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Flash back a couple of days to Sparrows' set at Liquid Lounge the Friday night before, or Saturday morning, if you wanna get technical. Leading the band through a set of songs from Rock and Roll Days, as well as some new ones the group plans to lay down with Paul Williams at Last Beat in a few months, Albrecht proved that he might be Dallas' one true rock star. No matter that Sparrows (which includes Ward Williams on slide guitar and pedal steel, bassist Dave Monsey, guitarist Danny Baylis and drummer Brent Cole) are still playing the small rooms instead of the big stadiums, or that Albrecht is too nice, too humble and too talented to be relegated to that kind of corrupt celebrity. He certainly looks like one, though, tall and skinny as a stop sign and charismatic as a con man. And he sounds like one on Rock and Roll Days. True to the title, the disc is rock and roll all over, but it's also soulful in spirit and singer-songwriter-smart in sentiment. Albrecht writes lyrics that can trace the history of the world from Adam and Eve to Avril Lavigne ("Rockinrocknroll": "Then there came a man/And then there was a girl/A murder, a flood, a virgin, a martyr, a Hitler, a Jagger/A radio") or reduce the history of a relationship to one fuck-you couplet ("Placebo": "And all I wanted was all you are/And all I got was all you are").

Flash back an hour or so from Sparrows' set that night and you'll see why Albrecht takes home Musician of the Year: He's just as happy playing sideman as he is standing in the spotlight. Playing guitar and piano and organ for Sorta, he blended into the background, chaining smokes and changing instruments, often in the same song. Sorta singer-guitarist Trey Johnson did more than keep center stage warm for Albrecht, showing off the voice that wins here for Male Vocalist. The pig-tailed Johnson has a set of pipes as comfortable in a caterwaul ("Boobjob") as a croon ("Look Like a Fool"), and sometimes both ("Chinese Feet"). Johnson's vocals are one of the highlights on Sorta's full-length debut, last year's Laugh Out Loud, and even more of a draw on the newer More Myth EP, as low-key and intimate as a good first date. The band (Johnson and Albrecht are joined by drummer Trey Carmichael and Baylis on bass, as well as Williams on pedal steel) is set to follow up those discs later this year, recording a new full-length with Paul Williams at Last Beat, around the same time as Sparrows. Maybe the bands should just release them together as a double-disc set; Sorta Sparrows kinda has a ring to it. --Z.C.

Darla Oates
Winner for: Female Vocalist
Maybe it's too common a comparison, but what the hell: Darla Oates is a living female version of Jeff Buckley, trilling and thrilling with a range so unencumbered it recalls the dramatic vocals of the late singer, with maybe a little Yma Sumac thrown in. Her genre is, well, there isn't just one; bluesy at times, ethereal and folky at others, she's always charismatic, which isn't really its own genre, but maybe it should be. Once a solo artist, Oates pretty much stuck to Mondays at Muddy Waters and a night here and there at The Cavern and a few other clubs, but now that she's got a full backing band, the gigs are more frequent and the venues bigger. It's doubtful, though, that even the expanse that is Gypsy Tea Room could contain her full-throttle dynamics. Oates' style revolves around her voice, as it would and should with any singer, but not every singer has the knack to write songs that harness her raw skill and still let it dip and dive into show-off runs now and again. Regular audience members have called her a virtuoso, and the general opinion agrees in spite of the varied crowd Oates usually draws. Maybe her choice selection of covers was the initial enticement (just listen to her version of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes"), but Oates has proven herself as a truly original artist. And a truly original voice. --Merritt Martin

Jack Ingram
Winner for: Country
He could have been a contender and still is, go figure; how did Sony miss with Jack Ingram, anyway? Maybe at that label, you have to sue to be saved, especially on the country side of life. Consider: He's the literate songwriter with movie-star good looks, a city boy who crossed over to the country crowd long before it found its longneck saviors at the bottom of a cracker barrel, but he's so barely on Sony these days you're closer to being signed if you belong to the Columbia House Music Club. (The label released his new EP Extra Volts, and by released I mean they gave him copies to send out to press and sell at shows.) No mystery why the label treats Ingram like a rumor: He's a tough sell, because unlike his frat-house-dance-hall peers, Ingram believes you gotta work for the good time, that the party at the end of the week has to mean something other than the hangover forthcoming.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain
Jeff Liles
Merritt Martin
Contact: Merritt Martin
Shannon Sutlief
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky
Mikael Wood

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