By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
People who say awards are meaningless are usually those who a) have never won any, or b) possess such low self-esteem that anything more than a pat on the back stirs feelings of guilt in their stomachs. Hopefully, the winners of this year's Houston Press Music Awards fit neither such profile. Hopefully, these lucky folk will share intimate moments with their trophies, even if that includes cradling them like puppies around the house all day and calling them by nicknames. "Hey, lil' Pressy. Wanna go the car washy-wash with daddy-dad today? Hmm? HMM?" Hopefully, these significant selectants will be, in a word, grateful.
Not that it takes much. Just a "thank you" will do. And it's not the hard workers at Music Awards Headquarters to whom those two kind words should be directed. No, no, no. The thanks should go to the various folk who spent last Sunday going from venue to venue down around Bayou Place, listening to this music. The thanks should go to the droves of music lovers who cast ballots -- lots of ballots -- for their favorite performers, retail stores and clubs, and who helped Jennifer Hamel from Clandestine edge out perennial fave Carolyn Wonderland for best female vocalist, catapulted the Free Radicals to top honors in three separate categories and welcomed newcomers Jug O' Lightnin' to the local scene by awarding the band Best New Act. The thanks should go to the 4,000-plus people who made up the crowd at Harlon's, Spy, Aerial Theater and the six other participating clubs. The thanks should go to the fans.
To say there's not much support for local music in Houston is to contradict fact. There is. Case in point: last Sunday. Also, one Press awards concertgoer confessed to me that in the two years he has been living in Houston, the thought of paying money to see a live local act never even crossed his mind. Now, he said, he might not ever pay to see a touring act again. "What does a national band have that I-45 doesn't? Or Texas Johnny Brown? Or Japanic?"
In a word, nothing. See you next year. (Anthony Mariani)
BEST DRUMMER (Nick Cooper)
Whoever wrote in the Press Music Awards primer a couple of weeks back that Free Radicals "jumps on that Chicago-Blood-Sweat-and-Tears sound of the Age of Aquarius," the band wants you to know it didn't appreciate the comparison. "That sounds like a Chronicle thing to say," complains drummer Nick Cooper. "It sounds like one of those old music critic remarks, like what [former Chroniclecritic] Marty Racine would say."
After recently embarking on a national tour that included stops at New Orleans's Mermaid Cafe and New York City's famed Knitting Factory, the boys are busy gathering material for the follow-up to their debut, The Rising Tide Sinks All. The title: Our Lady of Eternal Sunny Delights. With titles like those, how the hell could anyone possibly compare them to Chicago? (Craig D. Lindsey)
Just last year, Blue October was the Houston Press's Critic's Choice for Best New Act. But who would have thought that the act would take home this award so quickly? In a rock/pop era dominated by simplicity, this band seems a throwback to moody, intelligent art rock. There's even a violinist.
Singer/guitarist Justin Furstenfeld, formerly of Last Wish, writes literate lyrics about topics such as drug addiction and religion. And Ryan Delahoussaye, who plays that violin, capably assumes the role usually reserved for lead guitarist and, in so doing, creates timbres rarely heard in rock music. Blue October has been building a loyal following throughout Texas and may be on the verge of cracking the national scene. Count this win as one more step toward the big time. (Paul J. MacArthur)
BEST COVER BAND
Texas Guinness Lovers
Though not necessarily in love with the cover band mantle, Texas Guinness Lovers, according to singer/songwriter Kilian Sweeney, does appreciate the growing profile the tag has brought the band. And rest assured, this act doesn't bear much resemblance to your redneck, Richmond-strip-cruising buddy's band-o-choice.
For one thing, TGL mixes a healthy dose of originals into its repertoire. Sweeney, in fact, has been honored for his songwriting. And for another, the pool from which the band's covers are pulled includes honky-tonk, Irish drinking songs, western swing and polkas. And TGL doesn't feel particularly compelled to make sure you know which songs are which. This isn't cover band as jukebox. Rather, it's a group of musicians playing music they like and making it their own.
The band first came together in the summer of '96, with the current lineup in place by early '98. There are six members, including folks that play such atypical rock instruments as tuba and violin. This band also plays weddings. But they are happiest wherever they can pack out a dance floor. Their mission: "to honky-tonk-a-fy the world." (Chris Smith)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Texas Guinness Lovers
Roberta Morales and sister Lisa have been harmonizing together, according to Roberta, since they "were like five and six," both in English and Spanish. As a professional duo they've been charming audiences from Texas to Germany for more than a decade now, evolving as singers and songwriters in the process. Oblivious to industry marketing categories, they create and perform their own mix of acoustic-tinged music, whatever you want to label it. "We're not just country, and we're not just folk. In fact, I don't know what we are," says Lisa with a laugh. "Really, we cross all lines. We play some mariachi music, a little blues, and we rock, so it's really every type of music that we ever heard growing up, stirred together."
That diversity of influences infuses the tandem's passionately introspective original songs. Their multicultural richness befuddled Nashville record executives during a brief courtship a few years ago. Though the sisters recorded two full releases' worth of material for RCA, it all sat on the shelf while bonehead C&W moguls struggled to conceive a marketing strategy for this genre-crossing, bilingual duo. That disillusioning experience, combined with a renewed sense of self-direction following Roberta's recovery from cancer, convinced the siblings to go their own way. The result is two self-produced recordings, which make both sisters "very proud." Their intelligent blend of soulful sounds debuted on disc in 1997 with Ain't No Perfect Diamond. Earlier this summer they followed up with Someplace Far Away from Here, which reportedly sold 1,000 copies in its first week. (Take that, Nashville!) Touring in support of the new release, the Sisters Morales band especially delights in coming home to perform. "We have a blast," Lisa says. "We've got a great audience here and that's not sucking up." (Roger Wood)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: The Hollisters, Best C&W; Sisters Morales, Best Folk
BEST NEW ACT
Jug O' Lightnin'
Jug O' Lightnin' ain't your grandpa's jug band. Part electric guitar, part drums and part electronified washtub, this trio looks to the past to create some ultrahip country-rock-folk today. And though its music is old-timey, the band hardly depends on covers. Rather, singer/ guitarist Aaron Loesch, drummer Juan Abair and washtub bassist "Mopar" Mike Sinclair each take what they individually love about that '20s sound and that Delta sound and that bluegrass sound and "spookify" it. Which Loesch says means: "The chord changes are a little bit weird, and the rhythms will kinda throw you off. But it's cool." The band got started no more than a year ago in Loesch's place. "Me and Mike were playing, we were jamming, and Mike was on the washtub," says Loesch, "and our drummer joined in. And we sounded pretty good. After we finished, [the drummer] asked, `When are we gonna start playin'?' " Loesch laughs. "I said, `Ha, ha, we were playin'.' " The hardest part for singer Loesch is appropriating a '50s sound but remaining contemporary. "You don't wanna sing about a hound dog on a porch in 1999." About 40 to 50 originals are in Jug O' Lightnin's current repertoire. The band's eager to cut a CD but is weary of production quality. "We don't want it overproduced," says Loesch, "but we want like an AM-radio sound with a little Bjork to it." What they want essentially is lightnin' in a jug. (Anthony Mariani)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Japanic
SONG OF THE YEAR
"My Dad, Two Whores and a Crack Pipe [Crack Pipe]"
BEST METAL/HARD ROCK
Poor Dumb Bastards
The lyrics describe more than their share of lurid elements: a drug-taking father; a double dose of prostitution; and a concert that involved nakedness, drunkenness and a hypodermic needle, which the boys in the band broke while injecting speed.
"It's all really a true story," says head Bastard/lead vocalist Byron Dean. "My dad drove us to Austin, and all that stuff happened." After the band got back into town, Dean received a call that night from Papa. "He said, `Hey! I'm at the Villa Real, and I've got a couple-a hotties! Come on out!' We showed up, and it was nasty. He had these two whores, a black one and a white one, and he was smoking crack with them. We stayed for about five minutes and left to get beer. We never showed back up. He called me a week later and said, `Hey, what happened?' "
The tale passed into band lore, but it took guitarist Mike Porterfield, who wasn't even in the band during the incident but who intended to sing the piece himself, to write the song. "I feel like Homer and The Iliad," Porterfield says. "[Homer] wasn't there at the time, but he heard the stories. That's the way it was for me." And what was Pop's reaction? "He loved it!" Dean shouts. "He comes to every concert, and to this day we bring him up on stage and introduce him before the song. He couldn't be prouder."
Dean thinks it odd that the band won in the category Best Metal/Hard Rock; the Bastards also play punk, honky-tonk and pop. "We consider ourselves Drunk Rock," he says, "but you don't have an award category for that." A typical set list might also include some stone country material. "I like songs about drinkin' and fuckin'," says Dean. "Those country guys know how to party."
The PDB's were formed in the spring of '91 by Dean and guitarist Porterfield. The band's second gig was at Emo's, opening for a little act called Smashing Pumpkins. "That was also the first show I ever got naked and played," says Dean. "At that point, Mike put his boot in my ass. I smashed my head on a table and wasknocked out in a puddle of beer and blood. Then I got back up and played the rest of the songs."
Since that august beginning, Dean has been the only constant in the group; Porterfield has left and returned three times. The current lineup also includes Ruben Dominguez (guitars), Bob Lederer (drums and nominee for the Press's best in that category) and Jamie McGee (bass).
Asked the obvious question where the band got its name Dean credits Happy Willis. "He was a brilliant guy, a genius with a Ph.D. who was working as a waiter in a restaurant I was managing at the time," Dean says. "I asked him why the hell he was working in a place like that, and he said, `Well, at least I'm not some poor dumb bastard who can't do something else.' I thought that was the coolest thing, and if I ever started a band, that's what I would call it." (Bob Ruggiero)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Song of the Year, "Orpheus Express," by Japanic; Best Metal/Hard Rock, I Am I
SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR
Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys
Houston native Carolyn Wonderland isn't sure why her neo-hippie boogie band consistently wins "best blues" awards. "I like to play a little everything," she says. "A lot of the new [songs] have been almost country-sounding, it's kind of strange to say. But then again, there's also some nice pissed-off rock and roll songs in there."
Nonetheless, her intense performance style on vocals, guitar and even the occasional trumpet draws inspiration from what she has absorbed witnessing blues giants perform live: "Like when I heard Etta James the first time, that floored me. Or Roy Buchanan." Combined with a postpunk attitude, those influences and others (including memories of her mom's amateur singing) infuse her performances with a tone of uninhibited expressionism. "Shoot, we have fun," says Wonderland, when pressed for her own classification of just what it is these Imperial Monkeys do.
As for the songwriting, she got started young, forming an elementary school group to perform her own "love songs as written by a ten-year-old." In eight years as an adult pro, she has filled four CDs (most recently 1997's Bursting with Flavor on Justice) with primarily original material. How has she maintained such a prolific pace? "I guess you have to have some life experience to write this stuff, and life's been raining around me." As for categorization, she says: "I know there's some backlash among some folks whenever I win the blues award, when I'm in Houston, Texas, where there are really some living legends, you know, guys that still play all the time." But she also likes to remind her audience, "We can't play just one kind of music because it's like having a bunch of kids or something, and you can't have a favorite kid. You've got to love them all." (R.W.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Best Blues; Texas Johnny Brown, Songwriter of the Year
I-45's Tony Avitia is mad!
Avitia, a.k.a. Tripp Von Slipp, is spitting bullets about a mischaracterization that has plagued him ever since he began performing with his rap trio. "I'm Mexican," he says. "I have nothing against white people, but I am Mexican."
It's easy to lump Avitia in with the current crop of wigger rappers. But Avitia, along with band mates Billy Kinnamon (Tech. Ron B.) and Jason Mienelt (DJ Rudy Martinez 2000), have been busting the comparisons with their signature rap style (everybody say it with me: "slip-hop"). Earlier this year, the group struck a deal with Houston's Fuzzgun Records to cut new albums, including its upcoming sophomore release, Lost Between the Lines. "We're excited 'cause it's kinda like Clash of the Titans, you know," says Avitia. "I-45 is getting together with Fuzzgun and taking over."
The boys are looking to play 200 shows next year, including a possible tour of Europe. ("As long as Y2K don't, like, fuck everything up, it's gonna be all right," says Avitia.) With a 67-city tour in process, Avitia and his I-45 crew couldn't be having a better time. "As long as things are progressing in the right direction," he says, "there ain't no reason for me to stop doing this."
As long as Y2K don't, like, fuck everything up. (C.D.L.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: K-Otix
BEST TRADITIONAL/ ETHNIC
BEST FEMALE VOCALIST (Jennifer Hamel)
The Clandestine experience is typically divided into two parts, according to vocalist Jennifer Hamel. On the one hand, the band plays traditional Irish-Scottish "tunes." On the other, it performs original "songs" and covers by folks such as Utah Phillips and Leon Russell.
Either way, Hamel draws people to the band. She joined the group, her first, five years ago and has been almost an instant attraction since. Things weren't always so: Jennifer's first shot at public singing was trying out for her high school's musical, and she didn't make the cut. But after a year of practicing in her basement, she landed a primary role on her next attempt. Her current success, she says, comes down to "enjoying singing with my band."
Clandestine has been touring full-time since August 1998, and these days, it plays festivals and large clubs almost exclusively. Jennifer concedes that at first the band wasn't ready for the travails of touring, but she's happy to report that its performances and audience receptions continue to improve dramatically. The band returns to Houston in late August to celebrate the release of its latest CD. (C.S.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE:Texas Guinness Lovers
A longtime favorite on the Houston music scene (both with her group and when she performs with her father, Roberto Zenteno), Norma Zenteno puts together some of the hottest shows in town. Her Latin/pop/jazz/ rock hybrid will get you off your chair and have you shaking your tail feather faster than you can say, "Oye Como Va." She has fantastic stage presence and is a good vocalist (whether she's singing in English or Spanish). Her music: a melting pot that's hard to pinpoint. She'll do a jazz standard with Latin flavor, a Latin song with classic rock spin or add some blues to her salsa. She does not, however, play Tejano. (Want to get her riled up? Call her a great Tejano musician.) Zenteno's blending of musical idioms has been popular with Houston audiences for years, and her winning this category is really academic. There isn't another Latin-rooted act in Houston on Zenteno's level. That's not to say there aren't some hot Latin bands out there, it's just that no one mixes popular and ethnic musical elements in such a satisfying and accessible way. (P.J.M.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Norma Zenteno
Beans Barton & The Bi-Peds
Beans Barton has been at this too long to be "underground." This is his band's 14th year of performance artistry. And its lineage in Houston goes all the way back to a '60s outfit, the Dry Heaves. Nonetheless, underground Beans remains. He credits his musicians Jimmy Raycraft (himself a Houston institution, stretching back to the Dishes), Wiley Hutchins and Jim Jackson with allowing him to do what he does. What Beans does, for those not yet initiated, is churn out musically propelled performance art, both for his pleasure and for that of the Houston Food Bank. Beans performs as a sequence of characters, with names such as Dead Earnest and Bass Slackwards, and sings a few songs as each character before peeling off that particular costume to reveal the next. All the while, the Bi-Peds are playing straightforward rock music. Beans also paints on stage. And at the end of each performance (roughly every other Tuesday at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar in the Heights), the finished piece of "art" is auctioned off with the proceeds going to the food bank. Beans's pieces typically fetch $200 to $300 in this setting, though $900 has been reached. As Beans himself says: "Not bad for hanging out at a bar till two o'clock on Tuesday!" All songs are original, composed by the band and with words by Beans. And when you combine this with perpetual opener Jimmy Raycraft's Roaring Calhouns Review, and the Bi-Bulb a cohort who wears two spotlights on his hands like mittens and cavorts around the stage lighting the show you get a night out which, as Beans proclaims, "is neither profane nor profound." (C.S.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Phyneas Gauge
Mike Snow plays from the heart. Up-tempo dance music, which changes complexion but never strays too far from the hook, is what moves him to move a crowd. People like dance music with a voice, something they can sing along to, something that reminds them of their favorite popular songs. This personalization of dance will change the face, so to speak, of the genre. Or at least that's what Snow believes. He says this marriage of dance with something people can cling to, like a voice or a face, will push the genre to a "higher level." Does this mean it'll be Buzz-ready, too?
Hardly, but Mike Snow has been around long enough (15 years) to know what gets a crowd hopping. His tasteful mixes at Spy packed the place regularly. And now that he's going to be working weekends at a new club down on Main, Prague, Snow will apply his workaday ethic to the post-Astros-game clubbers. That means he'll be once again starting off his set with something mellow relatively speaking then pulse by pulse will drive the beats-per-minute up until midnight, which is the time "you can really kick people's asses." (A.M.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Audio 3
Improvisation isn't the forte only of college theatrical groups and cheating husbands on The Jerry Springer Show. It's the basis of this quartet's live act. Think party music for a kegger in hell.
"We make noise pieces, extended jams," says front man Don Walsh (guitar, voice, noise). "We just crank it up, and we have no set list." Others gettin' rusty with it are Sibyl Chance (bass), Domakose (drums, noise) and Kyle Phillips (guitar). Formed in '87 by Walsh and Chance, after the demise of the cowpunk band Grindin' Teeth, the group started recording its white noise in '88 with Entertain No One and has since released four tapes, has been included on several compilation records and 12-inchers, and has cut a full-length self-titled CD.
The Shutters play raucous rock that slips into trancelike experiments and brutal sound collages, abrasive stuff that makes "Revolution No. 9" seem tuneful. The band is at work on a new CD, which it hopes to release by year's end. So far, it has recorded more than 30 songs and can draw from a catalog of 150. For these guys, obviously, a new song isn't a big deal; Walsh often improvises a song on stage with lyrics inspired by the day's events and watches his bandmates try to follow. At the Press Music Awards performance at No tsu oH, the band performed a song that featured the refrain "Poor Resendez" as in Resendez-Ramirez, the serial killer. (B.R.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE:Walking Timebombs
BEST RAGGAE/ WORLD MUSIC
BEST HORN SECTION
The Suspects, a rock/ska/reggae band, has been performing and releasing albums for six and a half years, but until now, the only honor it had received was a Press Best Horn/Horn Section award a while back. Now this year the band has won not just another Best Horn/Horn Section, but also Best Reggae/World Music.
"Frankly, we're really happy and really surprised," says Bill Grady, guitarist and "stunt" vocalist for the group. "We were up against real serious reggae bands that have been playing longer than we have in reggae clubs, specifically with reggae audiences. We're real happy, but it's a huge surprise."
With all the various band-member departures, welcomes and reinstatements this nine-member outfit has had to deal with recently, it has kept a stiff upper bassline about the whole thing. The fruits of its labor, the five-song EP The Suspects... are GO!, is scheduled to be released in a few months. (C.D.L.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Best Reggae, D.R.U.M.; Best Horn/Horn Section, Tkoh!
Zydeco has been red-hot in Houston since the late, great king of the genre, Clifton Chenier, lived and recorded here. And the extremely popular Zydeco Dots carry on that legacy even as they experiment with progressive musical ideas.
The most recent incarnation of the band founded by Tee Potter and Mike Vee definitely understands zydeco's requisite funky syncopation, and it's skillfully provided by bassist Thurman Hurst and drummer Joe Rossyion. But it's front man Leon Sam, on accordion and vocals, who provides the most obvious link to authentic black Creole dance music. As guitarist Potter says, "Leon can do some Clifton Chenier-style that, if you close your eyes and know Clifton's stuff, you cannot tell the difference."
But Dots music is more than a nostalgia act, and they spice their sonic gumbo with complementary sounds ranging from Hank Williams to the Rolling Stones. "Our strength is we can do traditional zydeco very well," says Potter, "and we can also get away from that." Whatever the explanation, this high-energy quintet prompts people to let les bons temps rouler. (R.W.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Wilfred Chevis and the Texas Zydeco Band
LOCAL MUSICIAN OF THE YEAR
Gotta love a guy who isn't afraid to tell everyone where he's from. Even if he's really from someplace up north. Someplace in Ohio. But since Mark May has lived in Houston these past 18 years, he's gotten used to telling everyone that this is his home. He has just finished gigging with the Allman Brothers, wrapping up last weekend at a show here in his hometown. Along the way, May says, he picked up some tips. As if Houston's premier music man needed any. "Well, playing with [Allman Brothers guitarist] Dickey Betts," May says, "you know, he's all melody. Lots of blues guys just piddle around on the pentatonic scale and that's it." A bluesman May is. But he's also a rocker, which sometimes presents a problem when he and his Agitators, Kirk McKim on guitar, Dan Cooper on bass and Greg Grubbs on drums, try nabbing a performance. "Some guys say we're too bluesy for their rock club," says May, "and some guys tell us we're too rock-and-rollish for their blues club. So I guess we kinda, unfortunately, fall in between." Defying categories, however, is what good bands and musicians do. Intentionally or un-. A listen to "Sweet Spot" off May's 1997 record, Telephone Road, is the perfect marriage of down-home blues and rock. The repetition of the lyrics "Found a little sweet spot / on my baby last night" is typical of authentic blues song construction. But the snappy drums, knife-sharp rhythm guitar lines, dual lead guitar melodies and talk-box indicate nothing but a modern, popular sensibility. It's a nice mix and something only an individual songwriter like May can pull off. (A.M.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Mark May
BEST MALE VOCALIST
Texas Johnny Brown
After gaining recognition as lead singer fronting a band on his 1997 debut, Nothin' But the Truth, Texas Johnny Brown has fulfilled the promise first suggested in 1949 when he initially recorded under his own name for Atlantic Records. Understandably, his reputation as an outstanding guitarist kept him busy from the '40s through the '60s, backing other featured vocalists in the studio and on tour. "But I've always wanted to sing, especially during all those years I played behind others," Brown says. "Your voice is your first instrument."
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
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.
"We try very hard to please our customers and try to be the cornerstone retailer of the Houston music community," says Quinn Bishop, general manager of the Houston-owned-and-operated music-and-video haven. Bishop believes that what sets the 24-year-old store apart from other record boutiques is its embrace of local and independent acts. Says Bishop: "We take artists that might only press as few as 500 CDs and take their music, their CDs, and position them right beside artists that sell millions and millions of records."
Another plus for Cactus is the occasional live, in-store performance; Robert Earl Keen, the Chieftains, Wayne Hancock and even Sarah McLachlan have jammed inside the joint. Add the free beer the store often serves at these shindigs, and how could you not love this place? (C.D.L.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Cactus Records
BEST ROCK VENUE
The Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616Washington Avenue, (713)869-COOL, www.fabsat.com
Since the demise of next-door neighbor Rockefeller's and the construction of the even bigger Aerial Theater, the Satellite has been the place to catch hip regional and national rock acts on small tours, though the club also books a wide variety of adventurous "rock," from Link Wray to the Scabs, Reckless Kelly to the Cadillac Voodoo Choir, and Soulhat to Sister 7. The venue's Thursday Planet Texas showcases (co-sponsored by KPFT radio) also bring a lot of the Lone Star State's unsung talent to Houston.
"We're always looking at what's new and exciting in music. That's always been our intent since we opened in 1993, and it will continue to be that way," says music booker/manager Susie Criner. "We try not to let our acts get stale and repetitive." And though the Satellite can get packed during weekend shows, the majority of which are standing room only, there's an undeniable vibrancy and energy to this space station. And the beer is pretty cheap, too. Just give yourself enough time to wade through the crowd and make it to the bathroom. (B.R.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Aerial Theater
BEST BLUES/R&B VENUE
The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club, 5731 Kirby, (713)523-9999
Described affectionately by its clientele as a "dive blues bar," The Big Easy has earned the title of Houston's best blues club for the fifth time in its five-year existence. Why? It focuses on what matters most: the music. The club consistently draws the best talent from a pool of Houston blues mainstays, the occasional traveling act and even live zydeco bands on Sundays.
Not surprisingly, the club's often packed. Even at its most hectic, though, The Big Easy lives up to its name. It's an easy, comfortable, familiar-feeling place, whether you're a regular or a newcomer, whether you're clad in suit or sandals. The intimate confines and lounge chairs up front allow for a perfect setting to take in the music. Or you can take your beer to the back and shoot darts well within earshot if that's your pleasure instead. (C.S.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: The Big Easy
BEST JAZZ VENUE
Sambuca Jazz Cafe, 900 Texas, (713)224-5299
Since its grand opening last November, Sambuca Jazz Cafe has been one of the most controversial topics in the Houston jazz community. It is one of only two full-time seven-nights-a-week jazz clubs in Houston (the other being Scott Gertner's Skybar). There's rarely a cover charge. There are also performances by top-quality national jazz acts including Chuck Mangione, Terence Blanchard and Larry Carlton about once a month, but the emphasis is on Houston and regional jazz talent. It was also the venue for the Tod Vullo memorial jam, where some of Houston's elite paid homage to their fallen comrade.
So what's the controversy? Well, jazz purists will complain there's too much smooth jazz, not enough traditional. Smooth jazzers, of course, will make the same complaint in the reverse direction. The acoustics aren't exactly anything to note, and the audience is often inattentive. Ask the average Sambuca patron to name a Bill Evans or John Coltrane tune, and you'll likely get a blank stare. Sambuca has become an "in" spot because of its great location, and it has created a hip atmosphere. But at the same time, that's the problem. The crowd Sambuca attracts is often more interested in the food or picking up the person on the next bar stool than in what's happening on the bandstand. As such, often the music falls deep into the background, which is unfortunate because often the players are burning. Sambuca deserves a lot of credit for giving Houston a hip place to experience jazz. Unfortunately, many of its patrons don't understand the jazz experience. (P.J.M.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Cezanne
BEST C&W VENUE
Blanco's Bar & Grill, 3406 West Alabama, (713)439-0072
Substance over flash and the countrypolitan cowboys win again in this perennial favorite. Providing a down-home and no-frills atmosphere for more than 15 years, Blanco's has also continued its dedication to presenting original country music from old friends and upstarts alike.
Though Blanco's offers bar meals (burgers, chicken-fried steak, etc.) and bar games (shuffleboard, pool), the real attraction here is the live music on Thursday and Friday nights with an open mike on Mondays.
"We try to stay with the more traditional sound, but we don't have blinders on when it comes to [booking] different styles," manager Karin Barnes says. Performers such as Don Walser, Gary P. Nunn, Alvin Crow and the Derailers are favorites. Blanco's avoids the Top 40 cover band material so prevalent in other joints. And what would any country club be without a place to kick up those Tony Lamas? "We definitely got a dance floor," Barnes says in drastic understatement. "A big ol' dance floor." (B.R.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Blanco's
BEST LATIN VENUE
Elvia's, 2727 Fondren, (713)266-9631
How do you win consecutive Houston Press Best Latin Venue awards? Well, you could try doing some of the things that Elvia's does, like create an upscale atmosphere that's unpretentious. Then book some of the area's top salsa bands five nights a week. Charge a small enough cover to keep it affordable, but not so low that just anyone will walk in for the hell of it. Do the standard gimmicks, like Ladies Night, that draw a crowd. Maybe offer free dance lessons on Wednesday nights (and make Tuesday nights flamenco nights and where else in Houston are you going to hear flamenco on a regular basis?). Do all of the above, and serve up some Mexican food that rivals the area's best, and you just might be able to compete with Elvia's. While many clubs have tried to compete for the upscale salsa crowd, no one has been able to supplant Elvia's position as the place to go for Latin music. Maybe it's that romantic atmosphere, or maybe it's the food, or maybe it's that the owner (named Elvia) is really cool, or maybe...
Forget trying to figure out why Elvia's is so hip. Get out there and dance or romance, eat or tune out, and it'll be right in front of you. (P.J.M.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Elvia's
BEST FOLK VENUE
McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, (713)528-5999
Now in its tenth year, McGonigel's Mucky Duck is a pub in the fine Irish tradition. No, it's not some trendy marketing scheme with a fabricated Celtic-themed facade. It's a real pub with its own quirky personality, serving food, drink and live (predominantly acoustic) music six nights a week while functioning as a laid-back social center for a diverse clientele. Daytime regulars often grab lunch, toss darts or hang out on the backyard deck. Evening patrons dig the place for its eclectic menu of original music.
Founding owners Teresa and Rusty Andrews "started dabbling in live music" at the old Red Lion Restaurant, once a popular venue for local bands. When the couple opened the Mucky, while still booking home-towners, they also began to feature touring artists and established a wide-open Celtic jam tradition on Wednesdays. "It's often our biggest night of the week," says Rusty. "There's no cover charge, and it's a very social thing." He describes the audience as "everyone from the kids to grandma and grandpa." The Andrewses throw a massive St. Patrick's Day celebration each year, too.
The rest of the time they follow a common muse in hosting Texas singer-songwriter types and unique performers from around the globe. "My favorite line is `organically odd music,' " Rusty says of the booking policy. "Some of everything. Especially I love getting into the ethnic musics from around the world." He cites Madagascar, Spain, Italy, France, Wales, Scotland and, naturally, Ireland as native places of some of the most memorable bands he has featured.
Regardless of where they're from, artists and audience members alike value the intimate listening environment in the Mucky's main room. Like the general lack of pretentiousness and authentic hospitality that characterize the place, it's a sanctuary from the standard club scene. (R.W.)
CRITIC'S CHOICE: Mucky Duck