1998 Houston Press Music Awards Winners

Submitted for your approval: 100-degree heat, ten venues, 55 bands and a handful of nightclub managers who responded to the record temperatures the only way they knew how -- by chilling their interiors to meat-freezer comfort levels.

But never mind the temperature: Enough of you showed up to make the June 14 Press Music Awards Showcase a resounding success. The event, which once again took place in and near Shepherd Plaza, attracted around 3,000 people. Despite the sizzling weather and wind-tunnel acoustics, the outdoor stage saw its largest, most enthusiastic crowd to date. Just as the sun was letting up, Middlefinger fans trampled the stage-front fencing in an amusing display of pointless defiance -- a perfect accompaniment to a particularly volatile set from Conroe's ska-divers extraordinaire. A few hours earlier on the same stage, punk pranksters 30footFALL ripped a fissure in the melting ozone layer while bashing the Press for what they saw as an indictment of their music and fans in this year's Music Awards supplement.

Naturally, the kids ate up the evening's shenanigans; the outdoor show was assembled with them in mind. The largely underage crowd seemed to stave off dehydration by drinking in every last detail of a bill that also included arty mood-rockers Blue October, Latino ska ambassadors Los Skarnales, hip-hop mainstays Aftershock and the punk/pop outfit riverfenix.

Indoors, meanwhile, one of the showcase's more inspired rosters came off beautifully at the Bighorn Saloon. Beginning at 7 p.m., Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds flailed, silly and surreal, in a performance most notable for its superhuman energy levels -- even if it was a grossly abbreviated set by Barton's eccentric standards. Blues guitarist Mark May and his Agitators were up next, handling material from their latest CD, Telephone Road, with effortless precision. May's impressive set was followed by yet another sterling headliner turn from Jesse Dayton, who -- contrary to the country trappings -- was in a decidedly rocking mood. Rest assured, there were other great shows. Technically and emotionally stunning performances from I End Result and Free Radicals earned high marks with audiences, and the Allen Oldies Band succeeded as usual in leaving fans both giddy and at a loss for words.

With a few exceptions, though, the underdogs fell prey to the well-known names when it came time for voters to fill out their ballots. So if a bulk of the winner's circle looks all too familiar, don't blame the newcomers' performances. Established or obscure, the bands did their part, playing their sweaty asses off and -- win or lose -- beefing up their fan bases in the process. Awards are swell, but the fact is, you can't eat a trophy. (Hobart Rowland)

Local Musician of the Year
Song of the Year ("Blue Lights")
Songwriter(s) of the Year
Best Blues
Best Female Vocalist
Best Guitarist (Eric Dane)
Best Drummer (Leesa Harrington Squyres)

Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys
"Blue Lights" came fully out of left field. A smoldering, blind-side knockout of a yuletide lament and this year's winner in the Song of the Year category, the track can only on be found on a three-song, limited-edition Justice Records EP. Yes, it's a Christmas song, but its sorry sentiments are applicable year round. Ugly breakups, after all, are hardly exclusive to the holidays.

"Now Betty told Margaret / And your best friend Sue / That she talked to Linda / You said we were through," Wonderland holds forth in her weary, soul-sapped lilt, one that, much like the best whiskey, only seems to grow more gut-searingly potent with age. "And those are such sad words / That I hate to hear / There'll only be blue lights / On my Christmas tree this year."

Wonderland didn't pen those lyrics (they belong to longtime friend and collaborator Kenny Blanchet, as does the music), but she makes them her own, leaving little doubt that they were written with her road-burned temperament in mind. Such is the toll on musicians' personal lives when a band travels as much as the Imperial Monkeys have in the last few years.

Besides being away from their loved ones, they've been MIA for the last two Press showcases and every awards ceremony in recent memory. But all that road work has earned them a profile on the festival and club circuit disproportionate to the meager popularity of their recorded output. That might explain why this year's Best Drummer winner, Leesa Harrington Squyres, was pulled back into the Monkeys' fold just months after she'd turned in her notice, claiming she'd had enough of the lifestyle.

Meanwhile, playing so much has tightly fused the group's ragged ends. Harrington Squyres and Chris King never fail to lock into a low-maintenance backbeat to set your pacemaker by, while Eric Dane continues to unearth the perfect Stonesy leads to soothe Wonderland's chronic case of the blues. Though the band's songwriting evolves in fits and spurts, their emotional honesty and infallible work ethic add poignancy to even their murkiest creative currents. And naturally, getting out of town so much has only bolstered their local mystique -- a get-off-yer-ass lesson other Houston bands could stand to learn.

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