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Sounds Like a Winner!

1996 Houston Press Music Awards

Houston music fans are nothing if not reliable. Year in and year out, they stick by their favorite local artists; for evidence, just take a gander at the names that have proven themselves hardy perennials in the Press Music Awards. It's hard not to be in awe of such unfettered loyalty -- though at times, we must admit, we wish that voters would glance beyond the acts they've grown to love. There are a lot of worthwhile musicians out there who labor in unfortunate obscurity merely because listeners are wary of anything new. And while we agree there's a certain comfort in consistency, getting out and experimenting every now and then can be fun, too. It only stings a little -- really.

None of that, however, is meant to diminish the considerable achievements of this year's Music Awards winners. They're consistently atop the Houston heap for a reason -- if not always for their trailblazing natures, then at least for their strong work ethic and proficiency on-stage. And as many of the multi-year victors would likely admit, knowing how to campaign and work a mailing list aids invaluably in the quest for votes.

Though the bulk of the 1996 honors went to the circuit's old guard, the up-and-comers weren't completely shut out. The race for best new band was a fairly close one, which implies that some Houstonians are indeed breaking free of routine to sample fresh talent. Also promising was the number of newer bands (four) that captured respectable chunks of the vote in this year's Best Rock/Pop category. Throughout the ballot categories -- from Best Folk/Acoustic to Best Rap/Hip-Hop to Local Musician of the Year -- new names not only popped up as write-ins, they vied for top honors.

Yet another hopeful sign was the impressive turnout at the July 28 Music Awards Showcase. Unhampered by last year's soggy weather, music lovers showed up by the thousands, packing clubs to see a wildly eclectic roster of 45 bands. (Where else in town but at the Press showcase could you witness the Afro-roots strains of Wazobia sandwiched between the metal thrash of Saddlebag and the raging vatobilly of the Flamin' Hellcats?) No doubt encouraged by a tight core of venues all within steps of one another in Shepherd Plaza, spectators this year were less inclined to plant their derrieres on a single barstool for the duration, and milling about between venues was constant throughout the evening. So revel in the results of your utmost participation; you've earned it.

(Profiles by Brad Tyer, Mitchell J. Shields, Hobart Rowland, Craig D. Lindsey, Greg Barr and Jim Sherman.)

And the winners are...

Best New Act
The Hollisters

Best Rock/Pop
Hadden Sayers

Best Metal/Hard Rock
Galactic Cowboys

Best Alternative/Non-Commercial
Jinkies

Best Cover Band
Toy Subs

Best Rap/Hip-Hop
Geto Boys

Best Blues
Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys

Best Funk/R&B
Global Village

Best Folk/Acoustic
Shake Russell/Jack Saunders

Best Jazz
Paul English

Best Traditional/Ethnic
The Gypsies

Best Tejano/Latin
La Mafia

Best C&W
The Hollisters

Best Reggae/World Beat
Beat Temple

Best Industrial
The Hunger

Best Cajun/Zydeco
Pierre and the Zydeco Dots

Best Classical Performer/Ensemble
Houston Symphony

Best Act That Doesn't Fit a Category
Flamin' Hellcats

Local Musician of the Year
Carolyn Wonderland

Best Male Vocalist
Mike Barfield (The Hollisters)

Best Female Vocalist
Miss Molly

Best Guitarist
Joe "Guitar" Hughes

Best Bassist
Chris King (Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys)

Best Drummer
Leesa Harrington (Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys)

Best Pianist/Keyboardist
Ezra Charles

Song of the Year (Local)
"No Really, I Can Drive," Carolyn Wonderland andthe Imperial Monkeys

Best Horn/Horn Section
Global Village

Songwriters of the Year
Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys

Release of the Year (Local)
Play with Matches
Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys

Best Local Label
Justice

Best CD/Record Store
Cactus Music & Video

Best Rock Venue
The Fabulous Satellite Lounge

Best Blues/R&B Venue
Big Easy

Best Jazz Venue
Cody's

Best Folk/C&W Venue
McGonigel's Mucky Duck

Best Latin Venue
Elvia's Cantina

Best Classical Performer/Ensemble
Houston Symphony

If you go by raw numbers, the Houston Symphony didn't just win its category, it won the whole shebang: it got more votes than any other group or individual on the Music Awards ballot. And they didn't even have to play the Press showcase to come out on top. (Though it might have been interesting to see the 98 players with their 62 strings, 16 woodwinds, 14 brass instruments, a quintet of kettle drums and a grand piano crowd into, say, the Rhino Room. Note for next year: you are more than welcome to join the other performers.)

Of course, we must admit to harboring a touch of skepticism when we saw the votes pile up. It's not that we suspected any ballot stuffing (we know who stuffed, and no, you did not win). It's just that we wondered if folks might have voted more out of obligation than appreciation, voted for an ensemble they thought they should have heard rather than one they had heard. If so, you folks were right: this is one group you should have heard lately (kids' concerts while you were in school don't count). If you haven't, march straight down to Jones Hall and get your ticket. They're not to be missed. World-class is one of those public relations phrases tossed around with way too much abandon, but under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach, world-class is exactly what the Houston Symphony has become. (M.J.S.)

Best tejano/latin
La Mafia

Last year, when the Latin and Tejano categories were combined, La Mafia, the 1994 Tejano winner, failed to place. But we knew it was only a matter of time before voters got around to remembering that a) La Mafia is a Houston act; b) they're hugely popular on a scale that dwarfs their competition; and c) they deserve some hometown applause.

It's been a particularly busy year in an active decade for La Mafia's godfather, Oscar De La Rosa, and his slicked-back gang of strapping banditos. The group fell together in 1980 with modest aspirations. But it wasn't long before word about La Mafia's Spanish-sung, Tex-Mex pop spread below the border, and the band began selling out venues all over Mexico. That success led to more widespread Hispanic appeal at home, and the hits started proliferating on both sides of the Rio Grande. By the late '80s, La Mafia had joined Selena in contemporary Tejano's superstar ranks.

Not surprisingly, Tejano's cultural and language barriers worked against La Mafia in some major ways. It wasn't until the second or third platinum release that a large portion of the Anglo media got wind of the group's formidable presence. Now La Mafia's label, Sony Discos, is working to speed the assimilation process. Un Million de Rosas, the group's latest CD, might as well be subtitled the "Oscar De La Rosa Show," its cover photo and interior shots throwing the spotlight on the band's suave, ballad-crooning leader. The hope is, of course, that this singular focus will give De La Rosa -- if not the band -- a better shot at crossing over. Plans for an English-sung La Mafia release are said to be in the works, which should boost the band's multicultural visibility even further. (H.R.)

Best rock/pop
Hadden Sayers

He may look like the kid that, chronologically, he still pretty much is, but that doesn't mean that Hadden Sayers can't lay claim to being a hardy Houston perennial. From his time with Miss Molly as the Whip with the hottest guitar to his 1994 startup of the Hadden Sayers Band (a group that just happened to be selected as the '94 Best New Act in the Music Awards) to his wins last year and this in the Best Rock/Pop category, Sayers has been a steady force in the local music world.

Not that he's been a particularly steady presence of late; like the Imperial Monkeys, Sayers and crew are making their living on the road these days, and trying to figure out how to translate a monster work ethic into a commercially viable CD. Retrofutura is Sayers' latest attempt, and aside from a title that's unfortunately reminiscent of a particularly noxious Neil Young phase, it's a step forward. When he's in town, he puts on a good show, and he means it. (B.T.)

Best rap/hip-hop
Geto Boys

While West Coast rappers get a wealth of credit for bringing to life the realities of the ghetto, the Geto Boys remain gangsta rap's most credible "other coast" link. And now that Bushwick Bill, Scarface and Willie D have finally settled their personal conflicts and reunited, they're back to being not only credible, but dangerous.

Last year, the Geto Boys returned to form in a big way with their The Resurrection CD, unleashing "The World Is a Ghetto" and other blunt, streetwise anti-epics on the public. They also contributed tracks to the soundtrack of Original Gangstas, a movie in which Bushwick had a small (ahem) role. Lastly, the Boys are capping off their comeback season with this summer's "Resurrection Tour." Plain and simple, the Geto Boys put Houston on the rap map, and recent local success stories such as Crime Boss and Eightball and MJG ought to be able to tell you just what that means. For that little piece of history alone, the Geto Boys deserve this award. On 1991's We Can't Be Stopped, Willie D made this demand: "I've sold a lot of records / And a lot of people know me / So where's my goddamn trophy!"

Here you go. (C.D.L.)

Best guitarist
Joe "Guitar" Hughes

Ladeez and gentlemen, in this corner, nattily attired in a spotlight-grabbing neon-green suit and a Fender with smoke coming off the strings, the undisputed champion of the Best Guitarist category of the Press Music Awards for as long as we've been doing this thing ... Houston's own Joe "Guitar" Hughes!

Since winning this award last year -- adding to the ones he won the year before, and the year before that -- Hughes has released another European-produced album (Texas Guitar Slinger, distributed in the U.S. by Rounder/Bullseye) and made his obligatory annual romp across the festival stages of Europe. In the four decades that he's been making his music, Hughes has proven himself the equal of any picker around. If you've never understood what musicians mean when they say music isn't the notes, it's the spaces, go see Hughes: he can make more music with three notes than lesser talents who fill the same length of time with 30. Opportunities to see Hughes around town are ample; he's a regular at Billy Blues, the Shakespeare Pub, the Big Easy and other fortresses and outposts of the blues. Because the same writer -- an unabashedly partisan fan of Hughes' -- has done this profile for the last three years and doesn't want to repeat himself, he's going to take advantage of this opportunity to tip the fedora to Hughes' manager and wife of 35 years, Willie Mae Hughes, who is as sweet and lovely as she is knowledgeable about music -- and deserves at least some portion of the praises so often directed at her husband. (J.S.)

Best folk/acoustic
Shake Russell/Jack Saunders

Singer/songwriters such as Shake Russell and Jack Saunders wind up with some of the most loyal fans around: all it takes is a lyric that rings so true that it seems the songwriter has either been reading the listener's mind or mail for a lifelong enthusiasm to result. Not that great lyricists are guaranteed of achieving a high level of fame: for every Lyle Lovett, there are dozens of praiseworthy less-than-household names such as Steve Fromholtz, Dave Bromberg, Robert Earl Keen, Shake Russell and Jack Saunders. Still, even in a fame-driven industry, there are no skills that result in more peer respect than the ability to write a moving lyric. Over the decades, Shake and Jack (no one but a critic can call them Russell and Saunders with a straight face) -- along with their multitude of cohorts from the days when Anderson Fair was more of a spaghetti kitchen than a nightclub -- have mastered the art of intimate, up-close delivery of universal emotions and sentiments. Of the many local acts that can sell out the house at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, Shake and Jack's most common venue, it's their audiences who show the deepest familiarity with the music being played. Listener response -- the kind created by fans who have seen a show repeatedly -- is an integral part of the magic of Shake and Jack, and it's a big part of why the recent Live at the Mucky Duck is a much more accurate explanation of their art than were earlier studio recordings. (J.S.)

Best alternative/non-commercial
Jinkies

It's a bad thing to see the Jinkies -- who took home the 1995 Press prize for Best New Act -- winning in consecutive years, because as much fun as we all have watching them play, there's not much left to say. I mean, after you've gone over the basics -- the lineup of brothers Carlos and Mike DeLeon, Vince Mandeville and Matthew Thurman on guitar, drums, bass and guitar, respectively; the pop-pretty harmonies; the catchy songs; the irreverent attitude -- what can you add? The Jinkies aren't a band that stands much analyzing. To do so, to repeat the standard riffs, could end up making the band look like a cliche, which isn't fair, because they aren't. They try to mix it up, and what they can't swing in subtlety they make up for in volume, in the finest rock tradition. And to top it off, their drummer plays like a muppet. (B.T.)

Songwriters of the Year
Song of the Year
("No Really, I Can Drive")
Release of the Year
(Play with Matches)
Best Blues

Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys

Local musician of the year
Carolyn Wonderland

Okay, we give up. What say that next year we combine all these separate categories into a single one: Best Carolyn. Then Carolyn Wonderland can walk away with all the goodies, and people will be less inclined to ask, "How does she do it?" It'll be obvious how she does it. She's Carolyn. Who could be better at it?

Of course, some people might raise the objection that it's not just Carolyn; it's the Imperial Monkeys as well. As Wonderland herself isn't shy about mentioning, she may be the voice up front, but there are others who are playing their butts off as well. If you want to know who they are, you just have to check out the winners for Best Bassist (the Monkeys' Chris King), Best Drummer (the Monkeys' Leesa Harrington) and Song of the Year (written by King and Monkeys guitarist Eric Dane). Nonetheless, Wonderland's name comes first, and so does her recognition. She's even so influential that she's convinced a good chunk of the Houston listening audience that what she does is blues, even though any fool ought to be able to appreciate the context and put Carolyn and her Monkeys over in the rock category, where they'd undoubtedly do just fine. As is, the band gets Best Blues, which is a nod toward Carolyn's pipes and guitarist Dane's influences. And Carolyn gets Local Musician of the Year, which in part is a nod from the thousands of semi-employed musicians who've been made to feel at home on any Wonderland stage. They get Song of the Year for King and Dane's boozy, after-hours wind-down "No Really, I Can Drive," which is quite an accomplishment, considering that the tune is a hidden track tacked on at the end of Play with Matches, which gets Release of the Year. And Carolyn and the band get Best Songwriters.

What do the rest of us get? A chance to sit back and listen, which isn't a half-bad prize of its own. (B.T.)

Best bassist
Chris King

Chris King has a cool beard, a cool dad, some cool hats and he's an Imperial Monkey, which never hurts. When he won this award last year, helping to anchor yet another Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys sweep, he didn't have much to say about it. When he won Local Musician of the Year honors in '94 before passing the baton to (is there an echo in here?) Carolyn Wonderland, he didn't have much to say about that either. King isn't a big proponent of self-promotion, which is really why we didn't have any expectation of him saying much about winning yet one more time. So we'll step up on the dais for him and give the sort of heartfelt acceptance speech we're sure he'd pour out if he were a more image-minded (and less music-obsessed) performer.

"Thanks." (B.T.)

Best drummer
Leesa Harrington

Leesa Harrington has a cool smile, a cool kid and some cool hats of her own. She's an Imperial Monkey, too, which never hurts. She isn't as tightlipped as her bassist bandmate (when she won top honors in this category last year, the first year the category was part of the Music Awards, she allowed that she was happy; she even allowed that she thought it was cool that people would vote for her; and she even modestly allowed that she thought there were other drummers in Houston who were much better than she was -- not that she was going to hand the award over to them), but really, what more can you say once you've let folks know you've drummed for a half-dozen Houston bands over the last few years, have been part of the Imperial Monkeys for close to two and really like banging away at your kit? We're not absolutely positive, but we imagine that about all that's possible is stepping up on the dais, clearing your throat and letting all your emotion emerge unfettered with a passionate:

"Thanks." (B.T.)

Best metal/hard rock
Galactic Cowboys

A nice pat on the back for anything ought to feel pretty comforting to the Galactic Cowboys, whose goose looked to be well-cooked as of last summer. Thoroughly disenchanted with the music industry, the group had all but disintegrated. It was difficult to blame them; they had plenty to be discouraged about.

Circa 1990, the Cowboys appeared ready to make a play for a significant national audience; six years later, they have yet to translate their feverish meld of heavy metal guitars, Fab Four harmonies and often intricate art rock structures into anything more than a rallying point for enthusiastic critics. Even a choice deal with David Geffen's label wasn't enough to get the job done; two Cowboys CDs, Galactic Cowboys and Space in Your Face, met with a flat-line public response before DGC dropped the band. Frustrated, band members began dropping like flies. First to go was guitarist Dane Sonnier; the next was drummer Alan Doss.

Then last June, out of nowhere, a call came from Metal Blade, a California-based label known for nurturing Metallica early on, and the Cowboys were back in business. Doss quickly returned to the fold, while guitar tech Wally Farkas replaced Sonnier. The Cowboys' first Metal Blade CD, Machine Fish, was released this January. Heavy yet heady, catchy yet confounding, it's all the things fans have come to appreciate and expect from the group. With the new disc and the rare club appearance, the Cowboys have reclaimed their local support base (if it ever went away), dislodging dead horse, the band that's had a lock on the Metal/Hard Rock category for the last two years, from the top spot. Their Houston dominance re-established, the Cowboys are now touring with King's X, chasing after a recurring dream of an ever-expanding Galactic universe. (H.R.)

Best New Act
Best C&W
The Hollisters

A funny thing happened to the Hollisters in the process of working their tails off to get established: they've become the city's biggest genre-bending, new-country sensation this side of Jesse Dayton. Here's a band that's as at ease playing to skate-punk crowds at Emo's as they are entertaining the Stetson set at Blanco's. Which just goes to show what sort of pros make up this "new" act. The name and configuration may be fresh, but the Hollisters are far from a band of neophytes. The creative partnership between guitarist Eric "Eddie Dale" Danheim and lead vocalist Mike Barfield began ten years ago, when the two founded Houston nouveau-country favorites the Rounders, an outfit that only hinted at the more satisfying reconciliation of honky-tonk's past and present to come.

For a time, Danheim tried to go after that reconciliation on his own, leaving the Rounders in 1988 to work with Austin acts the Wagoneers and Chaparral. But by the time the Rounders officially disbanded in 1995, Danheim was back with his old mate Barfield and ready to begin anew. The pair found a new rhythm section -- bassist Denny Dale and drummer Kevin "Snit" Fitzpatrick -- and started from the ground up. The goal was to keep it simple, drawing upon the band members' common affinity for Buck Owens and other purveyors of the Bakersfield sound. For the sake of that simplicity, Danheim would provide the sole electric guitar, while Barfield stuck to vocals, harmonica and his old acoustic. Seasoned from day one, the Hollisters proceeded to pluck and croon for anyone who'd have them.

A year later, that "anyone" has grown to just about everyone, and the Hollisters' fine-tuned bounty of originals is electrifying rooms all over town. With a sound at once rustic and urbane, Barfield and Danheim have finally uncovered the right formula: a classy, roots-reliant approach that can muster up enough immediacy to make country institutions sound clothesline fresh. Infused with Hollisteria, everything old is new again. (H.R.)

Best male vocalist
Mike Barfield

"Naturally, they say I sound like Johnny Cash. Guess it's because I'm a baritone."

In truth, there's a little more to it than that. The Hollisters' Mike Barfield isn't one of those late-blooming, roots-savvy singers who grew up on a steady dose of mainstream country and rock acts before turning to the classic crooners. His childhood home in south Houston was teeming with the sort of salt-of-the-earth sounds that would likely send a wave of wistful remembrance down the spine of the most hardened rockabilly outlaw. He sang along to old 45s from the likes of Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and, yes, the Man in Black. That informal schooling has given Barfield an appreciation of both the power and the mystery of his low register, as well as a sixth sense of where he can let go of that gentlemanly restraint and holler a little. Like an oft-traveled country byway that jolts us out of a road trance with the occasional sharp dip and fresh pothole, Barfield gives listeners familiarity, but with a trace of the unexpected. (H.R.)

Best jazz
Paul English

Seeing as he's clinched the Best Jazz category again this year, now seems as good a time as any for a Paul English update. Most of us would require a clone or two to maintain English's hectic schedule, so we won't blame anyone for not keeping track; to be honest, we have a hard time doing it ourselves. English is out of town a lot these days, which is typical for any musician and composer of his caliber; on his '96 "to do" list are a number of commissioned classical pieces. Recently, he's been laboring hard on a classical project commissioned by Palmer Episcopal Church. The piece, which English cohorts describe as one of his most demanding ever, combines pipe organ, solo vocalists, a full choir and a chamber orchestra. Its inspiration? The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. A debut is set for the spring of 1997.

Among his many compositional distractions, the accomplished pianist still manages to squeeze out enough time to work on the follow-up to his 1995 CD, Beauty, put in hours at his own Capstone record label and perform with both the Paul English Quartet and his much-loved improvisational baby, PICO. The working title of English's upcoming release is World Tour. Its themes promise to be global in scope, its musical grounding jazzy and contemporary, its shadings exotic and well-traveled.

So, no, English hasn't downshifted once since last year, and he shows no signs of doing so in the foreseeable future. We wanted to ask English how he manages -- and if he really is stashing a few spare likenesses in his broom closet. But we couldn't -- he's out of town. Guess it's business as usual. (H.R.)

Best funk/r&b
best horn/horn section
Global Village

Maybe the recent hype surrounding the release of its long-anticipated debut CD gave Global Village the boost required to take this pair of categories for the second year in a row. Maybe it had something to do with the funky (and free) spring throw-down the group hosted at the Hard Rock Cafe to celebrate said release. Or maybe Bud Ice, a Global Village sponsor, simply waved its aluminum magic wand. Most likely, though, the whole thing was simply inevitable.

Global Village owns this dual honor once again for a number of reasons -- smart publicity maneuvers and sound business sense being but two of them. First and perhaps foremost, the Villagers know how to kick out the jams, and their reputation for peddling reliable, crowd-pleasing entertainment has kept the gig requests pouring in from all over Texas and Louisiana. Equally important, Global Village has found a way to keep their act together through thin times and thick. With us since 1990, they've endured only minor lineup fluctuations -- no small feat for a nine-member band. All the while, the group continues to find new ways to escape the methodical, party-band doldrums, toeing the line gracefully between impeccable musicianship and playful spontaneity. Also vital to the band's success is lead singer Chad Strader, whose giddy, soul-drenched vocals owe an obvious debt to Stevie Wonder. Strader can just about compete with the considerable blowing power of the Global Village horn section. For fans, the funk begins and ends with that airtight brass brigade, whose colorful and assertive flourishes give Global Village's music its bull's-eye-accurate grooves and its racing R&B pulse. (H.R.)

Best cajun/zydeco
Pierre and the Zydeco Dots

Even changing Pierres couldn't shake the Zydeco Dots' grip on this category, which they have won every year since the inception of the Press Music Awards. In the 12 months plus since longtime Dots frontman Pierre Blanchard left the band to start the Bayou Stompers, Pierre Stoot has shouted and squeezed and generally held down the accordion/vocals spot in front of a veteran lineup that's certainly one of the hardest-working and best-exposed zydeco units in Houston. The Dots can be found all over town, at both clubs with a long-standing zydeco tradition such as the Shakespeare Pub and the Big Easy, and at less likely venues such as the Firehouse, Crescent City Cafe and Jax Grill, where a long-running Friday gig has become the band's home base.

As for being the best at what they do ... well, that's when guitarist Tom Potter dons his humble hat, mentions fellow members of the local zydeco community that he holds in high regard and talks about how the Gulf Coast's most endearing and infectious folk music hasn't even touched its commercial potential yet. Still, the Dots can take more credit than most for moving zydeco out of the Houston neighborhoods that were built by Louisiana natives and into clubs that had never dreamed an accordion-based band could pack the house. (J.S.)

Best cover band
Toy Subs

Toy Subs' charismatic frontman Jamie Jahan is likely to be both pleased and a little frustrated with this repeat win. Sure, it's swell that his slick, moneymaking machine continues to purr like a kitten six years after its inception. Still, Jahan and the rest of Toy Subs might have felt more aesthetically fulfilled had their all-original Shed, a project closer to their hearts (and further from their bank accounts), received the same voter attention as its bread-winning Richmond Strip alter-ego. Shed has released a pair of CDs funded largely with earnings from Toy Subs gigs, and has been working overtime to find an audience. But alas, on this year's Music Awards ballot, the group wasn't even a write-in.

As it is now, Toy Subs are suffering through the all-too-common cover band dilemma: they'd rather be artists than impersonators, but they've made more financial headway doing the latter. (And as any artist will admit, it's difficult to create with an empty wallet.) Make no mistake, Toy Subs are a remarkably efficient, often inspired, outfit, and if you go by the numbers, they're far and away the best party in town. Playing someone else's tunes may not be Toy Subs' idea of a respectable living, but damned if it hasn't earned them some respect -- and a living. (H.R.)

Best pianist/keyboardist
Ezra Charles

Sweet justice returns to the Ezra Charles camp. Apparently, the demon spirit of Jerry Lee has been called up to right the wrongs of last year, when Charles was excluded from the Music Awards ballot by a gaggle of unappreciative nominators. But this year he was back on the ballot, and sure enough, he ended up a winner. Whether you credit Charles' success to paranormal activity or to (more likely) a remarkably effective ability to get out the vote, a victory's a victory, and it couldn't have come at a better time.

This could be the beginning of a barnstorming year for Houston's ivory-tinkling, party-blues savior. He's got a brand-new CD, Drive Time, which he plans on shopping to national labels. And he's still hauling his piano and his band, the Works, all over the Gulf Coast as their sphere of influence continues to spread. As for Charles' fervent, key-pounding technique, it's as sharp as ever, his fingers as finely conditioned for endurance as his free-standing coif.

In '96, it appears Ezra is unstoppable, and the proof is now in print: Houston's finest piano man of '96. If you're still skeptical, Charles would be more than happy to show you a video documentary of his life. (H.R.)

Best reggae/world beat
Beat Temple

Beat Temple's roots are more homegrown than international, so imagine our surprise when the group was chosen winner in the Reggae/World Beat category, defeating more globally authentic favorites such as Wazobia and D.R.U.M. To be sure, far stranger things have happened in Music Awards history, but this odd little coup is definitely deserving of mention. We could have sworn that Beat Temple was a funk band and, when the occasion warrants, a hearty, retro jam band.

Maybe the "beat" in Beat Temple's name swayed voters. Who knows? Who cares? This multiracial quintet has certainly stuck its neck out far enough lately to be recognized for something. Last July, Beat Temple released the strong-willed and potent Hands of Mercy CD, which brought to an impressive close a lengthy musical evolution -- and my, how things have evolved. When Beat Temple's founding members -- guitarist Gary Wade, singer Ralz Mathias and bassist Carl Jones -- came together in 1986 as Western Eyes, the ideas that took shape were more along the lines of Prince and Patti LaBelle. By 1990, they'd changed their name to Beat Temple, and the aggressive edge they'd applied to their sound was jibing perfectly with the Chili Peppers-ignited funk-punk movement of the period. In '91, Beat Temple made the finals in a national music search. But despite a number of proposals from hungry labels, they came out of the experience with handshakes, false promises and little else.

Hard lessons learned, Beat Temple went about fleshing out their sound to the soulful, positive experience it is today -- Sly Stone's earth-toned grit set soaring by Earth Wind and Fire's breezy "love rules" optimism. Perhaps most central to Beat Temple's staying happy and sane is the band's sense of take-it-as-it-comes realism. They're making music by and for themselves, and doing it at an easy, enjoyable pace. (H.R.)

Best female vocalist
Miss Molly

Another year, another honor. For some artists who win these prizes like clockwork every year, the whole thing can get a little tiresome. And that's why Miss Molly remains a cut above the rest: not only does she keep winning Press Music Awards, but she never shows any signs of lapsing into babble when she considers that her fans are more than eager to keep crowding her mantel with trophies. That's one of the things we like most about Ms. Elswick, who has won Best Female Vocalist four times in the past five years. Her well-greased business machine is running like clockwork, she has plans to head into the studio this fall to dish out a follow-up to 1994's In the Garden and, in between, she's gigging on the roadhouse circuit like crazy.

The woman who once brought President Bush to his knees with a crack of the ol' leather is at ease these days, establishing herself more as a heartfelt blues/soul vocalist while gradually distancing herself from her persona as Houston's reigning dominatrix diva. Reached at home early one morning, a still sleepy-eyed Molly -- who was happy to report she's been catching fish hand over fist -- said the award represents a token of friendship between her and the fans. "I hope," she added, "I can do right by them." (G.B.)

Best industrial
The Hunger

Knowing that the Hunger has taken the Best Industrial award for the fourth consecutive year is bound to piss off some people, but then again, they're not the ones who gleefully line up at the band's shows. Drummer Max Schuldberg, reached in California during a break from the band's current tour, said he's happy and also a bit surprised by the award -- happy that the fans are behind the band, and surprised that the group can still be considered industrial, especially given that "Vanishing Cream," the Hunger's Top Five single from its Devil Hitches a Ride CD, is playing on the straight rock radio format.

"It's weird to be considered both as industrial and rock," Schuldberg says. "I guess maybe we're somewhere in between." Formed by brothers/keyboardists Jeff and Thomas Wilson some six years ago, the Hunger's sound has spread out across the spectrum of '80s techno-arena rock, post-grunge guitar grinders and tortured, Reznor-influenced vocal ramblings. At this point, the Hunger's hard work in the early days is paying off big, with sold-out shows, a smattering of local radio support, hot tubs filled with champagne, stretch limos -- okay, maybe not those last two, but pretty damn close. The band will be home at the end of August just for a rest -- there won't be any local gigs until fall -- and then they'll be heading back on tour for nine shows opening for Kiss, something Schuldberg still can't get over. "Can you believe how cool that is? I mean, it's Kiss." (G.B.)

Best act that doesn't fit a category
Flamin' Hellcats

There I was, hittin' over a hundred roaring down the two-lane from the Bolivar Ferry to High Island in a "borrowed" turbo-diesel pickup, an unregistered, fully automatic assault weapon on the dash, a bottle of mescal between my legs and a head full of this weird jimson-weed seed analog some chemistry student from A&M had cooked up. Suddenly, I realized what was wrong with the picture: as I power-slid sideways to a halt, blocking both lanes, I crowbarred the CD player out of the dash, flipped it into the dunes and poured a full clip of hollow-points into the useless piece of junk. After all, there's no point in serious insanity without an appropriate soundtrack, and the Flamin' Hellcats' first CD still hadn't hit the stores. But it's a ride I'll have to take again when Speed Freak does come out.

Over the last couple of years, the Hellcats -- founders of a one-band genre called Texas vatobilly -- have established themselves as an act whose energy is as intense as its unpredictability. It's a niche that has made them the party band of choice for that kind of party where you might as well invite the cops, 'cause they're gonna show up anyway. I have it on reliable authority that at one such party, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons was spotted on the dance floor yelling, "Vatobilly! I get it!" Gibbons got it, and so should you -- but fasten your seat belt next time you "borrow" that truck. (J.S.)

Best local label
Justice Records

Justice owner Randall Jamail doesn't always get on well with the media. Critics have raised a landfill's worth of stink about his ego and his policies in the studio. But the fact is, a vat of bad ink couldn't stain his label's reputation as the biggest non-rap game in town. And it appears that voters see it that way, too.

Jamail has spent an inordinate amount of time this year wooing out-of-town talent, firming up his artist base with the well-known names of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver. He's also placed stock in the reputation of Austin singer/songwriter Kimmie Rhodes. Not to worry, though: Justice still owns Houston's most promising export, honky-tonk heartthrob Jesse Dayton, a big winner in last year's Music Awards. Also freeing up Justice for continued forward movement is a settlement reached July 7 between the label and two major industry players, Sony and Philips. Back in 1995, Jamail filed an antitrust suit against the two corporations, alleging that their plants were preventing the manufacture of Justice CDs endowed with Jamail's patented Soundboard technology. The feature makes use of the spare space on CDs, allowing the listener to access interviews and other extra goodies if they so desire. With this resolved, Jamail will be able to freely license and market his technology (can you smell the money?). Another obstacle dealt with, the wheels of Justice continue to roll over the local competition. (H.R.)

Best rock venue
The Fabulous Satellite Lounge

You can't always credit (or blame) music for the crowd it draws. Sometimes you have to credit (or blame) the venue. Still, there's no use bitching and moaning about having to go to the Fabulous Satellite Lounge just 'cause you need to see some really badass band, as some of the hip in Houston have been known to do. Sure, it might appear a bit pushy to build the "fabulous" right into the name, so that papers can't even list the club without seeming to applaud it. And you might even argue that the sound can get muddy bouncing off those warehouse-style walls, or that the swirly, trippy light show that fills those self-same walls doesn't appear to have any connection with anything else that's going on in the place -- with the music, the atmosphere, the crowd, the surroundings. You might even complain that there's always some drummer trying to cut in the urinal line. But the fact that you know what you're bitching about means you've been there, and for the obvious reason: the Satellite books the best shows their size in town and, for my money, most of the best shows of any size in town. So shower cash on them. Good money for good product, I always say. Just don't get hung up on calling it fabulous. The Satellite's only a rock club -- a good one. (B.T.)

Best traditional/ethnic
The Gypsies

It's been more than 20 years since Greg Harbour, then living in Atlanta, found himself exploring the cultural aspects of his Russian ancestry by teaming up with three gypsy musicians of Hungarian, Russian and Ukranian descent. Traditional Central European folk music, played lovingly and well, proved to be more popular than one might imagine and led to long-standing, lucrative gigs around Georgia's capital city. After Harbour met the future Mary Ann Harbour -- and discovered that her skills as a violinist included an impressive range of fiddle styles -- the couple moved to Houston and continued the Gypsy tradition. For their more intimate gigs, the Harbours often perform as a duet, with Mary Ann on fiddle and Greg selecting the occasion's appropriate instrument from an impressive array that ranges from accordion to guitar to hammer dulcimer. For occasions requiring a more extensive lineup -- the Gypsies are the wedding orchestra of choice in the local Lebanese, Russian, Greek and Jewish communities -- the Harbours draw from an extensive collection of fellow trad-music enthusiasts to create an ensemble of a dozen or more musicians.

"We need to be able to do both pop and traditional music for most of the weddings we do, so there's a fun give and take between us and the rest of the band, who might be a little more up on what's current than we are," explains Greg, who also makes participating in everything from the Mucky Duck's Irish Session to Django Reinhardt-inspired acoustic jazz jams at festivals in Holland a part of his unending study of the art of music. It's such unending -- albeit enjoyable -- labors that make the Gypsies a band in demand for a list of audiences that reads like a United Nations roster. (J.S.)

Best jazz venue
Cody's

Ovations' brief closing last summer for renovations may have benefited lesser-hyped clubs more than Houston jazz insiders could have imagined. For the second year in a row, Cody's has come from behind to snatch the Best Jazz Venue honor from the Big O's mighty grasp. It seems, perhaps, that once jazz lovers were forced to stray from habit and sample the alternative, they liked what they tried.

Despite a lower profile than Ovations and less of a highbrow reputation than Cezanne, this second-floor Rice Village sanctuary at the intersection of University and Kirby continues to rule weekends. Friday and Saturday nights, no-frills jazz and R&B (courtesy of New News), an impressive free buffet and drink specials combine for just the right hip and affordable urban atmosphere -- cozy, but a far cry from rustic. And with a pair of ringers such as guitarist Tod Vullo (he hosts a jam Tuesdays) and Norma Zenteno (she's a regular on Thursdays) locked into the club's schedule, it's unlikely the club will soon fall out of favor. The new Cody's may not have the tradition-rich ambiance of its former Montrose location, but it's making up ground at a fast clip. (H.R.)

Best latin venue
Elvia's Cantina

If you find yourself at Elvia's Cantina waiting for a table -- or a friend to emerge from the restroom -- not to worry; there's plenty to keep you occupied. The clutter of framed customer photos (celebrities, dignitaries and the like), family mementos and bizarre keepsakes continues to grow, swallowing up the entrance hall of one of Houston's most popular Mexican nightspots in a colorful collage of kitsch.

Elvia's has been through some remodeling in recent months. The new furniture, floor coverings and platform for the bands are all welcome improvements. Also, the bar was repositioned and booths added. Typically, the good times reach their peak at Elvia's on weekends. Houston faves Walter Suhr and Mango Punch! (who had a strong write-in showing in this year's Music Awards) hold down the Friday spot, while Oro y Plata serves up merengue and salsa music Saturdays. Weeknights, Roger Rodriguez continues his lock on Tuesdays, hosting a live flamenco show, and for aspiring dancers, salsa lessons are still a part of Wednesday's festivities. The Latin Connection is a Thursday night regular. So if you're wise, you'll venture beyond Elvia's initial entranceway barrage -- and wind up all the more entertained for your decision. (H.R.)

Best folk/c&w venue
McGonigel's Mucky Duck

The main reason many new clubs -- no matter how cleverly conceived -- shutter their doors soon after they open is that the owners don't understand that the nightclub business is a business, not a hobby. Rusty and Theresa Andrews, by contrast, carefully aligned their passion for Celtic, folk and acoustic music with a vacant niche in the local entertainment industry, structured an environment that would attract a specific clientele and wound up with a popular, unique and successful live-music venue that has prospered (or at least survived) while countless other places have premiered with a bang and closed with a whimper. This may draw sneers from many too-cool scenesters, but there are a great many music lovers who don't find a high-decibel, cheap-drink, meat-market environment conducive to live music -- and frankly, those people are willing to pay for their enjoyment.

So go ahead, kids, wave off the notion of a place where listening to music is more important than seeing and being seen, and where the prices for a glass of imported draft beer make drinking secondary to listening. Someday -- sooner than you think -- the lyrics will be more important than the drum solos, being surrounded by drunken idiots will be a detriment instead of an asset and your ambitions for a night on the town will relax. At that point in your personal evolution, you will probably find yourself with the Mucky Duck's calendar taped to your fridge, right next to the baby-sitter's phone number. (J.S.)

Best cd/record store
Cactus Music & Video

True story. A short while back, one of our staffers was breaking the monotony of a late Houston evening by cruising the interstates and soaking up the heat, the humidity, the seemingly endless Texas sky when he decided something was missing. He needed loud driving music. In particular, Phil Spector Wall of Sound loud driving music. A side trip to one chain CD store proved fruitless; it was closed. Ditto the next chain store, and the one after that. Then he peeled off 59 up Shepherd, and there it was: a musical oasis shining in the night. With Spector's Back to Mono ready for purchase. Soon "He's a Rebel" was blaring out of the stereo, and all was right with the world.

Okay, so being open until midnight may not be the most important factor in determining the city's best CD/record store, but it doesn't hurt. Factor in a staff that (most of the time, anyway) is pretty knowledgeable about what they sell, live in-store performances and a commendable selection of both local product and off-the-beaten-track national selections and it becomes clear why Cactus has swept this category for the last couple of years. There are other stores that can beat Cactus in particular areas (used CD selection, average price), but readers seem to be in agreement that when you consider the whole package, Cactus comes out on top. (M.J.S.)

Best blues/r&b venue
Big Easy

Local talent, live music seven nights a week and no cover charge has proven to be a winning -- for two years in a row -- combination for Tom McClendon's blues and zydeco cubbyhole on Kirby Drive. The at-least-a-couple-of-times-a-week jams at the Big Easy, hosted by the likes of suave Leonard "Low Down" Brown and consummate wild man Rick Lee, have established the club as a premier spot for up-and-coming musicians to hang out, cross-pollinate and learn from one another. More established musicians such as Pearl Murray, Pete Mayes and Joe "Guitar" Hughes can be found on-stage on weekend nights on a frequent basis, doing the blues the way the blues is done best -- up close and personal, in an intimate room with considerable ambiance and panache.

Of course, when someone mentions ambiance and panache in relationship to a blues club, it's just a way of saying it's cozy and has a low ceiling, that it's the sort of joint where newcomers feel welcome and regular patrons feel at home. The Big Easy is also notable for being the only bar in town with an on-premises record store, one that specializes in blues and zydeco. The ever-growing popularity of the Big Easy, and its dedication to the roots music of the Gulf Coast, could serve as a lesson to other clubs that have tried to mix a few blues acts in with their regular bookings and were disappointed with the results: there's just no such thing as being a part-time blues club. Them ol' blues is powerful music; don't jump in unless, like the Big Easy, you're ready to swim the distance. (

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