The 30th annual Dallas Observer Music Awards marks three decades of celebrating incredible local music. Some hometown heroes have gone on to play arena shows, some pack up their bags and head to Nashville or L.A. or New York, and some find that DFW is the perfect home for creating their own musical journey.
For our 30th year, we highlighted four musicians who come from different genres in the game and have taken different paths to getting here. Nigel Rivers is a two-time winner for Best Bassist, PriMadonna is still navigating its first year as a group but has already made a wave, Leah Lane takes home two awards for her vocals and her role in a hardcore act, and of course Bobby Sessions led this year's DOMAs with six nominations and has stayed true to Dallas despite signing to a major label.
If you’re a music industry professional and haven’t heard of Nigel Rivers, you’re not just asleep, you’re practically in a coma. If you’re an amateur, learn the name. Rivers, this year's Dallas Observer Music Award winner for Best Bassist, is not even 30 and has already amassed the résumé of a musician twice — hell, three times — his age.
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Rivers has earned the approbation of many legends, and if all goes as projected, should be on the way to become one himself. His instinctive creativity and nuanced style have made him an in-demand player for artists worldwide. The flow of his bass has pulsed along with the notable vocals of the likes of John Legend, Eric McFadden and Gladys Knight.
Most frequently, Rivers’ bass can be heard — and felt — thumping in arenas, from his hometown of Dallas to the farthest corners of Africa, holding court for the Queen of Neo-Soul as one of Erykah Badu’s go-to bass players.
Rivers’ timing serves as an unbreakable backbone, solidifying the sound of so many groups that he’s had no need to pick one permanent band. As a session player, he’s worked extensively for Grammy-winning producer Symbolic 1 (Beyoncé, Madonna). And Rivers’ ease in performing across multiple genres is reflected in the varying roster of talent that calls upon his skill, among them R&B songstress Chrisette Michele, Jazz chanteuse Ashleigh Smith and catchy Korean pop bands.
Even Leon Bridges calls him “a beast” (in the best sense, of course). Rivers may be a high commander of groove, but he’s also set on building a rock-solid name for himself as a producer and musical director. He recently co-produced a couple of tracks off Sessions’ Def Jam-backed album, RVLTN (Chapter 1): The Divided States of AmeriKKKa.
"I think a lot of people are becoming more intentional about their hustle and as a result of that I think there’s a lot more people that were visible this year as compared to last year," Rivers says. "And I think that intentionality is becoming a trend in music society as a whole, not just here in Dallas, but everywhere."
Rivers also worked with the rapper in the title track for the 2018 film The Hate U Give. The single, which tackles themes of police brutality with the conviction of Black Lives Matter’s activism, featured fellow locals like singer Keite Young and producer Picnic Escobedo.
Rivers has a bachelor of arts in music from the University of North Texas and knowledge that extends beyond a dominion over his four strings. His Facebook videos, in which he records himself casually playing while interacting with curious music hopefuls, draw thousands of views as he shows off his impossible dexterity and venturesome rhythm.
Rivers was the musical director for Dezi 5 before the singer went off to set New York City on fire with his blazing style of pop. When he’s not busy traveling the globe with Badu, Rivers champions locals like Linnea Skold and Josh Hendrick.
Last year, he debuted a solo effort with the single “The Somnambulist,” which was mastered by Greg Calbi (who’s worked with Lennon, Springsteen and John Mayer). An accomplished mesh of hip-hop and frenetic jazz, its ferocious rhythm alone could induce a bloody gang fight. The song’s hypnotic bass line is an ode to insomnia and dives deep into REM-state madness. Catch Rivers next on stages everywhere, at all times. Because he’s omnipresent. Eva Raggio
For those looking to cut loose with a heavy dose of nostalgia, the DFW tribute band scene rarely disappoints. It's a virtual Baskin-Robbins of musical flavors — The Beatles, Elvis, '70s disco, '80s hair metal, new wave, etc. You name the genre or favorite band from days of old, and an act is probably going all out to drum up childhood memories of you room-rocking with a hairbrush mic in hand. This year’s Dallas Observer Music Award for Best Tribute Band goes to a group conceived when two members of the Dallas-based Elvis party band Graceland Ninjaz realized they shared a passion for the pop culture icon known as Madonna.
Lead vocalist and Madonna impersonator Adrian Lee Jarvis tells us the story of how PriMadonna came to be.
“I’ve been into Madonna since I was 3," she says. "My parents really enjoyed music and my dad would just pick up whatever was popular to try it. One day he brought home The Immaculate Collection and that was the first time that music really caught my attention.”
Two and a half years ago, she approached Graceland Ninjaz bandmate Rob Hines about starting a Madonna tribute band. They pitched the idea to friends and other local tribute acts and were surprised to find out nobody had attempted to cover the Queen of Pop.
“The consensus was that nobody had done it yet because it was hard,” she says. “There’s a lot of layers to her music, the electronic parts to go with the real instrumentation, and the person to perform it has to pull off the vocals and dance moves just right or else you won’t do it justice.”
Jarvis spent six months studying old videos and live performances to nail down the attitude, dance moves and vocal intonations. She also created a bevy of signature costumes, which even the casual Madonna fan knows is a necessity to capture the Material Girl’s essence. Lace tops, bleach blonde hair, crucifix necklaces, black fishnet stockings and the infamous coned bra are all part of the PriMadonna experience. To Jarvis, it’s mostly about evoking that nostalgia rather than trying to live like her childhood idol.
“I want to capture what people remember about her music, the fun behind it and the dancing," she says. "As a person, she is outspoken, politically charged, that bad girl that has always pushed boundaries. I’m not interested in harnessing all of that, I just want people to have fun and chill.”
Behind Jarvis is a potent group of local musicians featuring Rob Hines on both guitar and bass, Poppy Xander on keyboard/keyboard bass, Alan Mouradian on drums and Bobby Hoke wizarding the effects and electronica elements needed to re-create the vast catalog of Madonna hits. The set list spans almost four decades, taking you through her breakout years with “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl,” into the Erotica era with “Vogue” and “Justify My Love,” and landing with some light reverence paid to the later techno-pop sounds off Ray of Light. Cody Starr
As if it wasn’t enough to be recognized as one of eight DFW women who are taking a sledgehammer to the glass ceiling and one of the seven best DFW musicians under 21, Lane was our pick for Best Female Vocalist for 2018.
Aside from this personal recognition, Rosegarden Funeral Party, the band Lane leads, was nominated in four categories including Best Group Act, Best New Act and Best Music Video for their first video, “Blitzkrieg in Holland,” directed by Erin Shea Devany of All Hallows Productions, who has directed all the band’s music videos.
2017-2018 has been quite the year for Lane and her band — one deserving of all the praise this new group has received.
The band has risen to prominence in the DFW music scene and is recognized as a band to watch by anyone who knows anything about North Texas music.
Lane took the helm as lead singer and lead guitarist after the band shed its original guitarist last December, and she has not let her guitar duties distract her from delivering her incredible vocals or her captivating performance.
Lane possess a standout voice that's smoky and soulful, dark and brooding, but most important, beautiful and brutal.
Lane can send audiences soaring on softer tracks like “Seeing You Here and Now” and send chills down their spines with songs like “Horror Music” — both on the band’s first EP, The Chopping Block, released in April.
Lane’s voice is distinctive enough that comparing her with other singers is hard, but names like Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde and Patti Smith certainly come to mind.
Lane and Rosegarden Funeral Party have gained the attention of national acts after touring the country with ManifestiV, participating in a short southern tour with Starbenders and opening for punk legends The Dead Milkmen.
For all the accolades Lane and her band have received in such a short time and at such a young age, she remains incredibly humble and deeply grateful for every opportunity given and every fan made.
"There are nights I stay awake for hours staring at the ceiling, thanking the universe for all of the people I have had the privilege of meeting, knowing and sharing music with this year," Lane says. David Fletcher
The announcement of Sessions signing to Def Jam in February was historic for Dallas hip-hop and proved to be a sign of things to come as several artists inked deals with major labels. The addition of Sessions was one of the first major roster decisions made by noted music exec Paul Rosenberg, who had recently taken the reins of Def Jam as CEO.
Sessions' rollout as a Def Jam artist didn’t depart from the game plan that helped him get there. The marketing scheme achieved balance, which is easy in theory yet difficult to execute. 2018 yielded a measured string of music releases, including RVLTN Chapter 1: The Divided States of AmeriKKKa, The Hate U Give title track from the motion picture and RVLTN Chapter II: The Art of Resistance, the sum of which allowed Sessions to achieve consistency without overexposure.
There was a calculated number of live performances and press availability that provided the rest of the world a chance to become familiar with Sessions but not so much as to damage his somewhat enigmatic, stoic persona. Despite how bright the lights became for Sessions in 2018, he remained true to the ideals of manifestation and activism, which are the foundation upon which he’s built his solo career.
"Working with a major label has been a great experience for me," Sessions says. "It's a larger network of people helping to take your career to the next level. I was fully prepared for this transition. Getting signed to Def Jam Records is the equivalent of being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. This is where the real work begins."
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Sessions says while he hasn't felt overwhelmed yet by his increased fame, he plans to become even more known next year.
"Expansion is the focus for 2019," he says. "Hitting the road and making my presence felt in different markets. I want to show the whole world that I’m a top-tier emcee."
Expanding goes literal, as he says he plans to head overseas next year and grow a following in foreign markets.
Says Sessions, "Five years from now Bobby Sessions will be universally recognized as one of the greatest emcees of all time." Roderick Pullum