Max Gerber

2004 Dallas Observer Music Awards

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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