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Change of Beat

Just like the rest of Houston, the local music scene saw plenty of ups and downs

This was a yin-yang, yo-yo kind of year for Houston's music scene. It spun down, it bounced up -- and in the end everything came out as balanced as Lady Justice's scales. As soon as a Mary Cutrufello would leave town, a Tony Avitia would come home. When the Astrodome ceased to be a music megavenue, Reliant Stadium quickly took its place. Huey Meaux, an up-from-nothing independent titan of the local scene and convicted sex offender, was released from prison and promptly replaced by South Park Mexican, an up-from-nothing titan of the local scene and convicted sex offender.

Most of the year's new things were actually old things reconstituted and retooled. Punk club The Axiom was reborn as a theater/punk club. Neighborhood bar Walter's Ice House came back as Walter's on Washington, a neighborhood bar/music venue. Americana-heavy KPFT was re-reincarnated as the way political, wildly eclectic (or chaotic, depending on your point of view) station it was years ago.

And now for something not completely different, but not quite the same: The Proletariat rose from the ashes of the long-defunct Blue Iguana and fashioned itself in part as the rebirth of Metropol, an über-cool Inner Loop bar that closed early in the year. Lately, though, the Proletariat has thrown itself more forcefully into the live music fray than Metropol ever did, and now it seems the Richmond Avenue bar will be more like a Rudyard's for the under-25 set.

Unfortunately, at least one of the year's developments was less a reincarnation than a regurgitation. Infinity radio took a gander at its balance sheet, got cash-starved at what it saw, devoured the venerable KIKK-FM and puked up the result: KHJZ, a smooth jazz-spewing station called The Wave.

Less nauseating was the success of Houston artists on Grammy night. Destiny's Child and Yolanda Adams both won trophies, as did Lucinda Williams, who cut her teeth playing in Montrose folkie mother church Anderson Fair back in the 1970s. Williams, by the way, was one of many artists Arhoolie Records honcho Chris Strachwitz discovered and recorded here in Houston. The story of his dealings with the likes of Lucinda, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Clifton Chenier in Elijah Wald's liner notes to the Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection boxed set tied for the top honor in the Album Notes race.

Locally, John Evans and Little Joe Washington presided over a 2002 Houston Press Music Awards banquet that saw something of a changing of the guard. Flying Fish Sailors, Simpleton, Drifter, Faceplant, Westbury Squares and Solar Flare Records all won awards for the first time. And the scorching, Sunday-afternoon downtown showcase hosted a record crowd of more than 8,000 people.

On the label front, the most exciting story was Compadre Records. Billy Joe Shaver, the highest-profile addition to Brad Turcotte's stable, released Freedom's Child, the most widely acclaimed album to emerge from any artist with Houston ties not named Scarface. Meanwhile, Compadre's first signing -- the young folk/country star-in-waiting Hayes Carll -- continued his baby steps toward the Texas singer-songwriter pantheon with the release of his debut, Flowers and Liquor. Next year, look for an album from new Compadre signee Walt Wilkins and for the label's fledgling archival series to kick in.

Early on, it seemed like 2002 was going to be a terrible year. In January, cancer claimed Dale Soffar, who with Wrecks Bell ran the legendary Old Quarter back in its 1970s heyday, and a heart attack struck down Joseph Murrail Jackson, the noted 34-year-old jazz and world beat drummer-percussionist. Though the grim pace slowed as the year wore on, cancer also took Ann Parsons, the wife of River Oaks Redneck Joe Parsons. Rapper Big Mello died in a car wreck as he was poised to release The Gift, his first album in six years. Phil Davis, a former Romeo Dogs sound man and Heights scenester, was killed on his motorcycle by an SUV driver who remains at large. And when Houston-born Mickey Newbury passed away in October, we lost one of America's great songwriters.

More happily, El Orbit and Continental Club co-manager David Beebe put a brush with death behind him and is now back smack-dab in the middle of the scene. Greg Wood is also very much alive again after his standing eight-count with the Reaper; he's now the proud papa of a fine new album.

But the people we lost were irreplaceable, as were some of the places. No tsu oH, which shuttered after a June fire, has yet to reopen under the ownership of Jim Pirtle or any of his rumored replacements. This month the Record Rack, the oldest record store in Harris County, also closed for good. And next week, the Fabulous Satellite Lounge will turn off its lava lamps after ten years as a Washington Avenue mainstay. (Manager Dickie Malone is looking to reopen in a new venue.)

In the graveyard of bands, 2002 is the date carved on the tombstones of both Japanic and the Suspects. However, both of those bands' singers -- Tex Kerschen and Thomas Escalante, respectively -- went on to join new groups. Kerschen's band Swarm of Angels (see page 93) and Escalante's Clueseaux are already getting regular bookings.

These are a couple of the stories to watch for next year. Other prognostications: Expect several chain record store outlets to go under as CD burning continues to separate the wheat from the chaff in the retail market. Look for more shake-ups -- soon -- on the Washington Avenue club scene. And keep an ear out for guerrilla promoters HandsUpHouston and Tapir Productions, as they continue to bring their favorite indie rock and jam bands to a venue near you.

Finally, the safest bets in town: There will still be fear and loathing every time the KPFT board meets its public. Ezra Charles will reinvent himself -- again. And you -- that's right, you -- will vote Norma Zenteno, DJ Sun, the Zydeco Dots, Cactus Music and Video, Blanco's, the Big Easy and Bozo Porno Circus the winners in their respective categories at the Press Music Awards. As for the rest, stay tuned.

T Is for Texas, T Is for Tedious

The best indication of just how lame it was in the Lone Star State this year is the fact that Texas's biggest musical story was Kelly Clarkson. Yep, that's right. The bubbly blond from Burleson earned the (dubious) honor of winning American Idol and then shot to the top spot on the Billboard charts with her debut single, "A Moment Like This." What that has to do with Texas music is debatable at best.

However, our state can also claim one of the most gratifying artistic success stories of 2002 in Norah Jones. While the Dallas native was discovered in New York City, her education at Dallas's Washington High School (also alma mater to Erykah Badu, Roy Hargrove and Patrice Pike) gives us some bragging rights. In a year like this one, we need all the triumphs we can get.

Not just by default, the year in Texas music all but belongs to the Dixie Chicks. After a protracted legal battle with Sony Music over royalty payments, the threesome finally settled their differences with the record company. Meanwhile, they had made Home,a stripped-down record that took the group back toward its acoustic bluegrass roots, and even though it won't be quite the blockbuster that Wide Open Spaces and Fly were, sales are already into the millions, and it shows that the Chicks can call their own tune and the fans will follow. And it is the finest and most artistic country album released all year, if not one of the best in any category.

The Flatlanders finally released another album some 30 years after their debut. Now Again is a pleasant enough affair, and has far outsold any solo efforts by Messrs. Ely, Gilmore and Hancock. But its whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, nor is it as cosmic and visionary as their long-ago debut. Nonetheless, the higher profile it has afforded these veteran talents will no doubt serve the cause of good Texas music well in the long run.

Pat Green failed to break out nationally, despite appearing on Late Night with David Letterman and the cover of Texas Monthly. The Texas Music (Bowel) Movement he spearheads continues to run its course, which means more dumb songs about Texas and not much else, despite the local popularity of many of the acts under the rubric. Yes, more of them crop up like weeds, and no, not one of them is worth a damn. Okay, Kevin Fowler, who is only loosely affiliated with the ball cap frat country crowd, is to be admired for his resolutely redneck country, but that's about it. -- Rob Patterson

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