s, Irvin brought the killer attitude.
About an hour before kickoff, a weary Irvin retired to the office of a Cowboys executive. Fans were literally pressing against the glass doors of the administrative suites, but here he could escape for a few minutes.
Hunched in a worn leather chair, he seemed merely life-size. He spoke quietly about his faith; when he talks about God, all the bluster and bragging drains away. He's still hanging on to Jesus four years after his very public conversion; he's replaced "chasing, running around" with "chasing the best father I can be, chasing the best husband I can be," he said.
Irvin still attends Bishop Jakes' church, The Potter's House, every Sunday in the off-season. And while life after football has yielded its share of disappointments, Irvin credited Jakes for helping him adjust to the "real world," as he called it. "The football world is all about we're a team, we are together," he said. "In the business world, there is no team. You have to be careful. In the football world, I had a promise from a man, and it meant a lot. In this world, promises mean nothing."
Sanders is still pulling for him, too; the former teammates talk regularly. "He calls me at 10 o'clock in the evening," Irvin said, "and he knows I'm on the road, and I'm not answering my phone. "Adam, where art thou? I'll call heaven.' And he'll break off in a sermon on the phone.
"We just mess around with each other," he said. "We have accountability with each other, and you need that. You need somebody that you're going to be naked with."
Talking with him in this rare quiet moment, Irvin offered that he's not all he's cracked up to be. People expect a spiritual All-Pro and dog him for every misstep; he's hanging on to Jesus, he'll tell you, because it's the sick who need a doctor.
"He sustained me. I've been doing fine," he said. "But I'm not perfect. It's a funny thing, when you go around and tell people you're saved, they say, "You're no greater than me.' I didn't say that. I just said that I'm saved.
"I know that I'm no better than you." --Julie Lyons

The musicians you see on these pages were not chosen by me. For the first time, we opened up the nomination process to the public, resulting in one of the most eclectic, and representative, ballots ever. Longtime bands this paper has never nominated--The Feds, Fair to Midland, Olospo--stood proudly alongside bands we'd never even heard of. In the end, it didn't make too much difference: The Burden Brothers swept.

But wait, it did make a difference. Because this year, the awards truly belonged to the fans of our local music scene--the ones who stand in line, who buy the CD and the shirt, who go to the in-store and the club gig, who know all the lyrics and elbow their way down front every Friday night. Let's be honest: In Dallas, there aren't as many of us as we wish. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with people about how--how!?!--to get this city more excited about local music. Well, take a look at that picture. There's a lot of talent there. I hope you're not missing out on it.

If you're reading this, you're probably not. The bands probably know your face; the bartenders probably know your drink. And if so, this issue is for you. Because you know that while Austin is the self-proclaimed live music capital of the world and Houston is the new rap capital of the South, Dallas is something entirely its own--a mix of talent and personality, mood and mettle, art and quirk. There is something hardscrabble and flinty about the musicians of Dallas--because they have to fight for every ounce of respect they get. When the clubs are empty, when the money runs out, when major-label deals go sour, when everything flat out sucks, they do not quit. And we love them for that.

On the following pages, you will find a wide array of musicians: from a young, ambitious band that won the reality-television-show lottery to an older, ambitious band that beat back anger and disappointment to find success a second time around. From two bookish teenage sisters from Tyler with ribboned, mythical visions to the devil-be-damned band of the late Dimebag Darrell. We raise our glasses to all of you with this promise: We will keep coming, if you keep on going.

A few people to thank, because I can: Amanda Bigbee, Amber Abdullah and Jacquie Washington, for the thankless (well, not quite!) task of entering ballots; all the writers, but especially Zac Crain and Sam Machkovech, who tempered my angst with equal measures help and humor; Mike Simmons and Mark Graham, for putting together what, as far as I can tell, is the most artful music awards issue ever; Lindsay Graham, for inspiration and counsel; and the people out there brave enough to take the stage. It is yours to enjoy. So is this issue. --Sarah Hepola

Burden Brothers
Best Act Overall, Best Guitarist (Corey Rozzoni), Rock/Pop, Best Male Vocalist, Best Songwriter, Best Bassist (Casey Orr), Best Drummer (Taz Bentley), Best Song (Shadow)

True story: The Burden Brothers were playing some radio-sponsored concert in Chicago to promote their new single "Shadow." It was one of those do-what-ya-gotta-do gigs, in which they were one of a gajillion up-and-coming bands, the rest of whom were a little less '70s arena rock and a little more shut-up-and-shred-asshole. So one look at this hardcore crowd, and the Burden Brothers know it's not their scene. I mean, these are dudes wearing nail polish and eyeliner onstage, for Christ's sake. Still, they hadn't guessed how bad it would get. The kids started booing them, throwing shit at them, calling them fags, and at that point there are two things you can do: You can leave--or you can rock. As Best Guitarist award winner Corey Rozzoni tells the story, the band flew right in the face of it, yelling back at the audience, playing even louder and fiercer, laughing at every epithet hurled, a full-throttle punk-rock middle finger of a set.

I tell this story for three reasons. 1) Maybe it will make other artists feel better about the fact that the Burden Brothers won practically every award they were nominated for. 2) I still seek revenge for the night band members got me drunker than a Kennedy at prom. 3) Most important, though, it shows the serious stuff these guys are made of. Theirs is the story that comes after VH1's Behind the Music, after the rise and the crash and the aftermath, when there is simply a band that wants to play music for you, less interested in fame than longevity, with a simple, clear mission: Rock Your Face Off Like a Motherfucker. That's the inspiration for the name of their DVD, in case you were wondering: RYFOLAMF. Catchy little acronym, isn't it? [page]

By now, the story that precedes the Burden Brothers' awards sweep here is local lore. Burned by major-label woes and band turmoil, Toadies front man Vaden Todd Lewis calls it quits and, for the hell of it, teams up with buddy Taz Bentley, former ace drummer for Reverend Horton Heat. The two start churning out hard stuff--fast and dirty and loud. And, because they can, they put the songs online. Only the songs turn out to be good--a little too good to pass up. In short: Band signs with Kirtland Records, band offers up radio-ready single (last year's Best Song award winner, "Beautiful Night"), band releases Buried in Your Black Heart and then sits back and waits, right? Actually, no. This past year saw the Burden Brothers--which also includes Best Bassist award winner and veteran player Casey Orr and the young, talented guitarist Casey Hess--hoofing it around the country, filming videos, playing thankless gigs like the one in Chicago, opening for Billy Idol at SXSW, all the while promoting their slow burn of an alternative-rock single, "Shadow," which readers voted overwhelmingly to crown best song of the year. Not to mention the fact that they're still writing new material. That nightmare gig I told you about? It inspired Lewis to write a song called "Goodnight From Chicago," which brings up what really sets the Burden Brothers apart from other bands. Because some let their anger eat them alive, and some use it to rock your face off like a motherfucker. True story, I swear. --S.H.

Chris Holt
Musician of the Year

No one will be more surprised about Chris Holt winning Musician of the Year than Chris Holt. Endlessly self-deprecating and just plain nice, the 32-year-old Holt is almost too polite to be a rock star. When the Dallas Observer photographer asked him to sit for a second photo for this issue, he worried his first batch of portraits had just been that bad. But Holt, without making much of a fuss about it, has quietly become one of the busiest, and most reliable, musicians in town: This year alone, he played with Olospo, The Lonelies, Petty Theft, Hard Night's Day, Jones Thing, Rahim Quazi and Sorta, in addition to playing weekly all-request gigs at the Barley House, finishing a solo album, Summer Reverb, and generally being the go-to guy for guitar and keys. His talent and musical dexterity have almost become a handicap; he does so much it's sometimes hard to figure out what he actually does. His band Olospo (cringe-inducing name inspiration: Polo Sport) packs in the patchouli-wearing, tank-topped lovelies by playing wildly intricate music that is part Rush, part Ben Folds. Holt shirks the "jam band" label ("I hate Widespread Panic!" he once said), but how else do you describe a band that plays self-described "13-minute musical odysseys"? Meanwhile, his work with cover bands has revealed what a versatile player he is, while his all-request gigs (sometimes performed under the name "Chris Holt's Jukebox") spotlight a near-encyclopedic facility with pop music and a charming willingness to throw caution three sheets to the wind. And yet, not enough people have heard Chris Holt the singer-songwriter, who draws inspiration from Elliott Smith and Wilco to craft songs that can be as memorable as they are melodic. But his side projects are so popular, and entertaining, that it's sometimes a battle for Holt to get even his biggest fans to listen to his new work. Well, not anymore. --S.H.

Flickerstick Tarantula
Best Album (Idol Records)

There is nothing wrong with liking Flickerstick. That wasn't so easy to admit back in 2001, when the group was on its way to winning VH1's Bands on the Run. Flickerstick (especially then-drummer Dominic Weir) made for phenomenal television, fighting and hooking up and drinking like all great reality-television superstars are contractually bound to do. But musically--well, at least they looked good on TV. Their live shows were charismatic, but their album Welcoming Home the Astronauts (re-released by Epic in the wake of Bands on the Run), while at times catchy and melodic, was ultimately safe. And by "safe," we mean "boring." The only exception was "Beautiful," an anthem for young drunk girls everywhere.

But plenty of young drunk girls (and their young drunk boyfriends) became fans of the band. Fortunately for Flickerstick, those new fans stuck by the band during a four-year gap between new albums with only a live record (2002's Causing a Catastrophe--Live) and EP (To Madagascar and Back) to tide them over. The wait was worth it: While Tarantula, released last year on Dallas' Idol Records, isn't exactly dangerous, it's a more diverse album than Astronauts, the kind that not only maintains a fan base but also builds it. Astronauts sounded like a band in search of a major-label deal. Tarantula, on the other hand, sounds like a band happy to be liberated from corporate clutches; the music and the musicians have never sounded freer. "When You Were Young" echoes the Bunnymen with a symphonic sound, and "Teenage Dope Fiend" is the kind of teen anthem that made The Vines (briefly) stars, with its "c'mon, c'mon, c'mon" chorus. [page]

We tried not to like it--really, we did--but our toes began tapping in spite of themselves, and soon enough, we were singing along. So go ahead and start liking them. Seriously, there's nothing wrong. --Merritt Martin

Stacy and Sherri Dupree (Eisley)
Best Female Vocalist
"Melodic," "angelic," "melancholy," "lovely," "crystalline," "cloying"--these are but a smattering of rock-crit adjectives slathered upon the sisters DuPree, whose Eisley bowed, at last, with a full-length, Room Noises. Those who would dismiss them as cloying--and, Rolling Stone, we're looking in your direction--miss the point entirely. Or perhaps they simply can't stomach so much loveliness in one sitting. This is light stuff but not lightweight, sweet stuff but not saccharine, moody stuff but never so mellow you could roast it over a campfire between graham crackers and chocolate bars. There's a reason Coldplay loves them so, and why Snow Patrol took them on tour: They make modern rock for people not yet ready to move into the future, for those who prefer their heartbreak comforting and their romance discomfiting and their salty tears just a tad bit sweeter than everyone else's.

Sure, the DuPrees write and perform material that's not hard to mock ("how the pollen fell all around your face in strange, yellow patterns"; "all the war horses wore rubber bands"). Anything's easy to dump on if you refuse to get it. But make no mistake: It takes guts to get out there and pretend punk (or, for that matter, rock of any kind) never happened, to open your mouths and let fly with some of the most florid imagery and baroque vocals this side of Tori Amos or Kristen Hersh or that chick from the Cardigans. Punk doesn't take guts. Singing about dreary birds parading across dreary skies and bats with butterfly wings, Holmes, that takes real balls. It's deceptively simple--the innocent longings of young women not yet ready to give up little-girl things, not yet ready to accept that what's out there is far less interesting or rewarding than what remains untouched and unblemished in here. --Robert Wilonsky

A Dozen Furies
Best New Act
A few weeks after their guitarist Marc Serrano first appeared on MTV's reality show Battle for Ozzfest, the five sufficiently scruffy, black-clad members of A Dozen Furies piled into my office for an interview. Back then, they were nobodies--kids from Plano with metal in their mouths, who quit their day jobs and toured the country in a crappy van (that is, until the van broke down). But an odd benefactor presented himself in the form of Ozzy Osbourne, reality-show guru, possible loon, whose new enterprise was a kind of Real World/Road Rules Challenge for the black hoodie set. The band beat out 300 hardcore acts at an L.A. audition to land a spot on the show, which picked Serrano as ADF's on-camera representative.

"I was really excited the night the show came on," said Serrano, a pint-sized pretty boy with tattoos wrapping around his arms. "The minute the credits started rolling for the show before ours, my heart started fluttering."

"It could turn out to be really big," said lead singer Bucky Garrett. "It's like American Idol for metal bands."

In those days, the boys were adjusting to their minor fame, grappling to explain the show's concept to local news anchors and wondering, privately, what all the attention would mean. Of course, A Dozen Furies went on to win Battle for Ozzfest, landing $60,000, a slew of Guitar Center gear, a record contract with Sanctuary Records and a slot on the second stage of this summer's Ozzfest. The band is currently at work on its first full-length, which follows up last year's Rip Down the Stars, an EP that flaunts its commitment to noise and speed above all else.

So now, those sweet, unwashed boys with marquee dreams have become bona fide local heroes with one of the city's biggest draws. Serrano rocked a leather bikini on national television. And they have no doubt collected enough stoned-with-celebrity stories to last a decade. But I will always think of them as the goofballs in my office, cramped four to a couch, cracking so many in-jokes that Serrano finally threw up his hands and said, "See, this is why I do all the interviews by myself." --S.H.

DJ Merritt
DJ/Electronic

Year after year, DJ Merritt pulls off a win in the DJ/Electronic category, and on some level, the reason is simple: Everyone has heard, and heard of, DJ Merritt. Dallas has its fair share of nightly DJ hot spots, and more regulars are making their names known around town with residence gigs, but Merritt has the lock on our attention with his work on Edge Club, a live club-mix show that's been around since 102.1 was 94.5 on the dial. The show has survived not only a switch in frequencies but also last year's unofficial station merger with the late 97.1 The Eagle. Luckily, Merritt has maintained Edge Club's quality, making dance station 106.7 KDL sound boring in comparison, with rapid-fire mixes of recent dance tracks, self-produced beats and rock-song segues. That work alone is enough to deserve the award, but Merritt doesn't rest on his radio laurels, as you'll find him spinning at every nook and cranny in town, from hot clubs to DJ competitions to even museums like the Nasher Sculpture Center. It's one thing to have a known name as a DJ, but Merritt wins by working his butt off to earn that recognition. --Sam Machkovech [page]

One O'Clock Lab Band
Jazz

Remember when jazz was for the young and rebellious, the kids who dared to turn off the squeaky clean Tin Pan Alley classics and get turned on to music a little sexier, a lot less predictable and--gasp--improvised? Yeah, neither do we. Nowadays, jazz seems as dated as zoot suits and stockings with seams. To the average music buyer, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington are just names on cheap compilation CDs, and jazz is something you hear in restaurants or elevators. But there is at least one place where jazz is still for the young. The University of North Texas has been offering a bachelor of music in jazz studies since 1947 (it was the first university to offer such a program), and it's still the place college freshmen come looking for their own Birth of the Cool, toting trumpets, guitars and other instruments in black cases strapped across their backs, talking up faculty members and professional musicians such as Neil Slater and Ed Soph and, most important, sweating the annual auditions for the lab bands--nine jazz performance bands with the top one, the One O'Clock Lab Band, featuring 20 of the best jazz musicians from a school of nearly 400 outstanding undergrad and graduate student musicians. The One O'Clock is more than an extracurricular activity. The band has headlined the Montreux International Jazz Festival, been nominated for Grammy Awards and toured Europe, Mexico, Australia, Canada, Japan and more. In addition to being world-renowned, the One O'Clock Lab Band has affected local music, too: All of the four other groups nominated in this category have UNT jazz studies connections, including some lab band alumni. --Shannon Sutlief

Slick 57
Rockabilly/Roots

Were this some high school poll, and not the Dallas Observer Music Awards, John Pedigo and "Big Ward" Richmond would surely win for class clowns. Hilarious and never above (below?) a cheap gimmick, the high school buddies sharpened their schtick as drama geeks at Woodrow Wilson High, where they crafted absurd home videos before turning to the far more respectable (and lucrative!) career of touring rockabilly band. Along with drummer Rob "the Heartthrob" Schumacher, they make Slick 57 not just a good show but an entertaining one--Richmond furiously plucking those stand-up bass strings, Pedigo jumping around the stage with his guitar, flinging his wounded Billie Joe Armstrong howl to the back of the rafters. Their aptly named second album, LOVE/LOST/EXHAUST, is like a beer-soaked, roaring midnight drive with a guide who probably shouldn't be behind the wheel. The best songs here barely pause for breath: They're celebrations of riffage, speed, booze and other proper forms of young male suffering. But funny enough, the more these guys bleed, the more we smile. Slick indeed. --S.H.

Damageplan
Metal

No one here will ever pretend, even at this late date, that we ever quite got Damageplan or, before that, Pantera; the Observer archives are too stuffed with unflattering words to try to take them back. We felt the loss of guitarist Darrell Abbott, absolutely, but from the distance reserved for those who write about local musicians and cross paths with them. I'd met the man several times--he and brother Vinnie Paul even showed up to a Dallas Observer Music Awards shindig several years ago to claim a prize they needed as much as another doorstop--and found him charming and guileless, a superstar who pretended as though he were unaware of the status bestowed upon him. And certainly, we were all stung by the news of his murder on December 8 on a Columbus, Ohio, stage--at the hand of a deranged fan, no less. But it didn't hit us as hard as it did those who, on December 14 of last year, crowded into the Arlington Convention Center to mourn his passing and share their grief and final fuck yeahs for the man called Dimebag. They were his family, immediate and extended and forever. [page]

But getting it isn't so important anymore, because we're well past having to; Abbott and Damageplan and Pantera have now passed into myth, the realm of legend to which beloved and tragic figures are allowed instant access. Abbott is another Marvin Gaye now, another Sam Cooke, another Peter Tosh, another Tupac--or, at least, another Mia Zapata or Bobby Fuller--a rock-and-roll martyr whose death guarantees he will live forever, a rock god made immortal by an assassin. For proof, look no further than the countless rock-mag covers he graced after his death, listen no further than the hallelujah choruses sung by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Zakk Wylde and the other guitarists who filed onto the stage in Arlington. Now, everyone in town will claim to have known Dimebag, to have partied with him at the Clubhouse, to have built a guitar for him, to have ruined his liver with him in 18 states (as Wylde mentioned from the stage that night).

What becomes of Damageplan now? No one is quite sure, though there have been the inevitable rumors of a DVD release, of a second album mostly completed, of outtakes from the New Found Power sessions. There's also talk of old, unreleased Pantera tracks finding their way into stores, including some from a never-completed post-Reinventing the Steel disc. And what will become of the music made by Rebel Meets Rebel, Dimebag and Vinnie Paul's country collaboration with David Allan Coe? Answers will come shortly, but the music business has taught us that dead musicians live profitable afterlives on the new-release schedules.

If nothing else, Abbott's murder did get some of us, the disinterested or the unfairly dismissive, to go back and listen to what we might have missed the first time around, and sure enough you can hear what so many others got from the very beginning--the groove beneath the growl, the rumble beneath the roar, the look-at-how-much-fuckin'-fun-I'm-havin' smile of a talented man who dug playing sidekick to front men (Phil Anselmo in Pantera, Pat Lachman in Damageplan) who always seemed so pissed off about something. So, to Damageplan we offer our congratulations on this award, handed to you not just by us, but also from the thousands who voted for you and the millions who cheered for you then and now. --R.W.

The Polyphonic Spree
Avant-Garde/Experimental

The first mistake The Polyphonic Spree made was recording an album. The second was recording another one. I'm not trying to piss on their parade. You may enjoy The Beginning Stages of... or Together We're Heavy, and that's perfectly OK. But you'd be hard-pressed to make a compelling argument that either record is revolutionary. Go ahead and take that case to a jury. They'll be out less than an hour.

Here's why they shouldn't have made a record, or two of them: While there's nothing much avant-garde or experimental about the band in the studio, there is plenty of it onstage. With 20 some-odd people in matching robes singing and swaying and stomping like a church choir as imagined by David LaChapelle, The Polyphonic Spree's stage show is a breathtaking happening that lures in even the most cynical observer. It's an overwhelming blast of sight and sound, leaving your eyes and ears as helpless as the last Texan rebels at the Alamo. Go to one of their shows and you will be entertained, whether you like it or not. But none of that, not one single bit, comes across on a CD. Which is a shame. They should have taken their show on the road, invading a town for a few days as the word of mouth built into a tidal wave, then scurried off to conquer another city. They would have had an air of mystery, that certain something that turns rock shows into events. They did this in Austin at South by Southwest and New York at the CMJ New Music Marathon, never needing an album to put asses in the seats. It would have worked. They've actually talked about this. (Broadway, perhaps?) After a couple of tours, then they could put out a DVD, so people could hear and see The Polyphonic Spree, the way the group should properly be experienced. I'm telling you: genius. Would that make any money? I don't know. That's why I don't manage bands. --Zac Crain

Boys Named Sue
Country and Western

Texas is made up of two kinds of folk: people who get country music and people who can't stand it. The latter will point to Shania Twain, Brooks & Dunn and Randy Travis while making a gagging noise, but what they don't know is that many people who love country music do the same thing, too. See, that's watered-down, mainstream junk, and there's great music to be heard in the country genre, but for newcomers, sitting at home with Willie, Merle and Johnny records isn't the best way to start. What y'all need is a dirty bar, a few beers and Boys Named Sue. Easily Dallas' best gateway to the country genre, the Boys, whose members come from fine local bands like Slick 57, Trainwreck and Deadman, are a cover band trapped in the days when Sun Records meant something, yet also have one foot planted firmly in the present. Classic country jewels written by Roger Miller and Doug Sahm get mixed up in the set list with Southern versions of Violent Femmes and Pixies songs, and whether the band re-creates Eminem beats with pedal steel or plays the hell out of its Johnny Cash namesake, it does its damnedest to unite the two kinds of country listeners with a good, boozy time. --S.M. [page]

Fishing for Comets
Folk/Acoustic

Fishing for Comets may be the poster children for 2005's DOMAs, a year that marks the first time fans' votes created the ballot. Because Fishing for Comets is here for one reason: fans. Fans who voted in the ballot phase. Fans who voted in the award phase. They credit their fans for everything; they're fortunate, they say, to have people who like them. (Counting Cindy Chaffin from TexasGigs.com as one of those fans doesn't hurt either.) As a group, Fishing for Comets has been playing for less than six months. They're not widely known, they've played mostly opening gigs, their debut CD isn't well-distributed. In fact, the female-fronted quartet didn't start a nomination campaign until the week before the ballot voting was over, and even then it was at a fan's urging. So, for those who haven't heard this dark-horse contender--an all-acoustic band that also features Sam Romero on guitars, Eric Swanson on bass and mandolin, and John Solis on drums--the easiest comparison is The Sundays, a band that singer-songwriter Camille Cortinas hadn't even heard of until recently. Both have sweet, simple vocals trilling over equally sweet, simple lyrics. But the Lisa Loeb comparison works, too. Neither would be bad company for Fishing for Comets, but the band members prefer to think of their music as intimate and personal, which is how they like their shows, too. They like smaller clubs such as Ginger Man, Club Dada, Liquid Lounge and Standard & Pours (though they've also played Trees). This is one folk/acoustic winner with no aspirations of plugging in and taking off; they just want more gigs in more venues in more cities and to finish their first full-length within the next three or four months. Sweet and simple, just like their music. --S.S.

Common Folk
Funk/R&B

On "Jukebox," the third song on Common Folk's 2003 debut, Souled Out, brothers Terry Williams and Tony Ballard tick off their musical influences: "We put stock in Lauryn Hill/Miss Badu 'cause she keeps it real/Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway/BeBe Winans and Marvin Gaye/Alicia Keys with some Macy Gray." With that in mind, Common Folk sounds exactly like you might expect: warm, back-in-the-day soul with plenty of room for handclaps and Bootsy Collins bass. Their songs are honest, earnest laments of good black men getting right in the world--and bringing their culture along with them: "Seven G's on your pinky ring/It's all right if you like the bling-bling/And if you like the finer things/As long as they don't control you," they sing on "Consumed," the album's opener and finest track. In a musical climate where crunk passes for innovation and violence seems practically a prerequisite for a successful career, a band like Common Folk is like a cool breeze cutting through the dank room: musicians who make good music but also seem like good people, which is awful nice for a change. --S.H.

Dot Matrix
Hip Hop/Rap

This year's battle for best hip-hop/rap is encouraging for a city whose rap radio ratings are sky-high but hasn't seen a national superstar since the days of the D.O.C. In March, voters put three of Dallas' hottest MCs on the ballot: There's Pikahsso, the one-man posse who drops jokes and rhymes as smoothly as he sings Funkadelic-inspired hooks; there's Tahiti, the craziest, wittiest old-school rapper in town who drops all blingin' pretenses and moves a crowd by admitting that he's "whack"; and there's definitely Steve Austin, the self-proclaimed "champ" who rocks a mike with so much fire and confidence it's hard not to call Damon Dash or P. Diddy and beg him to sign this guy now. Still, these three rising Dallas hip-hop icons weren't enough to dethrone six-member Dot Matrix from the group's top spot at the DOMAs for the third year in a row. Their rap-rock attack finds a unique boost in a sax player who balances the band's jazz and rock elements, and their dual MCs kick verses back and forth on the old-school tip without falling into hip-hop clichés. It was easier to call Dot Matrix a lock for the contest years ago, but this year's neck-and-neck vote hints at an even more exciting race next go-round. --S.M. [page]

Rob G. and the Latin Pimps
Latin/Tejano

When I received a CD by a band called Latin Pimps, I made sure to procrastinate opening the plastic seal. After working in a kitchen where every generic Latin band in the world became the soundtrack to flipping hamburgers, I was burned out on the genre. And the band's goofy name didn't help. But I noticed Centro-matic's Matt Pence (winner of the Best Producer award) credited with mixing Me Voy (translation: I'm Going), and it was enough to pique my interest. Turns out the music is more than merely palatable--somewhere between Gipsy Kings and Calexico, which means it's mainstream enough for a casual listener but has interesting musical twists for the discerning ear. This full-on Latin band succeeds in both traditional Latin rhythms, with lovely horn melodies over strumming guitars and Robert Gomez's Tecate-soaked vocals, and also more experimental sounds, like the ringing bells and xylophones peppered through "Me Voy Postludio." Don't write off this category as I almost did. Rob G. and the Latin Pimps are making music that deserves even bigger awards than this one. --S.M.

Silvertones
Blues
You might be surprised at the number of blues clubs around town: Keys Lounge, Deep Ellum Blues, Lota's Goat, Hole in the Wall, 6th Street Grill, J&J's, to name a few. It's hard to believe they can all stay in business, what with no radio station to support the genre like rock, hip-hop and Latin music receive. Even more interesting is that one band plays so many of these joints it could single-handedly keep them all afloat. The Silvertones, three-time winners of the best blues award, have been rustling around Dallas since 1993, and to put that in perspective, blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan has been dead only three years longer than they've been together. It's an appropriate touchstone, as Leo De La Vega leads his rock-leaning blues quartet with loud howls and guitar wails that would make Vaughan a proud papa. The guys are currently at work on a third LP, and in the meantime, you can always catch them live. Don't worry if you miss a show--you'll just have to wait a couple of days. --S.M.

Hard Night's Day
Cover Band

Show me someone who doesn't like the Beatles, and I'll show you a grouch who hasn't actually listened to them. Look, I don't care what kind of music you're into--the Beatles wrote a song for you, whether it's the buzzmuffle of "Revolution 9" or the pure heartbroken perfection of "Junk." People who hate the Beatles are just being difficult, which is exactly how I feel about people who don't like Hard Night's Day. Sure, they're a cover band. Sure, it's the least controversial music ever. Get over it. This Fab Four tribute act (oddly numbering five) are not only great musicians, but they also put on a show that is as hard to resist as a two-scoop ice cream sundae. HND's regular happy-hour gigs at Club Dada, The Bone and Lakewood Bar & Grill (among other locales) are sunny, toe-tapping evenings that bridge the chasm between moms and granddads, little girls and their daddies, couples of all ages, even snarky music journalist-types nursing a beer or seven. And by show's end, you'll find the whole strange crew on the dance floor, awkward and unconcerned, singing along to, say, "Come Together," which is exactly what this band makes happen. There's a reason Hard Night's Day has won the cover band category three years in a row. You like them. You really, really like them. --S.H.

The Adventure Club
Best Radio Program That Plays Local Music
Josh Venable's Sunday-night show The Adventure Club is DOMA's safest bet--with eight awards received in its 11 years on The Edge. But it's not just his home on a Clear Channel station, his longevity, a prime-time slot (6 p.m. to 9 p.m.), rabid fans, industry connections and great prize giveaways that cinch his victories. He has the music, too. Where else can you hear Christy Darlington cover Morrissey's "Sister I'm a Poet," not-yet-released tracks by The Deathray Davies and an acoustic session with the pAper chAse? It's those rarities that keep fans TiVoing The Simpsons and Arrested Development so they can tune in to The Adventure Club. Granted, Venable doesn't play local music exclusively, but he places it on an even scale with Bright Eyes, Morrissey or The Libertines--opening ears and, possibly, wallets of people who might not spend their weekends in bars catching local talent. In this category, Venable is like the local band on a major label--homegrown talent with the wattage and financial support that the other guys don't have (except for fellow Edge program/DOMA nominee The Local Show with Chris Ryan, The Adventure Club's harder-edged, red-headed stepchild). But the indie kids, some of whom credit Venable for encouraging them to start their own shows, deserve props as well. KTCU's The Good Show brings bands into the studio each Sunday night to perform a few of their songs, play some others and maybe request a few of their favorites. And KNTU's Frequency Down this year added a new segment called "Playing Favorites," in which local bands play one song that best represents them and a handful of tracks that influenced or inspired them (The Happy Bullets and Black Tie Dynasty are among the participants so far). Tune in if you can; it's not like you're cheating, since they air after The Adventure Club ends anyway. And, of course, you can catch Texas Radio1 online, all day, every day, at TexasRadio1.com. When you get down to it, they're all pretty safe bets. --S.S. [page]

Matt Pence
Best Producer

I've had a theory for a while now that drummers make good producers. Partly because they have to listen to more of the band than anyone else, partly because they have to keep the whole mess together, partly just because. I don't really know why. Just something about them. If you want to extrapolate on that theory, the best drummers make great producers, and that's where Matt Pence comes in. I stood next to the stage near where his drums were set up during his band Centro-matic's show in Austin during South by Southwest, and his playing was so tight, so mesmerizing, I barely noticed the rest of the band. Jason Garner and Jeff Ryan, both talented drummers themselves, stood next to me, more or less in awe as Pence turned each fill into a jazz solo without ever losing the beat. That said, maybe it makes more sense to give this award to one of the guys whose recording calendar has more local names on it--say, Paul Williams, maybe, or Stuart Sikes. But you can't really fault Pence just because his reputation has outgrown the confines of the D-D-FW area. So he's spent the last year recording bands that have to dial long distance to call home (like The Long Winters, Glossary and American Music Club). So what? Just be happy that people from outside our little scene (such that it is) are acknowledging the genius of someone in the thick of it. --Z.C.

Idol Records
Record Label
Erv Karwelis used to be virtually guaranteed to leave the music awards show with one of those 15-pound doorstops with the name of his company, Idol Records, on it. There weren't many other labels in town, and Idol was easily better than the ones that were. But then Idol's best-selling bands, Chomsky and The Deathray Davies, decided to ply their trade elsewhere, and a new crop of labels emerged--like Summer Break and, more recently, Kirtland--which gave Idol a run for its doorstop. But Karwelis circled the wagons successfully. Now Idol is arguably better than before, releasing the Best Album winner (Flickerstick's Tarantula), another disc that was just as deserving ([DARYL]'s Ohio) and a nice set by one of Dallas' up-and-comers (Black Tie Dynasty's This Stays Between Us). That's a pretty suh-weet year by anyone's standards, even the guy who (once again) finds himself 15 pounds heavier. --Z.C.

Lizard Lounge
Best Dance Club
Those thieves knew exactly what they were doing. On April 4, 2005, the Lizard Lounge fell victim to a massive burglary, and though we would never condone such behavior, it's hard not to credit the guilty parties for staking out the most consistent, star-studded dance club in town. In fact, the thieves allegedly camped out inside the Lounge the previous night after a packed Paul Oakenfold concert, and it wasn't the international DJ sensation's first appearance at the club, either. In the past year, Lizard Lounge has hosted an amazing number of dance and wax masters, including Richard "Humpty" Vission, Mix Master Mike and Fatboy Slim, and the downtown nightclub has also become a favorite destination for burlesque revivalist Dita Von Teese's Dallas appearances. Granted, the latter might have more to do with the club's twice-weekly "Church" theme nights, in which patrons dress in their finest bondage, leather and goth outfits and speakers pump vampire-loving songs, but it'd be easier to call the "Church" nights silly if so many people didn't keep on packing the place. Dita, Fatboy and Paul know this, and, apparently, so do Dallas voters. The club's safe may be gone, but the thieves can't take the Lizard Lounge's dance cred. --S.M. [page]

Gypsy Tea Room
Live Music Venue
Gypsy Tea Room has consistently kicked out the jams for seven years now. And by "jams," we're referring to the venue's balance of high-profile national and international acts (Muse, Patti Smith, The Roots, ...Trail of Dead, The Futureheads, Robert Plant) and local talent (Black Tie Dynasty, [DARYL], Eisley, Burden Brothers, Jack Ingram). Its roster reads like the perfect mix tape, with equal opportunity given to each genre along with welcome slices of hometown flavor. Originally opened in 1918, the Gypsy Tea Room waited 90 long years for its ingenious 1998 reincarnation as one of the most impressive and beloved music venues in North Texas, with a plush décor and, more important, a perfectly mixed monitor and a competent sound guy. But the Gypsy offers more than just comfort and sonic superiority. Frank Campagna's murals, displayed on the Good-Latimer Expressway side of the building, not only call attention to shows but also suggest the venue really does give two shits about who's on the stage. Jimmy Eat World thought enough of the gesture to place a link to Campagna's Web site from the band's. Patti Smith photographed her portrait, and David Cross used the work in CD liner notes. Plus, GTR has something that's rare and sacred, something few other clubs have: clean and working restrooms. And that, my friends, is priceless. --M.M.

You remember him: unnaturally thick hair, tucked-in sport shirt, half-sitting on the front of the desk with a fleshy thigh splayed to the left, the crew-socked calf dangling below. He could be any teacher--that is, until he flubs virtually all historical events and the fact that his pants are not pants, but really unnatural fibers formed into trademark blue or gray Sansabelt shorts. He is Coach History.

Was it a deficient paycheck, a shortage of certified teachers or just a Texas school thing that brought the coach from the field house into the classroom? It certainly wasn't a love of history. He was honest about that. And, to be fair, there were some double-duty coaches who knew what they were talking about, but Dallas comedian Andy Long must not have found too many during his 12-year study of classrooms in Dallas, Corsicana, Garland, Plano, Richardson and other districts.

Inspired by his visits to the classroom, Long created his one-man play Without Class--a day at the fictitious Southwest North Dallas High East. Students of the audience can flash back to earlier days in DISD, GISD, RISD (you get the idea) schools as they meet Coach Knippe (in his Texas History class, of course), pantomime fanatic and theater arts/health education instructor Mr. Oaklawn, amateur magician and physics teacher Sandy McCracken and others. We can even flash back to our own health class as the football team captain presents an oral report in the form of a rap song. (Hey, Long, were you in our health class or something?)

Those public school memories may be painful at first and daunting to face head-on, but something tells us that this time no one will get mocked for his Cure T-shirt. And we hope that no one will have striped eyebrows (what was that anyway?). And at least we all might get out of class having learned a lesson: Try private school.

The title Long Dark Road works on so many levels, it almost feels like a cliché. Seven years ago this month, three white men in East Texas chained James Byrd Jr., a black man, to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death. The case, of course, fascinated the media. But the scars it left on those involved are probably still more like wounds, and, for those of us who grew up in the Texas Piney Woods, it was shameful--unspeakable cruelty committed in our own back yard.

In his 2004 book about the murder, Ricardo C. Ainslie takes us down the long, dark Huff Creek Road in Jasper, filling us in on the gory details and events of the June night when a town no one had ever heard of suddenly began to top the headlines. The author also studies convicted killer Bill King, who sits on death row for his role in the crime. Ainslie, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, travels the dark roads of King's life, too, analyzing his childhood, his family and the transformation he made while serving time in the Texas prison system for earlier crimes. The author tries to find the man behind the monster, the flesh beneath the skin covered in racist tattoos. What we get is a profile of a mind that remains a mystery. Can you ever really find the "why?" for something that can't possibly have a reason?

Ainslie delves into the case anyway, and seems haunted by what he finds. "Disturbing as it is," he writes, "Bill King is all too human, a man driven by human needs and human anxieties." It is disquieting to get a glimpse of the "normal" aspects of King's psyche and the promise he showed early in life. We've all wandered some long, dark roads at times, but we don't always end up at the same place.

Death Becomes Them For some, death hovers in the mind like an overprotective mother or a paparazzi helicopter, clouding thoughts to the exclusion of all other possibilities. A tickle in the throat? Surely it's the avian flu. Feeling tired and run-down? Must be cancer...or, God forbid, West Nile. For others, death is a fate to be cheated. Ain't no mountain high enough and ain't no valley low enough to keep these folks from risking their lives in adventure. Fear it or welcome it, death is unavoidable, and it's the varied attitudes we have about it that make possible such productions as Theatre of Death.

This collection of seven short plays, produced by Mark-Brian Sonna, spans centuries (from the 1400s to the present) and themes (death as tragic and comic and everything in between). The plays are part of a genre of Spanish-language theater known as "Teatro Breve" or "Brief Theater." Teatro Breve has just three requirements: The plays must be short (good), they should have a twist (better) and they must cause a reaction from the audience (best). Why Brief Theater isn't more prevalent, we're not sure, because there's nothing worse than watching actors trot around a stage for hours and all you get out of it is an aching bottom and the fear that you've developed deep vein thrombosis. (Take a guess where we fall on the fear death/welcome death scale.)

In this year's installment of Teatro Breve, audiences will see such selections as "The Devil Always Lies," which "distills the shared philosophical questions of what and...who is evil," and "Moriana's Poison," which wraps up in less than five minutes. Can the cast create a sensation in mere minutes? We don't know, but the thrill-seekers out there had better not scoff. Sometimes it's the briefest moments that stick with us for a lifetime. --Rhonda Reinhart

The part with the dragon is really cool.

Might as well cut to the chase, right? It's not as though you need anybody to tell you the basic premise of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; if you somehow missed the last three, this won't likely be the one to break your pattern. So you probably want to know up front how the Hungarian Horntail dragon looks onscreen. And in the words of Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), it's bloody brilliant. Some things in the Harry Potter universe are much more fun to see than read about--the aerial sport of Quidditch is a prime example, and the sequence where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has to steal a golden egg from an angry dragon is right up there.

Not only does this fourth Potter movie--scripted once again by Steve Kloves (who also wrote the first two) and directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral)--assume prior knowledge of the other films; it even assumes you've already read the book. Secret villain Barty Crouch Jr. (David Tennant) is revealed as a traitor right at the beginning, and new professor Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) makes an offhand joke early on that's really only funny if you already know what he keeps locked up in a trunk behind his desk.

Much has been trimmed from the lengthy novel in order to achieve a two-and-a-half-hour running time: Dobby the Elf and Emma Thompson's Professor Trelawney do not return to the big screen, Hagrid's scorpion-like skreets don't make it (nor do any monsters in the final maze, which is disappointing) and Gary Oldman makes only a quick cameo in digital form. Many of the trims work fine, but a maddening plot point involving the climactic confrontation between Harry and the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, sans nose) remains unspoken and may leave viewers confused. For their benefit, a key piece of information that would be a movie spoiler only if they had left it in: Remember that Harry and Voldemort have wands containing feathers from the same phoenix.

Speaking of Voldemort: It's about damn time that the main villain in J.K. Rowling's world showed up. Previously seen only as the back of Ian Hart's head, or in dreams as a young schoolboy, he appears here in his true form, in scenes that feel more like a horror movie than a family film (yes, yes, that's the point; understood). Fiennes, who generally has a tendency to underplay dreadfully, has recently impressed by being over the top, first in the Wallace and Gromit movie, and now here. He even gets to breathe like Darth Vader, which has got to be quite a challenge without a nose.

Fiennes would probably be the major scene stealer if it didn't take nearly the whole movie for him to show up; instead, that honor goes to Brendan Gleeson, whose Mad-Eye Moody feels like the scariest Irish pub rat you've ever encountered, transplanted to a classroom with the care of children rather dubiously entrusted to him. Not that all of the Hogwarts school isn't a dubious proposition for youngsters to begin with--when headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) says, "I've put you in terrible danger this year, Harry. I am sorry," you want to ask if he's been paying any attention at all for the previous three years, when Harry was menaced by a giant three-headed dog, a forest full of man-eating spiders, a huge serpent, a werewolf and, of course, the soul-sucking Dementors.

Much has been made of Rowling's influences from the likes of Roald Dahl, but very few have called her out on her apparent fondness for Scooby-Doo. It's not just the idea of kids who go around solving mysteries, but also the fact that every single Potter movie thus far has culminated in a scene where a key character is suddenly revealed as he really is--though he would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids!--and proceeds to explain the whole plot to us. It's not as badly telegraphed here as in the other films, but it's a literary crutch one wishes Rowling would kick away.

In the grand scheme of things, Goblet of Fire is perhaps closest to the original Sorcerer's Stone. Parts two and three, for worse and better, respectively, reflected their individual directors' visions, but Newell doesn't have much of a distinctive vision, as evinced by his rather diverse body of work (Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin and Amazing Grace and Chuck). His is a CliffsNotes version of the book, which is to be expected. But these movies are getting to be kinda like the original Star Trek films--did it really even matter exactly what Kirk, Spock and Bones were up to? It's enough just to watch them do their thing again.

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