By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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 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.
As for the Imperial Monkeys' inexplicable habit of garnering the winner's share of the votes in the Best Blues category -- an honor they loathe -- it looks like they'll have to suck it up. Unconditional love is a bitch. (Hobart Rowland)
Critic's Choice: Local Musician of the Year, Mary Cutrufello; Song of the Year, "Blue Lights"; Songwriter(s) of the Year, Jesse Dayton; Best Blues, Texas Johnny Brown; Best Female Vocalist, Carolyn Wonderland; Best Guitarist, Arnett Vaughn (I End Result); Best Drummer, Damon DeLaPaz (30footFALL)
Best New Act
Album of the Year
But once on-stage, he might wear a grass skirt and coconut-shell bra with a water gun hat while exclaiming that he would like to have sex with teen R&B idol Usher. At the band's Music Awards showcase, Kelly wore just that get-up -- and made precisely that proclamation. A heavy, dual-guitar assault fuels the band's ska-punk live show and their most recent release, the EP Quickie. Mix that frantic and energetic music with Kelly's spontaneous outbursts, and chaos is bound to ensue.
Quickie is as brazen as the quartet is in concert. Mixing thrash-metal guitar breaks and stop/start ska rhythms, the six-song record brims with the confidence of a band sure of its abilities; the sound feels live but not raw. Kelly's personality, in particular, shows itself in lyrics that read like Dr. Seuss-meets-Christopher Walken -- and sound a bit like that, too, sung in Kelly's emotive and occasionally silly voice.
Averaging one and a half shows a week since its inception in January 1996, the two-year-old band has a "play anywhere, anytime" mentality; the foursome (which also includes guitarists Jason Davis and David Cummings and bassist Jay Brooks) once played three shows in 24 hours. Such hard work appears to be paying off: Besides winning this year's Best New Act and Best Underground categories, the band is rumored to be cutting a deal with a seminal ska imprint.
This summer, Davis says the group will begin working on a second album and "play many, many more live shows." Anything to give Kelly an excuse to act out in public. (David Simutis)
Critic's Choice: Best New Act, Blue October; Best Underground, Free Radicals
Chlorine frontman Mark Fain wants to be a rock star. Never mind that such ambitions aren't fashionable anymore: During the two years the outspoken singer and his crew have been playing melodic hard rock, they've been shameless crowd pleasers. Fain gets audiences to clap their hands above their heads and hold up cigarette lighters during slow songs. He asks the crowd, in big-rock fashion, "How you doing tonight?" And sure enough, the crowd roars back.
For all of this, Fain says, "We get a lot of crap. I love it: It means I'm doing my job. We are a rock band that believes in charisma. Music is at a point where there are very few rock stars. I want to be able to look at a band's album and say, 'That guy is cool. I want to be like him.' People give us a hard time because we worry about how we dress, but we're total showoffs and flamboyant."
Now that development deals with both Columbia and Mercury Records have run their course, the quartet is playing showcases for various major labels. Because of what Fain terms "slipping through weird cracks and weird luck," Chlorine left Columbia when their A&R representative changed. As Fain explains, "If you don't have a champion for your band at the label, you'll drown." As free agents, the band will soon be playing at Los Angeles's Viper Room for A&R people from virtually every record company -- all at least somewhat interested in distributing Chlorine's long-awaited debut record.
Even though the band would love to be in front of stadium-sized crowds, they enjoy adulation wherever they find it. Told that they were Press Music Award winners, Fain was ecstatic. "It's great because it's our hometown, but I really respect anyone who digs us enough to go out and vote for us," he gushes. "I was just thankful that we were on the ballot." (D.S.)
Critic's Choice: Sonnier Brothers Band
Best Bassist (Denny Dale)
The Hollisters will be the first to admit (in typical aw-shucks manner, of course) that their perennial dominance in this category was a long time coming. And, rest assured, they earned every vote. Mike Barfield (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Kevin "Snit" Fitzpatrick (drums) and the lovable Dale brothers (Denny and Eddie on bass and lead guitar, respectively) play loving hosts to the truest honky-tonk strains around. The Hollisters' sound is based in the crusty Bakersfield twang, adorned with bits from past associations (the Rounders, the Wagoneers, Webb Wilder, the Chris Masterson Band) and longtime influences (Dwight Yoakam, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens). It's a melange that tears up Nashville's dreary corporate output.
One of the liveliest Texas releases of last year, the Hollisters' debut CD, The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure, left other local releases in the dust, offering a refinement of the band's rollicking live sound without buffing away the sass. In the meantime, Houston audiences have finally claimed the band for their own. The quartet is one of a precious few local bands that can pack a house wherever they play, be it a country joint (Blanco's) or a rock venue (Fabulous Satellite Lounge). These days, the Hollisters are undoubtedly one of the best live acts (if not the best live act) this side of Austin.
Not that the Hollisters have ever let their Music Awards status -- nor the inexplicable fact that Eric "Eddie Dale" Danheim is consistently left out of the running for Best Guitarist -- steer their career choices locally and elsewhere. For them, the key to success is laid out before them for miles and miles in the form of the country's countless highways and back roads.
That said, you can bet the Hollisters had a damn good reason for missing this year's Music Awards Showcase. That's right: They were on the road -- again. (H.R.)
Critic's Choice: Best C&W, The Hollisters; Best Bassist, Denny Dale.
Granted, the folk angle may make sense to some, but Best Acoustic? Sure, Roberta Morales strums an acoustic guitar on-stage -- fair enough. But you could easily argue that the quintet's plucky personality is best defined by the rock- and country-leaning electricity generated by Lisa Morales's catchier, more upbeat compositions and the tangy licks of her guitarist hubby, David Spencer. When you get right down to it, the Sisters Morales are too country for folk purists, too rocking to call themselves acoustic, too mindful of their Latin roots to please mainstream Nashville, and too much of everything else to be neatly categorized.
But, hey, Lisa and Roberta will take their kudos where they get 'em these days. It's been rough going for the group over the last few years, so any smidgen of recognition ought to feel that much more sweet. Talk about an emotional roller coaster: There's been serious illness (Roberta's long, draining but ultimately successful bout with cancer), enormous highs (the band's signing to major label BNA/RCA), plummeting lows (their parting of ways with the company before a single note was made public) and a lot of tense and idle months in between. But Sisters forged ahead anyway, recording and releasing their own CD, the spunky, eclectic Ain't No Perfect Diamond, and performing live whenever possible.
So while Nashville may have written off the Arizona-bred Morales sibs as far too exotic for the rest of the country, they're a perfect match for Texas. We are, after all, a state full of eccentrics with impeccable taste in music. (H.R.)
Critic's Choice: Denice Franke
Best Reggae/World Music
"You know what?" D.R.U.M. bandleader Alafia Gaidi says over the phone. "I'm gonna shoot you, man. I'm gonna get a gun, hunt you down and shoot you, man."
How could this possibly be? Is the mellow, spirited founder of Houston's long-running reggae ensemble promising vengeance to someone who is bringing him news of his group's third triumphant win for Best Reggae/World Beat? Nah, he's just joshing. The last time he was quoted in these pages, Gaidi felt he gave off an ungrateful vibe over some comments about the visual presence of his previous Press award. The last thing Gaidi wants his gang to be mistaken for is ungrateful, especially after this latest win in the band's trophy case. "We treat [awards] with respect," he says. "It's a reflection of how people feel about our music."
People can feel more of D.R.U.M. when the band releases its next album, Africanexus, which is due in July. They've also gotten the call to play the North Sea Jazz Festival in Finland in the second week of July. So it looks like D.R.U.M. isn't hurting one bit. Just don't hurt us or any of our families, man. (C.D.L.)
Critic's Choice: Wazobia
Best Metal/Hard Rock
Oh yeah, it looks like those magnificent sons-a-bitches affectionately known as Aftershock have done it again, not only snagging another win for Best Rap/Hip-Hop but also stealing the nod for Best Metal/Hard Rock. It's the latter category that bassist Lee Leal and company feel proudest about.
"Rap, to me, is Public Enemy and the Geto Boys and stuff like that," says Leal. "And I love that. But we are a rock band. If you put a DJ in Metallica, does that make them a rap band?" Good point.
The Aftershock boys have had one slapdash year. Joining the trio of Leal, guitarist Ray "Bone" Herrera and vocalist Julio Alonzo are three new members: DJ/keyboardist Carlos M., drummer Ken Culton and rapper Que. The band also got out of its deal with Retrograde Records and is now looking for a better one. Leal says (for musicians taking notes) that you have to search in the right places to get your chance in the sun. "South by Southwest is a joke," says Leal about the much-hyped Austin-based media and music festival. "It's a good time, but it's just an excuse for executives to party. In order for a band to go and get a deal, you have to go to where the action is, like the West Coast or the East Coast or even Atlanta."
And until they make that next deal, Aftershock won't be slowing down. They'll be featured on a local-artist compilation called Houston, We Have A Problem, to be released in July. Perfectionists at heart, Aftershock aren't looking to let down their ardent fan base. "We're not gonna deprive our fans with shitty product," says Leal. "We can't lie to the kids." (Craig D. Lindsey)
Critic's Choice: Best Metal/Hard Rock, I End Result; Best Rap/Hip-Hop, Scarface
Best Cover Band
Bands change, and this perpetual favorite is no exception. Never mind its popularity as a cover band; never mind this award. Lead singer Jamie Jahan Daruwala has unequivocally declared that the Toy Subs will, from now on, perform mostly their own songs.
But even with the release of their all-original Vim Fuego, the transition for the Subs will not be an easy one; fans are still going to expect to hear songs by Oasis, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, STP, Van Halen and even the Bangles. "We've played over 1,000 shows in the past five or six years as a cover band, and it's definitely helped give us a polish and get tight as a unit," Daruwala says. "But the bottom line is that when the majority of people go to clubs, they're seeing the band as an afterthought. They know they want to hear songs they like, but they're not really paying attention. Their main [concerns] are mostly drinking and getting laid."
Toy Subs first submerged in the Houston music waters in the late '80s, shortly after Daruwala met guitarist Alex Tittel. Though cover tunes was where the money and booking trail led them, the band members strove to put at least a little of their own spin on the music. "There's certain ringers you have to play, but we tried to avoid as many as we could and stuck with the stuff we really wanted to do," Daruwala says. The band also worked to "rock up" tired numbers like The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" and "Jet" from Wings. "There's a lot of great songs that a lot of bands don't do, because they're so focused on playing the same Top 40 songs," he continues. Though, of course, Toy Subs has performed its share of Chili Peppers, Aerosmith and Cheap Trick tunes over the years.
Daruwala's not ashamed of those covers; it's just that he wants to attempt something more. "It's a real band," he concludes. "And even bands like the Beatles and the Replacements did a lot of cover songs in concert." (Bob Ruggiero)
Critic's Choice: Allen Oldies Band
For a while, it looked touch-and-go for the nubile singing quartet known as Destiny's Child, but the former Star Search contestants came from behind to snag the Best Funk/R&B Award. (An ironic payback of sorts, since the song that has made them famous, "No, No, No," is all about getting perpetually teased by something you want.) But at the 11th hour, voters saw promise in the fresh, blemish-free faces of LeToya, Beyonce, LaTavia and Kelly.
And no wonder: After all, nearly every Top 40 station in North America played the hell out of "No, No, No." And their self-titled debut LP also offers a new single: "With Me (Part 1)."
Currently on tour with Boyz II Men, Next and Too Close, the girls couldn't be more on top of the world if James Cameron digitally put them there. Always humble ladies first and world-class divas second, Destiny's Child seeks only one destiny: to perform for audiences. As Beyonce told Houston Press earlier this year, "Even if there's one person in the audience, we will perform." Where's the Kleenex? (C.D.L.)
Critic's Choice: Destiny's Child
"We're probably more of a jazz band than anything else," admits bassist Shawn Durrani, "because of our ability to improvise." But, he adds, "I'm always worried that we'll come across as a fusion band." Certainly, the Radicals' potent and eclectic instrumental mix covers a heck of a lot of ground: funk, ska, R&B, acid jazz and post-rock. Improv and standard jazz provide the basis for their wilder flights of fancy.
For three years, drummer Nick Cooper was the group's only permanent fixture, but in July of last year, he found more permanent partners. Not that he's closed the doors to potential jam partners: The Radicals' debut CD, The Rising Tide Sinks All, spreads 55 musicians across 29 tracks, swinging and swaying across genres and continents. Looped funk collides with Texas jazz mainstays, ska rhythms, African singing, Indian musicians, blasts of saxophone, South African percussion, tablas and rapping. And somehow it works.
In its current incarnation (which includes saxophonists Marcos Melchor and Pete Sullivano, pianist Tsepo Rhodes, trumpet player John Durbin and new, one-name guitarists John and Stu), the band plays compositions that appear on Tide, but they don't try to replicate the record. Live, the group blasts a wall of sound bigger than most rock bands.
But the band members and their tunes have bigger aspirations and ambitions than that. The band is writing new material, with a mini-tour in the works for the end of the summer and plans for a new record. Durrani notes that on their next release, they will most likely distinguish between the performing troupe and guest musicians. Not, he admits, that the distinction will be obvious: "The funny thing is, a lot of the guest musicians on the record were in the band at one time." (D.S.)
Critic's Choice: Free Radicals
It's often just a matter of being in the right place at the right time: Mary Ann Harbar was lucky enough to be in Sharpstown Mall when The Gypsies were playing their patented international mix. It wasn't long before the classically trained violinist from California started playing Hungarian Gypsy music, joined the band and married the group's founder, Greg Harbar. The rest, as they say, is polyethnic.
Greg Harbar grew up in a rural New Jersey town of Eastern European emigres and started his first band, a polka outfit, with his brothers when he was 15. Harbar's multi-culti repertoire came later. As Mary Ann explains: "The Gypsies had a reputation as an ethnic band. Anytime anyone needed an ethnic band, they called us."
That meant Irish music on St. Patrick's Day, German music for Oktoberfest and lots of Christmas music the entire month of December.
They've played for such luminaries as Isabella Rossellini, Buzz Aldrin, President Bush, princesses and kings. And though they specialize in private affairs, every year they host a Julian calendar New Year's party at which they play everything from polkas to Cajun waltzes to blues.
Filling all those niches is Greg's passion; he's become quite the ethnomusicologist. Today his record collection fills an entire room, his tapes a slightly smaller one. On a sturdy shelf reside fat binders of sheet music bearing labels such as "Germanic music," "Latin," "swing," "country," "rock and roll," "movie themes," "Hebraic," "Israeli" and "Hasidic." Klezmer, of course, rates its own binder. (Seth Hurwitz)
Critic's Choice: Clandestine
A fourth-generation performing artist, Norma Zenteno has been immersed in the arts as long as she can remember and has been writing and playing music since she got her first guitar. Her father, Roberto, leads a local big band (which she plays with every Tuesday night at the supper club Élysee), and most of her relatives are either actors or musicians. It's not surprising that when she began leading her first band at age 15, she was already blending the many musical influences that surrounded her.
Today Zenteno leads one of the most versatile and tightest bands in Houston. It's not uncommon for her to play Latin jazz, classic rock, salsa and an alternative-sounding song in one night (though she adamantly says she doesn't play Tejano). She'll often blend influences in one song, so a cha-cha might have a rock edge, or a rock song might have a touch of Latin jazz. Anyone who's heard her killer version of "Oye como va?" knows it owes a debt to Tito Puente and Carlos Santana. Oh, did we mention she can belt out a romantic ballad with the best of them?
"I like to mix it up," says Zenteno. "I can't sit and play a whole bunch of heavy Latin chops because I grew up playing the rock stuff. I hear it my way, and then I transpose it into whatever it is, which is why it sounds a little bit different -- so it sounds kind of weird, I guess." She laughs.
Continuing her journey into new musical territories, Zenteno recently completed an album with Calvin Owens, a former compadre of B.B. King. The album combines big-band sound with R&B and features Zenteno singing in Spanish (you didn't think she'd keep it simple). She's already planning to work again with Owens, and is looking to do a new solo album as well.
"It's hard for people to pinpoint us," she says. Perhaps, but such is often the case with uncommon talent. That's why Zenteno is a Houston treasure. (Paul MacArthur)
Critic's Choice: Norma Zenteno
Bozo Porno Circus
Given that the band is sponsored by a fetish clothing store, you might expect more style than substance from Bozo Porno Circus, but the sadomasochistic industrial band delivers on the musical end, too. Their forthcoming album, Cybersmut, delves into deeper-than-Darth Vader vocals, heavy keyboards, dark beats and slashing guitars. The emphasis is on gloom-and-doom beats, which come across with sternum-thumping bass, keeping the record firmly danceable.
Of course, their popularity surely has something to do with their over-the-top stage shows: Who could resist eight band members sparsely clad in G-strings, vinyl and leather S&M and bondage gear? Especially when the band proclaims that its mission is to coerce audiences into a "mass sexual frenzy"? Their brand of musicianship is called "shock rock" for a reason, but Bozo Porno Circus does have a sense of humor; witness song titles such as "Biker Sluts from Pluto" and "Texas Chainsaw Masochist."
In its various incarnations, the band has been playing industrial music for seven years -- long before the term "electronica" was ever uttered. But it's only recently that Bozo has become more of a group than a sex joke. The band now rehearses regularly and makes each concert an event. Says drummer Ador Charming, "Especially over the past year, we've really grown up."
A big part of this growth was recording and releasing Cybersmut. Because of the outrageous lyrics and artwork, the Nashville record-pressing plant "flipped out," according to Charming, and refused to produce the record. Luckily, a Houston company was able to take over at the last minute -- but when the computer disc containing the artwork went bad, Charming had to stay up all night redoing it in order to meet the band's July 1 release date. Even with all of the hassles, Charming is upbeat about the future, which he says should include a national tour, videos and possibly remixes from Cybersmut.
All of which sounds like a lot of work for an S&M freak show band. (D.S.)
Critic's Choice: Number Nine
Sean Carnahan is probably the only spin doctor in the DJ biz who doesn't go by some quirky handle. Oh sure, there were some names -- among them, Bossa Nova and Travel Agent (a title he would later use for his troupe of club remixers). But those are gone now, and his use of his given name illustrates the bare-essentials mentality that has made him a DJ to respect.
An 11-year veteran of Houston's vinyl-spinning scene, the Louisiana-born Carnahan has seen his own musical taste move from conventional to experimental. Three years ago, you would've likely seen him playing the likes of lounge music somewhere. Now, he has shifted his pendulum to the digital sound, playing electronica at Club Some on Saturdays or occasional Thursday-night stints at Spy.
Carnahan and other men of the record-rotating ilk are still being recognized via a 3,000-subscriber Internet organization known as the S.C.T.C. (Social Club/Turntable Club). Look for Carnahan to announce more gigs through the Web soon. (C.D.L.)
Critic's Choice: DJ Bizz
Zydeco has been in and around Houston for a long, long time, but guitarist Tom Potter believes it might have been the Zydeco Dots that made it cool inside the Loop. Back in the early '80s, when the group was known as Ted and the Polka Dots, Potter remembers that it was almost impossible to get booked around Houston: "You'd have to explain what zydeco was. But it's fun music. Once you hear it, you like it."
Which explains, at least in part, the Zydeco Dots' enduring success: They finally got heard.
And they stayed together. The core members -- including Potter, Mike Vowell on washboard, Joe Hurst and drummer Joe Rossyion -- have been playing together for almost 11 years. "We always have a good time," says Potter. "More fun than the law allows." It's no wonder the Dots are one of the tightest bands in town. As Potter says immodestly, "We can make up shit and it sounds like we've been playing it for a hundred years."
Crack accordion player and vocalist Leon Sam actually joined the band only recently, but he's been playing with the Dots for years. If Potter had an open date, he'd sit in with Sam, and vice versa. Since Sam plays the larger piano-note accordion instead of the small Cajun accordion, the Zydeco Dots can now slip in an old-fashioned R&B tune every once in a while.
But their real love remains zydeco, and best of all, they love playing it live. Starting every February, the Dots play about 30 gigs a month, and even when the crawfish aren't in season, the pace barely slows. And that's why fans have had to wait so long for their new album on Mastertrack. The Zydeco Dots are just having too damn much fun playing. (S.H.)
Critic's Choice: Step Rideau
Best Male Vocalist
Forget, for the moment, that Jesse Dayton hasn't had an album out in three years, that he's actually a native of Beaumont, and that he's spent an awful lot of time schmoozing in Los Angeles lately. The strapping, boyish singer/songwriter with a voice that can liquefy steel will always be ours, wherever he is. Remember, he got his start here with rockabilly heartthrobs the Road Kings. And contrary to rumor, he's still the marquee act for local label Justice Records. Oh, and, yes, he still maintains a residence here and can still be spotted out and about at clubs like Blanco's and the Blue Iguana, either headlining or just hanging out.
Yessir, Dayton still has a soft spot for Houston, and we have one for him. Now, if only we had a bit more of Jesse to love -- namely, that new CD that seems stuck on the back burner. Its latest title -- the third so far -- is Wayward Soul, and by all indications, it's a stone-cold country album, with an emphasis on pretty melodies, sweepingly stylized George Jones balladry and vocal theatrics that would make Presley proud. An advance copy of "Never Started Living" -- an incendiary autobiographical epic said to be the album's first single -- hints that Dayton has made the impressive leap from roughneck back-alley crooner to unconventional C&W sex symbol with his historical perspective and peerless pipes intact.
But don't take our word for it; hear the latest material live. Alas, for the time being, that's the only way to test-drive the new and improved Jesse Dayton -- that is, unless you're gullible enough to believe Wayward Soul will be out before the new year. (H.R.)
Critic's Choice: Jesse Dayton
This year's winner considers himself a "musician first and a jazz musician second." But for Paul English -- equally at home on the keyboard solo, in a quartet or as part of an orchestra, you could say with even magnanimity that "it's aaalll good." And the pianist/composer/arranger enjoys the flexibility of his musical career. "The history of jazz is one of variety. Look at Miles Davis. He just grew and grew and grew. The thing that attracted me to jazz is that it's a music that's always evolving. And if you're a performer, you're not expected to play the same thing the same way every time."
He likes playing in ensembles, and praises the high quality of local musicians. "Even jazz musicians from New York are scared to death of players from Texas," he says. "You see a lot of creativity and artistry here."
But he admits that the city lacks the firmly entrenched jazz club scene of, say, Chicago, New York or L.A. -- and it's a shortcoming he'd love to remedy. He's just taken over as manager of Ovations, which he's turned into a full-time jazz club. "My motivation," he notes, "is that there aren't a lot of venues to play, and [fewer] with a really nice piano like we have."
How would he advise a newcomer to enter the world of Bird, Dizzy, Satchmo, Thelonious and Chet without going nuts? "That's tough, but I would say it's like the first time you eat sushi -- have a guide. Go with somebody you trust and listen to what they say. I mean, I love sushi, but there's some items on the menu that I won't touch. It's the same with jazz. Just because you don't like one [kind] of jazz doesn't mean you don't like jazz." (B.R.)
Critic's Choice: Joe LoCascio
Best Horn/Horn Section
They don't really rehearse. Their lineup is always changing. They're really more of a jam session. But that doesn't stop TKoh! (pronounced T-K-O) from being a mutha of a band. They can play funk with the best of them. They have credible jazz chops, love R&B and their shows burn from start to finish. Just ask anyone who's seen them. These guys know how to put on a show that gets people on the dance floor, yet at the same time features blistering solos.
Lead by Kelly Dean, who co-founded TKoh! in 1994 and does double duty as saxophonist and lead vocalist, TKoh!'s concept was relatively simple: Get some of Houston's best players to get together every week for a jam session (no one said you had to restrict that to New York City or New Orleans). In fact, if you miss TKoh! on Sundays, you may find its members playing around town, doing studio work, leading their own bands or teaching college music classes (whoever said, "Those who can't do, teach" never heard these guys). The result is one of the most dangerous horn sections around.
Every Sunday, TKoh! features at least seven horn players and a killer rhythm section who get together and blow the roof off of Instant Karma, their current Sunday-night home. "Guest" musicians and singers often join in and jam, covering music by Stevie Wonder, Maceo Parker, Steely Dan or James Brown. There's ample room for solos -- the group is, after all, an excuse for musicians to have fun. (P.M.)
Critic's Choice: TKoh!
Best Local Label
From a statistical standpoint, the last 24 months at Justice Records have been sluggish, to say the least. Indeed, significant layoffs were the biggest news at the Houston label in the last year. Justice could boast only six CD projects in all of '97, and two of those were a limited-edition EP (Carolyn Wonderland's eloquent bummer of a Christmas greeting, "Blue Lights") and a rerelease (Willie Nelson's 1971 effort Yesterday's Wine). As for 1998, nada so far.
But things might be looking up for Justice -- or so we've been told in so few words. Rumors that a juicy deal is imminent seem to be drifting closer to fact. Theories on what that deal might be have ranged from the possibility of Justice's being absorbed by a major label to its entering a mutually lucrative deal with a mammoth industry player while still maintaining autonomy. Whatever the case, we ought to hear something by summer's end. And judging from preliminary samples of Jesse Dayton's latest material, Justice may have, at the very least, a critical and artistic smash on its hands. If label president Randall Jamail plays his cards right, Justice might turn that into a commercial victory as well. (H.R.)
Critic's Choice: Broken Note
Best CD/Record Store
Cactus Music and Video
Recalling the glory days of music retail -- the era before appliance chains used music as a loss leader -- Cactus Records is a testament to all that is good about a smaller store. "We try to be a music lover's store," says Cactus general manager Quinn Bishop. "We have a commitment to have the best customer service and selection in town."
That commitment has enabled Cactus to be in the midst of what could be its best year ever, according to Bishop. His complaint about chain stores is not that they cut into profit, or devalue music in order to sell dishwashers, but that "it's just not fun, because these chains aren't music-driven. We are able to persevere because our commitment to music comes first."
Hosting frequent in-store performances from local and national artists gives the store a chance to "give something back to our customer base," says Bishop. Rather than viewing the low-key concerts as a way to increase sales, Bishop sees them as a bonus for his clientele.
Cactus opened its current location on South Shepherd in 1975, but its roots go even deeper: The store was a continuation of Daily's Record Ranch, which started in the '40s. In fact, Cactus's tradition of in-store performances dates back to that era; Hank Williams Sr. was broadcast on the radio performing from the location on 11th Street. In the '50s, the store had an in-house record label that was the home to George Jones, the Big Bopper and many Texas acts. Bishop notes that Cactus still attempts to "nurture and cultivate bands which are a part of the Texas music scene. We position grassroots artists next to offerings from the mainstream, trying to blur the boundaries between labels. Good music is good music." (D.S.)
Critic's Choice: Cactus Music and Video
Best Rock Venue
Fabulous Satellite Lounge
With its giant oblong bar and knee-high stage, the Fabulous Satellite Lounge has what a live venue needs: plenty of spots on the floor to view the band and easy access to the liquor. On busy nights, they open a small bar right by the entrance, making it that much easier to have a Shiner in your hands before you even scope the crowd or take note of the band.
But booze isn't the point, says co-owner and music programmer Susie Criner: "The Satellite is not a bar first with music thrown in as an afterthought. It is a music lover's room with a bar thrown in." That's why you won't find a pool table or darts.
Since the club's inception six years ago, Criner and the Satellite staff have specialized in unheard-of bands with potential. Criner notes with pride that groups like Wilco, Son Volt, Keb Mo and the Squirrel Nut Zippers played the club before they were able to pack crowds into larger venues. During the middle of the week, Satellite imports top bands from other markets, allowing Houstonians to sample those groups for a negligible cover. Brags Criner, "The bands we present for next to nothing are the bands people stand in line for on Friday or Saturday nights in other cities." (D.S.)
Critic's Choice: Fabulous Satellite Lounge
Best Blues/R&B Venue
The Big Easy
Tom McLendon's funky little joint, where the family feeling is as much in evidence as a cover charge is not, readily wins this category again this year. "People have a real personal attachment to this club," the owner notes over a shot and a beer. "It's not a bar; it's a church. This is where they come to testify."
Featuring the best in live, local blues five nights a week and zydeco on Sundays, this "House of Mixology" strives to make the blues accessible to a wide audience. McLendon, a blues aficionado, respectfully explains that his club is not the most "authentic" blues bastion in town; it's a "transition" club for those who wouldn't venture to unfamiliar streets to seek the music. "It's about educating people to the music while letting them have a great time," explains McLendon. "The blues is all about overcoming trouble. And the best way to do that is with joy."
McLendon opened the club four years ago. Despite its perch on the edge of upscale West U, the club's decor is a study in blue-collar modesty: sturdy wooden bar and tables, plenty of neon beer signs, posters of blues heroes and a dance floor that's about twice the size of the tiny stage. On nights without live blues, the jukebox serves as an aural textbook on the genre: Muddy Waters shares space with Albert King, the Neville Brothers and Paul Butterfield.
The Big Easy has also gained the respect of blues artists outside of Houston, many of whom lower their usual performance fees for a chance to perform at the place they've heard much about.
McLendon buys a shot for one of his parishioners. "I've remained true to my original vision of the club, which is to make it a tribute to the soul of the blues," McLendon says. "And to the musicians who showed me how to carry on. Misery and pain are inescapable, but if they could handle it with grace, then any of us can." (B.R.)
Critic's Choice: The Big Easy
Best Jazz Venue
Until April, jazz was just one of many kinds of music played at Ovations. But now the club features the music six nights a week -- making it Houston's only full-time jazz club.
Apparently the club has found an audience and believes the best is yet to come: This summer, it's expanding its capacity from 120 to 160. A cafe bar will be added, seating another 30 people, and it'll serve food. Best of all, the house piano will be upgraded to a Steinway Concert Grand.
Artistically, Ovations will also be making a few changes. After renovations are completed, it will devote at least one night a week to Latin jazz; another will go to big bands. The club is also courting national acts: Tim Reynolds, the guitarist for the Dave Matthews Band, is scheduled for July, and Kirk Whalum will appear in August.
"The tradition of jazz clubs nationwide is you go in and put up with the adverse conditions to hear great musicians," says Paul English, the jazz player who took over as Ovations' musical director in April. "I think Houston audiences are different than that. We're spoiled. We have nice restaurants, good civic organizations, good fine arts.... I think, presented in that light, you'll see the popularity of jazz in this town grow a lot in the next few years." (P.M.)
Critic's Choice: Cezanne
Best Latin Venue
Bursting with enough energy and sparkle to make Charo look like a wallflower -- and almost bursting out of a form-fitting black cocktail dress -- owner Elvia Parsons-Kras is just as much an attraction to the place as her bar, full-service restaurant, dance floor and live Tejano bands. Catering to an upscale crowd that salsas late into the night, Elvia's attracts a crowd about half Hispanic and half Anglo.
The club began seven years ago as an English pub with a Mexican restaurant and some live music. But, according to manager Ed Parsons, the salsa-music night soon grew too popular to contain to once a week, and Elvia's quickly mutated into a supper club with live music. "Every year, it gets better," Elvia notes immodestly. "More quality."
Bands including Mi Rumba, Ka-Che, La Banda Mambo and most important, unofficial house band Walter Suhr and Mango Punch!, play to the joyous, Anglo and Hispanic crowd that continually packs the dance floor.
Along with the scent of carne tampiquena, romance hangs heavy in the air. Elvia's twentysomething daughter met her husband at the club -- as did Elvia, who's currently on husband number four. (Surprisingly, Parsons was a previous husband; the pair's harmonious working relationship outlasted the marriage.)
Like any good businesswoman, Elvia has expanded her brand name, opening Elvia's Travel and Tours next door to the club. Can Elvia's Wedding Chapel be far behind? (B.R.)
Critic's Choice: Elvia's
Best C&W Venue
Blanco's Bar and Grill
No doubt about it, Blanco's is the least conspicuous kicker joint in Houston, and thereby the most authentic and true to the Texas lifestyle combo of great music, simple eats, friendly service and solid wood floorboards beneath your feet for boot-scootin' the night away. This rugged, unpretentious West Alabama roadhouse doesn't offer shiny dance-floor varnish, parking-lot asphalt or cookie-cutter cowboy gimmicks-- and thus, it doesn't attract jar-head frat types and clean-pressed Clay Walker wannabes.
All that, combined with one of the most underrated Lone Star music lineups around (locals Kevin Black, the Hollisters and Mary Cutrufello are all routine draws), makes Blanco's a comfortable, low-stress evening out for just about anyone, even if you can't two-step a lick. But if you happen to be cursed with two left feet, don't expect your honey to be sitting idle for long. There are usually plenty of guys roving around the place looking for dance partners. And most won't take no for an answer. (H.R.)
Critic's Choice: Blanco's Bar and Grill
Best Folk Venue
McGonigel's Mucky Duck
It's no secret that Rusty and Teresa Andrews have a reputation for being difficult -- stubborn, if you will. But it's just that hard-nosed unwillingness to compromise their vision that has made McGonigel's Mucky Duck the folk/acoustic mainstay that it is: a refuge from loud rock music, with no megaphone-mouth rowdies in the audience.
In achieving its tenuous balance -- equal parts lively Irish pub and subdued, performer-friendly listening room -- the Duck has seen its reputation in folk circles solidify considerably over the last nine years. But then, the club's intimate environs and the Andrews' steadfast loyalty to those who earn it has always had a place in the hearts of its repeat headliners. That list includes a truckload of Texas legends (Terry Allen, Guy Clark, Alejandro Escovedo, Toni Price) as well as the cream of the out-of-state troubadour crop (Gillian Welsh, John Gorka, Chris Smither, Dar Williams).
Perhaps even more important, artists like to play at the Duck -- as shown by Lyle Lovett's recent surprise appearance at the club to sit in with Allen and Clark on a few numbers. A rare treat -- and a coup for the Duck. (H.R.)
Critic's Choice: McGonigel's Mucky Duck