Following a 20-year hiatus from music, though working in the local industry, the robust retiree launched a comeback in the early '90s with his newly formed Quality Blues Band. This time around he's doing things his way: writing much of his own material, working his smooth baritone on lead vocals and still gracefully making magic on the fretboard of that maroon-colored Gibson.

Though he started off performing down-home Delta blues in his native Mississippi, as a teen he was enthralled by the jazzy sophistication of Louis Jordan: "To me, he was the musician who kind of broke the restrictions, opened things up." Brown's mature style reflects the influence. "I'm a melodic guitarist," he says. "And when I play, I kind of breathe the solos I'm doing, just like a sax player."

At his Music Awards Showcase appearance, the audience repeatedly burst into applause midsong in response to Brown's fluid licks. Commenting on his reception, Brown says: "A room is just like a church. If you can get one old lady to shout, `Amen,' you can take the whole church with you." He adds, "Tell the people I love them." (R.W.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Best Male Vocalist, Texas Johnny Brown; Best Guitarist, Texas Johnny Brown

BEST PIANIST
Ezra Charles

Taking home the Houston Press Music Award for Best Pianist has to be the ultimate "screw you" for Charlie Helpinstill, a.k.a. Ezra Charles. In October, the Houston Press trashed his CD, Texas Style, and this publication hasn't been very warm to his other efforts. The relationship between Charles and Hobart Rowland, former Press music editor, so strained Rowland that he made a point of dissing Charles in his final Press column last fall. Well, the people have spoken, and Charles apparently has won the war. While living well is the best revenge, a Press music award has to be just as sweet for Charles (and hey, we here at the Press hope he's living well, too). Charles is something of a character to be sure, and that character comes out in his performances. Check out his honky-tonk bar-room-style romps, and you'll hear the blues, boogie-woogie, maybe some stride and New Orleans-style piano in the mix. His performances are fun and will make you stomp your feet. He doesn't push the creative envelope that far, mind you, and in a town where such high-level talent as Joe Locascio, Robert Boston, Bob Henschen and Paul English are jazz piano luminaries, it might seem odd that Charles wins the honor. The aforementioned pianists challenge the listener. Charles? He's more about entertainment. After a hard day at work, sometimes that's just what the good doctor ordered. (P.J.M.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Robert Boston

ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Television, Secret Sunday

Making atmospherics out of conventional instrumentation is all the rage. It used to be that only synthesizers could deepen a song. Not anymore. And nowhere is this new technique more evident than on Secret Sunday's latest, Television. While two or three organ notes buzz in the background on "Caught in a Room," singer/guitarist Chris Hungate and Robb Moore create multiple levels of sound: There's the main melody riff (a single string chime) then lots of filler guitar and a chordal solo. Hungate's plaintive voice provides the harmony.

In this type of music, post-progressive rock, rhythm is relegated to the background. Stephen Wesson's bass lines mainly add punch to the power chords, and Rick Wiggington's drums are loud and present on most tracks but are the central emphasis on only a few, most notably "Servo King," the best track on the album, and "Into the Light." As on any quality record, Secret Sunday changes moods drastically but effortlessly. From the acoustic lullaby, "High," to the punk-out, "Chinese Star," the band nicely shifts gears. Nearly five years of playing together lets accomplished, technically proficient wizzes like the guys in Secret Sunday do this. Analog recording at Texas Music Studios and digital remastering at Essential Sound, both in Houston, capture lots of nuance nicely. (A.M.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Clay Farmer Band's yet-to-be-named September '99 release

BEST RECORD LABEL
Broken Note Records

Broken Note Records co-chairman Tony Avitia summed up running the Broken Note Records operation with these insightful words: "I always tell everybody that the first five letters in Broken Note are B-R-O-K-E."

Apart from issuing music from Avitia's own group, the slip-hop trio I-45, the five-year-old label is also known for its compilation albums, as well as releases from bands such as Dallas's Cult Cleavers. Avitia says the label is working on four different compilations, with sounds ranging from hip-hop to jazz to surf music. But Broken Note's priority is to show that there is a happenin' music scene going on inside the Lone Star State. "I've really gotten more business from, like, bands outside of Texas," says Avitia. "But at the same time, I try to keep the local folks going." (C.D. L.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Rap-A-Lot

BEST CD STORE
Cactus Records, 2930 South Shepherd in Alabama Center, (713)526-9272

Well, this Cactus ain't no damn mirage!

Nestled between the big-ass-but-accommodating Bookstop and the small-but-immodest Whole Earth Provision Co., Cactus Records, a five-time Press awards winner, has once again nabbed the honor as the place that best caters to Houstonians' stereophonic needs.

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