Hot Sounds in the City

The 5th Annual Houston Press Music Awards

When you launch into a rpoject like a music awards, issues that have been lying disconnected throughout the course of the year come to the fore. In the process of celebrating and recognizing the musical life of the city, you find yourself in need of a coming-to-terms with just exactly what it is that's being recognized and celebrated.

"Scene" is probably the buzzing-est of the buzzwords that get tossed around in the music press, and the one that has the least application here. Whose scene are you talking about? Is it the indie rock scene that continues to flail about inside the Loop? Or is it the clique of jazzers hanging on by their talented fingernails? Is it the cover band crowd out on Richmond? Or is it the middle-of-the-road pop acts that, sooner or later, end up in commercial-friendly Austin?

According to the feel-good words promiscuously bandied about in these "scene" discussions, what the scene needs most is community and support. Support from club owners willing to take a risk with a new act. Support from other musicians willing to check out the new stuff and pass the word through the all-powerful grapevine. Support from local labels who are willing to do the hard work of development without leaving a bad taste for the bidness in a young musician's mouth.

Most of all, of course, the scene needs support from an audience. It's got to be an audience with an adventurous spirit, willing to brave the geographical barriers of Houston to seek out sound. It really should be an audience that doesn't refuse to recognize that the largest independent rap and R&B label in the South (Rap-a-Lot) is right here in Houston. It should be an audience that notices that Houston's got a truckload of stylistic diversity -- it's not a rock city, it's not a blues city, it's not a rap city, it's not a jazz city, it's not a country city and it's not a folk city. It's all those things on any given night in any given corner, and it's more often than not worth checking out. And that's what the Houston Press Music Awards set out to recognize and celebrate. -- Brad Tyer

Stories on following pages by Brad Tyer, Jim Sherman, Edith Sorenson and Chris Smith.

Best Country and Western -- Sisters Morales
Song of the Year -- "Teardrops" by Lisa Morales
Blame it on the Osmonds. Family acts come with a built-in prejudice: long on cute, short on talent. But the Sisters Morales, the winners of this year's Best Country and Western Act and Song of the Year awards, have spent years building a reputation for originality and talent -- and, occasionally, someone will notice that Lisa and Roberta are also quite attractive. Craig Jones, editor of a Montgomery County entertainment guide, raves about the sisters, who have been performing together for five years and playing together all their lives. "They're great. They have a little 3-piece band [David Spenser on lead guitar and triple-neck steel, Rick Richards on drums and Roger Castle on bass] that is as tight as a drum. They have it all."

Like many performers with a wide range of influences and a mostly original songbag, the Sisters Morales are hard to categorize. Lisa explains their classification in the country category by saying, "Nobody ever knows where to put us, and since country's changed so much, everybody figures we fit better there than anywhere else. Once you get through experimenting, you wind up where you're from."

It's a broad base to return to -- a father's enthusiasm for Johnny Cash, an older brother who was playing Beatles covers when the sisters were preschoolers, a grandmother who played classical piano, a family that sat around the table and sang traditional Mexican songs. Country definitely fits Song of the Year "Teardrops," a broken-heart love ballad that immediately brings to mind Patsy Cline. Lisa describes the song she wrote as being "about breaking up with somebody, all the pain, sadness and anger."

There's talk of a new CD to supplement the Sisters Morales cassette, and a tour of Europe is a possibility later this year. The songs the sisters have written are constantly being polished; many, such as Lisa's "I'm Coming Home for Christmas," exist in both English and Spanish versions. And while the big breaks are still in the wings, fans across Houston responded to Lisa's simple declaration of "we like to work" by saying, "We like your work." (J.S.)

Best Rap/Hip-Hop -- Planet Shock!
Hispanic rock-rap hybridizers Planet Shock! shot out of relative obscurity last year with a one-two punch of appearances at the University of Houston's prestigious Perpetual Park Party and last year's Houston Press Music Awards showcase (this year's version of which you may have attended on Monday). Those high-visibility gigs, along with a locally televised interview on Channel 11, introduced a broad audience to music with broad appeal, and the combination has made for one of the quickest climbs up the scene ladder in recent memory.

Planet Shock!'s appeal lies in the melding of wall-of-sound power-chord guitar rock, hip-hop rhythms, live instrumentation, industrial sampling and positive-tip rap. It doesn't hurt that the band matches its cross-cultural musical acumen with a marketing effort the Flintstones would kill for. T-shirts, tapes, stickers, bracelets, necklaces... there's even preliminary talk of a band-driven marketing concept/peace philosophy called Herb Life. If rap's myriad permutations -- jazz rap, Jewish rap, Hispanic rap, white rap, Irish rap -- are no longer much of a surprise on the contemporary music scene, Planet Shock!'s rock-rap meltdown might just get its shot at a day in the sun by virtue of its lack of gimmick. Because when you take away the Hispanic identifiers and the "tasty-blend-of-blah-blah" metaphors, Shock!'s music is still there, heavy as a brick and outfitted for dancing. (B.T.)

Best Alternative Rock -- Dive
If the city's close-in musical infrastructure is crumbling and leaving the up-and-coming scene to the suburbs, then Katy -- boasting a host of rising young guitar bands -- is the 'burb with the mostest, and Dive is king of the hill. A front-runner for last year's "Best New Band" category, Dive leapfrogs this year to "Best Alternative Rock" on the strength of the strong Exhibit A CD release, frontman Eddie Dickey's charismatic stage prowl and the band's inventive, precision-tight take on modern guitar rock.

Dive's not terribly "alternative" in the traditional sense of the word (the tunes on Exhibit A don't put much distance between themselves and commercial radio playability), but its members are young, and that's good enough for alternative today. And never mind the categories anyhow, especially when, in the course of a few short years, you've gone from a garage band with just a few too many grunge records in the collection to a real live gigging unit with a distinct sound and, alongside metal perennials dead horse, Houston's largest rock draw. (B.T.)

Best Latin -- Sol y Luna
Sol y Luna is on a mission -- the band means to bring rock-espanol to the rock forefront. Some of the players, although they and their fans may not recognize this, have already made rock-espanol a major movement for party-band fans. Alan Acosta, David Acosta, Adolfo Postel, Lanny Vaughan, Javier Zenteno and Ryck Ramirez honed their talents with bands such as Joe King, Little Joe y La Familia and Norma Zenteno, and no one dances in Texas without knowing something about one of those acts.

Sol y Luna is rock. They've got a Gibson guitar, a Stratocaster and a Fender bass. For Latino flavor, they've got Spanish guitars and conga drums. Song writing brothers David and Alan have a romantic, serious Latin tone in their lyrics, too. "De Una Mujer," a tribute to Frida Kahlo, seems topical beyond the realm of Latin culture, and "Paz y Amor" has a hippy flavor typical in a lot of rock-and-roll, but "Americano," a wake-up call for America to rediscover its lost greatness, has an unashamed patriotism that only a country singer would voice in English.

Sol y Luna, then, has traditional values -- including silk tour jackets, the ultimate expression of classic rock. They've also got a forthcoming eponymous CD, and your vote. (E.S.)

Best New Act -- The Hadden Sayers Band
Cowboy yodeler Don Walser's got a lovely tune called "Sidemen" that's all about the plight of the poor second stringers, forced to play backup for the frontman night after night, contributing to the glory, but never reeling it in themselves. That's more or less true, except when the sideman in question has frontline ambitions and strikes out in pursuit of fame and fortune on his own terms. Hadden Sayers, a.k.a. Had Binion, is traveling just that path, after gaining critical but rarely public recognition as a bluesy guitar slinger extraordinaire with Miss Molly's Whips.

The band Sayers assembled earlier this year to bear his name includes acoustic guitarist Barbara Donaho, bassist Charlie Knight and drummer John Hamilton, and they lay a groovy, Southern-rocking bed for Sayers' solo excursions and soulful vocals. When the Sayers Band's four-song demo was released, it suggested a feet-on-the-ground version of Austin's Arc Angels. But at a show some months later, you could tell by the flashy pose and the new emphasis on extended jam solos that Sayers was loosening up and shooting for something just on the far-out side of meat-and-potatoes guitar rock -- a direction that should be well-reflected on an 11-song CD scheduled for release in early October. "It's not so much that I want to do the Stevie Ray Vaughan thing," Sayers has said, "but more like John Mellencamp, if he could play the shit out of the guitar." (B.T.)

Best Act That Doesn't Fit a Category -- Feo y Loco
A while back, Headquarters soundman Tom Powell was comparing the local acts he's run the board for to the national acts that obviously influenced them. When talk turned to Feo y Loco, he said "Oh yeah, those guys are good. They're a lot of fun." Yeah, but who do they sound like? "Nobody, really," he answered. "Feo y Loco is way different. I don't even know what kind of music you would call it."

That, of course, is why there's the "Doesn't Fit a Category" category. There's no pigeonhole that Feo y Loco even comes close to fitting in. Still, that doesn't keep them from frequent appearances at clubs all over town. And the steady, enthusiastic fan base the band has built during its short life shows there's an obvious need for groups whose originality has overwhelmed their influences. Like the name says, they really are wild and crazy. If you haven't caught them yet, they're not hard to find. Just don't drive yourself crazy trying to figure out who they remind you of. (J.S.)

Best Metal/Hard Rock -- dead horse
Greg Martin (vocals/guitar), Michael Haaga (vocals/guitar), Robbie Guyote (drums) and Allen Price (bass) have been plugging away as dead horse for seven years, springing from Pasadena, Texas to perform with the likes -- and at the invitation -- of such global heavies as Pantera and Sepultura. They've also established a North American presence that covers the better part of the land mass. Along the way, they've created a line of merchandising nearly as omnipresent as that of Motsrhead. And they've done all this as an unsigned act.

Following the band's headlining date at this year's Press Music Awards, dead horse headed out on its first national tour in a year and a half. The roadshow may well see new material debuted. "We've been in writing mode again, for the first time in a while, and it feels good," explains Price. "We put the last demo [Feed Me] out just so the fans would have something to listen to, but those songs will probably be redone for the album."

Not just an album, but, the band hopes, a major label/large indie release. Having already declined a development deal with Interscope, dead horse is, according to Price, simply "deciding whether to take one of the deals currently out there or wait for something better." (C.S.)

Best Rock/Pop -- Trish and Darin
Trish and Darin. It's hard to imagine a more innocuous band name, but it's the handle of one of the most consistent live draws in Houston's music hierarchy -- and of a band scattered all over this year's Music Awards ballot, reining in nominations for Album of the Year (Tongue in Groove), Song of the Year ("Crimes of a Misspent Youth") and Producer of the Year (Bruce Coffman for Tongue in Groove).

Darin Murphy recently took a moment to talk about Tongue in Groove and the general goings-on of the four-piece outfit named after him and his sister Trish. "It's a record that we're pretty happy with," Darin says. "It much better represents the state of our band than our first one, which is a real good step for us because we've been trying to outlive this sort of folk/novelty reputation we've had for quite a while. That's been our Achilles' heel."

Part of Trish and Darin's increased following can be credited to the inclusion of "Sentimental Jerk," a cut from Tongue and Groove, on The Edge 94.5 FM's annual Tales from the Edge regional compilation. Darin is honored by the inclusion and hopes it's a portent of things to come. "We're definitely going for more of a solid rock approach, but it's always been very honest and straightforward," he says. "The music has gotten a lot more sophisticated lyrically, but it's always been real hook oriented, and there's always a sense of humor."

All qualities that strike a chord with readers, who voted Trish and Darin Best Rock/Pop Band for the second year running. (C.S.)

Best Blues; Best Funk/R&B;
Best Female Vocalist -- Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys
Regulars at Blythe Spirits in the late 1980's were understandably curious about the quiet little girl with the neon-red Big Texas Hair. She seemed like a nice kid, bashful as hell, but she was obviously way too young to be hanging out in a bar all the time. But if there was live music playing, she'd be upstairs, sipping a glass of water and studying every note with the obsessiveness of an overachiever cramming for the GSAT.

Nowadays, Carolyn Wonderland is old enough (though just barely) to order a drink if she wants one. And while Carolyn still listens as close as ever to whoever's on stage, her own throaty growls and drawn-out wails garner the same intense scrutiny she once gave to the bar-band parade. Much of her shyness has been replaced by self-deprecating confidence. In spite of having repeatedly headlined most of the major blues venues in Texas, her reaction to this year's Houston Press Music Awards is easy to predict. Ask her about being considered the Best Female Vocalist in Houston and she'll rave about Trudy Lynn and Lavelle White. Best Blues Act? Get ready for some serious praise for Joe Hughes and Big Walter "The Thunderbird" Price. And as for the Imperial Monkeys being the Best Funk/R&B Act, well, she'll say she's lucky to be part of a really good band, but there's a lot to be said for her friends in Beat Temple and Global Village.

On-stage it's easy to see why Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys made such a march to the sea. Chris King, Eric Dane and Erik Kolflat take rhythm and blues and rock-and-roll to a level that passed the bar-band average long ago. And when the little girl with the outrageous 'do -- hot pink and hippie-straight these days -- puts down her pink Strat and takes the microphone in a two-handed choke, it's obvious that this year's passel of Music Awards is just three more steps on a long stairway that's going nowhere but up. (J.S.)

Best Folk/Acoustic; Best Songwriters -- Shake Russell and Jack Saunders
Best Male Vocalist -- Shake Russell
Album of the Year -- The Thrill of Love: Shake Russell, Jack Saunders and Dana Cooper

The current vogue for '70s flashbacks celebrating disco and KISS and worse overlooks a crucial part of the Houston music scene. Two decades back, when cops stopped you for having the KLOL/101 Runaway Radio sticker on your bumper (or so rumor had it), Shake Russell and Dana Cooper played their songs at Anderson Fair. The seamless harmonies of Shake and Dana hit a unique note of nostalgia for anyone inside the Loop in the '70s, but that's not the end-all of their career. Dana Cooper played solo in those same folk venues, and then came Shake Russell and Jack Sanders as a duo, and now, with the three sweeping the folk/acoustic categories and more, it's high time to think of them as a trio.

This is truly folk music, and the folks aren't so much dirt farmers or migrant workers as the sons and daughters of dirt farmers and migrant workers who now live in the city and remember their grandparents and love listening to sweet guitars in smoky clubs. (E.S.)

Best Jazz -- Paul English
It's been an interesting year for jazz in Houston, what with Cezanne's reformatting as a subscription-based venue, and the opening of a raft of new clubs catering to the largely starved jazz crowd. Sebastian Whittaker and Dave Catney released new albums, the TestosterTones flared into mainstream consciousness and Necessary Tension continued plugging away on Thursday nights at Rudyard's.

But the biggest jazz event of the year, hands down, had to be local pianist/composer Paul English's soiree for the release of his Beauty on his own Capstone label. For the album, English recruited Yellowjackets drummer William Kennedy, Chick Corea bassist John Patitucci and homeboy-made-good Kirk Whalum on saxophone. Not only did English round up the big boys for the album, but he brought them all to town for a well-heeled concert/release party that inaugurated Rice University's Stude Concert Hall in high style.

Beauty turned out to be a quiet, subtle reading of mostly ballads that English had written over the course of almost 20 years in Houston, and it's still selling like hotcakes for a local release. Beauty, English promised, was only the first of three English releases planned for Capstone. The man is presently holed up in a Houston area studio, so more is on the way. But for now, it seems all this town needed to vote English yet another "Best Jazz" award was one long-time-coming CD, a handful of local engagements and a party that brought the jazz world's attention home to Houston. (B.T.)

Best Traditional/Ethnic -- The Gypsies
Rather more established than the name suggests, The Gypsies have been entertaining in and around Houston for 20 years. This "polyethnic" band, led by founding members Greg and Mary Ann Harbar, is a sort of living library of ethnic music. The ensemble has mastered instruments such as balalaikas, bouzouki and a wide variety of unusual horns and percussion instruments, and the Gypsies' repertoire is even more diverse. Having a party for Motown fans and friends who have to dance the Schottische? Call the Gypsies. In a certain sense, Harbar and company are real gypsies; no ethnic music or audience can lay exclusive claim to them. Sure, hours of careful study go into finding and learning much of the rare ethnic music they play, but what the Gypsies do best transcends scholarship. The Harbars are currently roving with hardworking musicians Mike Mizma, Janice Rubin, Kelly Lancaster, Barry Roberts, Pamela Bingham, Daryl Bayer, Ken Cluck and Martin Lagnford -- a group with almost nothing ethnic in common. What they do together is bring to life the joy of the people who created the music. (E.S.)

Best Guitarist -- Joe "Guitar" Hughes
When you talk Texas blues, you're talking Third Ward. And when you're talking Third Ward, you're talking Joe "Guitar" Hughes, who played the Eldorado Ballroom years before most of the people reading this were born. Joe Hughes is an authentic Third Ward bluesman right down to the last dirty detail. He plays to crowds of thousands in Europe while playing to mere dozens at home. He's never had a hit record, but he's been bootlegged from here to Singapore. And he's got hours of stories about performers who were friends of his and legends to us mere mortals. In recent years it's started to look like Hughes might be the first man to prove by example that you can live in Houston and still make a go of it in the blues business. Hughes played on both of Johnny Copeland's recent Polygram CDs -- fitting, since the two played together at Shady's 40 years ago -- and this is his second consecutive Best Guitarist award. Hughes doesn't just open Juneteenth or festivals in Europe any more, he headlines those gigs. And finally, his albums are getting airplay -- in Europe, anyway, where they're recorded and manufactured. But in Houston, for now, Hughes continues, unjustly, as one of the city's best kept blues secrets. (J.S.)

Best Avant-Garde/Experimental -- Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds
Equal parts mass-consumption performance art, one-man soapbox, and mayhemic musicianship, Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds have been quirking for Houstonians for over nine years now. Beans himself has been here since 1957 -- "Since before the bayous were paved. I watched them do it!" -- and he's only too happy to tell you about it. Or anything else, for that matter. The Bi-Peds have been noticeably absent for a while, but now, says Beans, "we're back in band mode."

So just what makes this Beans thing "experimental" per se? "Well," says the man, "it's quite a show. We do rock-and-roll. I wear about eight different suits -- all at once -- and peel them down one at a time during the songs. I've got a fine band. It's the best band I've ever had. And I paint a picture every time we do a show, so it's performance art. I've got my own personal light guy, he holds lights in his hand and dances around me. It's all very theatrical. It's rock-and-role, R-O-L-E." (C.S.)

Best Tejano -- La Mafia
Much like many local blues artists, hometown boys La Mafia are better known internationally than they are here in their own backyard, but that's not likely bothering anyone in the La Mafia organization. With the April release of Vida on the group's CDI label, and 1994 Billboard Latin Music Awards for Regional/ Mexican Song ("Me Estoy Enamorando"), Hot Latin Track of the Year ("Me Estoy Enamorando") and Regional/Mexican Album (Ahora y Siempre), the band is garnering all the recognition, and sales, anyone could possibly need.

La Mafia made its rep by bringing modern pop showbiz and electronic instruments into the world of traditional Tejano music, and in the process became one of the first truly international Tejano bands, with large followings in the U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico. With its own studio near Houston, its own record label distributed by Sony, and a fan base that crosses geographic and ethnic lines, La Mafia should justly have been nominated in the "Best National Act" category, but you take your honors where you find them. (B.T.)

Local Musician of the Year -- Chris King
"Local Musician of the Year" is a new category for the Press Music Awards this year, and one more way to recognize a local artist who's made contributions above and beyond the call of duty. Any one of the nominees on this year's ballot was easily qualified for the honor, but when vote came to vote, readers chose Chris King, a 23-year-old musician most widely known as bass player for Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys.

While King's an undeniably talented bassist, it's more likely his presence at a focal point in the local music constellation that's earned him the recognition of his peers. While too many local musicians were bickering over trivia of style and power, King set about organizing one of local music's most fondly remembered assemblages -- a working conglomeration of disparate musicians King had the humor to tag Bloodfart. So what if the band played an inspired-to-obnoxious range of '80s rock chestnuts that could make you dance until your stomach turned? The point was the sloppy energy of the variable-member band. Bloodfart bled a come-together sort of vibe, and Chris King had a big hand in making it happen. For that, for his contributions to the Imperial Monkeys, and for a continuing trooper's show of support for local music, Press readers named Chris King Local Musician of the Year. (B.T.)

Best Classical Ensemble -- Allegro String Quartet
Founder Mike Dudley, who has a day job with the Houston Grand Opera, put together the Allegro String Quartet after finding his extracurricular engagements booked with unprofessional musicians. The cellist moans, "I got tired of agents putting me with people who couldn't play, or got lost, or didn't know their job." For five years, the Allegro String Quartet has maintained its standards of quality, says Dudley, "everywhere in town -- high-end parties, celebrity events. We can play everything from Bartók to Bach to Whitney Houston. We have pop arrangements in our books and we do whatever anyone wants." Speaking of first violin Denise Couch, second violin John Kramer and violist Katherine Jelson, Dudley says, "We share the same attitude about professionalism. Music is a business, not something you do entirely because you love it." He feels the quartet's belief is that, "You can love it and get paid to play it, which is a novel concept in this town."

The quartet is about to record and release two CDs. "We won't get rich off these," Dudley suspects, "but we have a demand in our client base for recordings." People are always asking the Allegro String Quartet for more, but the players' schedules keep them too busy for many concert performances. This demand for their music, Dudley points out, is "a perfect example of how the economy should work -- provide quality, and the customers want more." (E.S.)

Best Reggae/World-Beat -- Ethnic Rain
Latin blues, La Nueva Cancion and bouncy rhythms on the charango, zampona and bomb all fit neatly into Ethnic Rain's world beat oeuvre. The music has a good beat and it's easy to dance to, but Ethnic Rain is as likely to play a benefit as a club. The line-up includes a law student (Tanya Urquieta, guitar, keyboards, vocals) and a Catholic Charities caseworker (Kimberly Sue Shelton, vocals), so the group doesn't just talk the talk about good works and trendy issues. Their performance at the Houston Hispanic Forum Career & Education Day earned a glowing review -- in the Houston Peace News. Ethnic Rain's music got good marks, but the story was about the group's activism.

Don't get the wrong idea -- Ethnic Rain is an entertaining band, known to many for their fine shows at pure-partying celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo and the Houston International Festival. Ethnic Rain is also on its way to the studio. The band will be laying down tracks at Sugar Hill in August for a forthcoming CD and cassette. (E.S.)

Best Cajun/Zydeco -- Pierre and
the Zydeco Dots
Everyone with a washboard shirt is trying to lay claim to the crown, but there is no king of zydeco since Clifton Chenier passed on. We're not saying Pierre is heir apparent, but we will note that he's been sunk deep in the frittoir genre for quite a spell.

It doesn't seem possible at this late date that anyone could not know what zydeco is: not only is the Cajun music about as all-American as pizza at this point, but those of us who grew up along the Sabine, on either side, were raised on the stuff. You get your Cajun, Old French, African-American and Caribbean people all in a mix, wait till WW II, and then add country and bluegrass and laissez les bons temps rouler.

Pierre and the Zydeco Dots play smoky barrooms, tin halls, ugly dives and church socials where red beans and rice are served in the parish kitchen. Pierre and the Zydeco Dots even play Funday in the Park. It's a busy band, has been for years, and the dance floor, even when they play outdoors, is always crowded. (E.S.)

Best Industrial/Dance -- The Hunger
The pride of Clear Lake, The Hunger are good dance-band boys with actual radio airplay -- on the KLOL Texas Music show and in Europe. The band's trip into the heady realm of the mainstream hasn't quite gotten to the point of having a video hit on MTV, though, so TV viewers have yet to be subjected to shocking-yellow scenes, on painstakingly scratched and faded film, of Hunger brothers Thomas and Jeff Wilson hissing and spinning, their appearances punctuated with images of freaks and pork and unnatural machinery. Not yet, anyway.

Although industrial-oriented venues are shutting down at an alarming rate, The Hunger is an ambitious band -- in that sense, at least, they really are hard-core. Their last CD, Grip, was released on their own label, Gut Records, and they're taking care not to take day jobs that might interfere with a music career. They play dance music with a traditional pulsing disco bass, Bad Company covers (which carry more elan than most folks can get away with) and anything else to get gigs in clubs full of sweaty, writhing bodies. The Hunger has already weathered record deals that would squash a less determined band, and they're still out clubbing, so stay tuned. (E.S.)

Best Piano/Keyboards -- Ezra Charles
The Paul Schafer of Houston, the inventor of the Helpinstill piano pickup and the man who watched from the wings in horror last summer as his prize piano bench was smashed on the Black Forest stage by Jerry Lee Lewis, Ezra Charles has made his mark on Houston many times, and in many ways, over the course of a long career.

Charles, a perpetual Music Awards front-runner, stepped into the limelight yet again this past year when he landed the gig as halftime entertainment at Rockets home games. While other cities were amusing themselves with yet another lame round of Whoomp! There it is!, Charles was dosing the Houston crowd with Gulf Coast boogie-woogie.

Charles, along with new drummer Tim Root and new guitarist Joe Gavito, recently began recording new material. "The sound of the band," Charles reports, "has gone back to what it was two years ago, only at a higher level." As for any album that might materialize from the recording sessions, well, says Charles, "What I do is, we'll record a song, and then I send it out to everybody to see if they like it. In a worst-case scenario, we'll end up putting out an album, but in the best-case scenario, the songs will generate enough interest that someone else gets interested in putting it out." (B.T.)

Best Horn/Horn Section -- Global Village
Longtime funk fave Global Village may have been knocked out of its funk roost by Carolyn Wonderland's sweep through the awards, but you can't keep a funky band down, so Global Village surfaces here in the Best Horn Section slot.

The horns in question are played by Keith Van Horn (trumpet), Roger Igo (saxophone), Marty Martinez (trombone and flute) and Trey Smith (bari sax). Alongside the rest of the band, the Village horns have been seen gigging regularly at Yaga's and The Pig "Live," and making appearances at almost any event in town with a "Festival" tagged onto its name -- including the 1994 Freedom Fest, where the Global boys got a rare opportunity to open for Confederate Railroad, Cheap Trick and R.E.O. Speedwagon.

Global Village changed drummers this year, acquiring former Bonedaddy and Killer Bee Brian Sebastian, but the band never broke stride. Global Village landed a promotional contract with Bud Dry, and between shows in Austin and Corpus Christi, manages to continue work on an as-yet-untitled CD. In the meantime, the band, and its horns, remains one of Houston's top dance draws. (B.T.)

Best Live Lighting Design -- Goat's Head Soup
Every reader's poll worth its salt has to have a joke vote, and it's tempting to read this result as just that (yeah, man, you could see the sparks from a mile away. It was friggin' awesome...). But even if the short, sweet life of the lower Westheimer club will probably be remembered more for a clownishly botched job of apparent arson than for the way the tiny venue picked up the slack left over from the reformatting of the Vatican and Emo's, that shouldn't take away from the sweaty magic generated in the old house on a good night.

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.)

Best Record Store -- Cactus
Pre-boom, post-bust and into the next century it seems, the Daily family's Cactus music store sits at the corner of Alabama and Shepherd. In the early days, Cactus sold albums and 8-track tapes and copies of Creem. Some of the store's bags and ads still sport a very '70s Peter Max meets Viva Terlingua fat cactus logo, but CD bins are in, video tapes are rented and the health food store is now on the other side. Some things, though, haven't changed. Cactus continues to support music fans and local musicians. The latest addition to this ever-changing store is a small stage for in-store performances. Jimmy Dale Gilmore has warbled his latest from the stage and customers have enjoyed free shows from the Silos, Tab Benoit, Billy Joe Shaver and son Eddie, Rosie Flores and Lavelle White. When there aren't live performers, you can sample tunes at the CD listening bar or play them for the whole store on a free jukebox. (E.S.)

Best Homegrown National Act -- ZZ Top
Across the nation, when the average rock fan thinks of Houston, Texas, he thinks of two beards and a drummer (technically a Beard as well) laying down a gritty, three-piece blues shuffle. The groove is unmistakable, and ranks among the most instantly identifiable sounds in contemporary music.

Dusty Hill (bass) and Frank Beard (drums) make up the trio's remaining two-thirds, the former exuding undiluted Texas bonhomie while the latter would just as soon drum and race cars as do anything else. Gibbons himself, meanwhile, is the high plains guitar slinger personified, speaking in detached semi-mysticisms that mirror the finer moments of his 20-plus years of Top guitaring.

The Top are expected in Houston later this year, where the hometown folks will experience what is still, without a doubt, Houston's biggest musical export. (C.S.)

Lightnin' Hopkins
Lifetime Achievement Award -- Albert Collins
Nowadays, young blues guitarists endure a requisite phase of Stevie Ray Vaughan mimicry, but 40 years ago the man who served as hero to dozens of young bluesmen was Texas guitar legend T-Bone Walker. Albert Collins studied Walker's style with the obsessive dedication he became known for and, for a while, learned it all too well.

While Albert Collins was still living upstairs from a Third Ward barbershop, black entrepreneur Don Robey had a hammerlock on the Houston blues scene. After a few years of gigging around Houston, jamming continually with a host of Third Ward apprentice gunslingers such as Johnny Copeland, Joe Hughes, Sonny Rhodes and Little Joe Washington, Collins auditioned for Robey. Robey declined to record Collins, and his reasons laid the foundation beneath Collins' later and greater incarnation as the "Iceman." Houstonian Bobby McLaine, who played bass behind Collins in the early 1960s, remembers it this way: "Albert went over to the studio on Arista, Duke Records, and they told him, 'We don't need another T-Bone Walker. You need to establish your own sound.'"

When Albert Collins decided to take advice, he took it all the way. According to McLaine, "Albert started doing his own thing. He tuned his guitar different, played with a capo, didn't use a pick, and he had these special strings he liked to use. Albert would choke those strings so tight... to this day I don't know why he didn't cut his fingers to the bone."

Since the death of Albert Collins last November 23rd, hundreds of articles, obituaries, poems and biographies have mourned his passing and praised his legacy. Friends both close and casual have choked up as they remembered the genial man who gave them advice, encouragement, jobs and enjoyment. Volumes have been written about the man who went from Walter's on Lockwood and Leroy's Grill on Scott to the Fillmore and Carnegie Hall, and did it all without ever learning the unofficial industry rule that a world-class musician and a hell of a nice guy are mutually exclusive characters.

You can read about Albert Collins for days, or you can turn the stereo up loud and listen to the first notes of "The Freeze," "Black Cat Bone" or a dozen other songs, and you'll know in your soul what all those articles were really trying to get at, and why he deserves this year's Lifetime Achievement Award. (

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