Hot Sounds in the City

The 5th Annual Houston Press Music Awards

Part of that magic lay in squashing crowds into a space that would barely pass as a living room, but another part, certainly, was a result of the low-slung lighting rig chained to the dangerously low rafters; those searching beams could turn a moderately musical performance into a disorienting kaleidescope of fractured light. I'll always remember Goat's Head Soup most fondly as a threatening, jagged obstacle course for pit surfers flying too close to the artificial sun. (B.T.)

Best Live Sound -- Keith Christensen, Fitzgerald's
Inside the beat-up wooden walls of this venerable night club, Keith Christensen levels out the treble and makes each instrument audible and discernible. Each work night, he faces the daunting task of bringing each instrument up to audio snuff, without letting any get lost. And every night it's another kind of music with a different kind of crowd, changing the acoustic problems. Then there are variations in humidity and temperature -- always important variables in Houston -- screwing with the sound. Fitz has parametric equalizers and good amps and good mikes and a good mixing board, but the most important thing is a good man with good ears manning the 32 channels. "1,200 people can pass through that door," he says, "and every band brings out a different aspect of the room. The balls-out sound of Dive, Wishbone Bush, Bee Stung Lips, they all have to be done in a different way." It's a cool job, but he says he doesn't get any babes. That's the one drawback. Guys in bands get all the chicks. All Christensen gets is quiet pride in a job well done. (E.S.)

Best Recording Studio -- Sugar Hill
"Jesus was a boy when they built this place -- it's been here at least since the '50s." That's the word from Sugar Hill President Max Silva ("president in charge of everything" is his unofficial title), who bought the place from Huey P. Meaux eight years ago.

Under Silva, Sugar Hill is still a studio where nothing matters more than the ear of a good engineer. Though technology, at this point, makes most studios electronically equal, the skill of the man behind the board still matters. Chief Engineer Andrew Bradley oversees the operation, and engineers/producers Steve Lamphier and Harry Bartholomew are alway there to help musicians.

Sugar Hill's lobby is lined with gold records and artifacts from Freddy Fender, garage bands made good, gospel and zydeco artists -- all testimony to the diversity of musicians who've gotten a guiding hand there. (E.S.)

Producer of the Year -- Richard Cagle
Cagle gets the honors for Producer of the Year -- a new Music Awards category -- but producer is just one of the hats he wears, and his duties as manager for Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys and Dive, both award winners this year, might have as much to do with the honor as his actual production work.

Cagle produced four albums last year: the Imperial Monkeys' Truckstop Favorites Volume 2, Dive's Exhibit A, the Poppeacocks' Music Made by Crayons and one other that was never released and Cagle would rather not talk about. From his position with the Houston Music Council, Cagle coordinated last year's HMC Volume 1 sampler, and over the phone recently from New York, where he was accompanying the Monkeys at the New Music Seminar, he had this to say: "I'll tell you one thing. After seeing all the music up here, I guarantee you we've got something to appreciate in Houston." (B.T.)

Best Record Label -- Justice
If all perpetual repeat winner Justice had done this past year was match its own par for quality and distribution, Randall Jamail's label would likely still have pulled down the honors. But this was a year in which Justice stepped out of the regional haze and into the national spotlight with both feet.

When Jamail buddy Willie Nelson found himself out of a long-term deal with his Columbia label, Jamail made an offer Willie apparently couldn't refuse, and the result was Moonlight Becomes You, a lovely album that almost immediately became Justice's all-time best-selling release. Along the way, it carried the Justice name, previously best known in industry and jazz circles, into the rarefied public space of publications such as People. And not only did Justice score a coup with the Nelson release, but Jamail used the golden opportunity to introduce the Justice Soundboard, a novel bit of CD technology that has serious implications for audio liner notes, product plugs and the like. (B.T.)

Best Live Music Venue -- McGonigel's Mucky Duck
This year's Music Awards, unlike last year's, offered only one category for Best Live Music Venue, rather than breaking down the venues into stylistic pigeonholes. Frankly, since most local music venues book a relatively strict format, we didn't know quite what to expect in terms of reader response. What we got, though, reflected quite clearly on the eclecticism of booking at Rusty and Theresa Andrews' McGonigel's Mucky Duck.

Widely regarded as a folk venue, a low-key tavern in which to sit back and enjoy the Lisa Morales-hosted open-mike night, a set by local favorites such as Shake Russell and Jack Saunders or traveling bards with guitars such as Chris Smither and Christine Albert, the Duck also peddles in regional rockers from Alejandro Escovedo to Billy Joe Shaver to Shoulders. Add to that this past year's Celtic Music Festival and a steady stream of acoustic acts of the ethnic Best to non-classifiable variety, and you've got an undeniably broad range of music that's near to unequalled in its breadth. (B.T.)

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