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Houston's Gone Gaaga for Haaga

A former king of the Texas metal world unites Houston's warring rock tribes and wins a passel of Music Awards

The votes have been counted and the shows have been played. The deal's gone down, and the winners have their wonderful trophies.

Houston's finest musical extravaganza -- one day in which Houston's downtown is transformed into Sixth Street during South By Southwest -- has come and gone, and a few days after that we held an awards bash at the Meridian and doled out the hardware and the plaudits. Chango Jackson, Michael Haaga, LoneStar PornStar, Faceplant and Drop Trio treated the packed room to a song apiece…A local music luminary -- in this year's case Wendy Miller of KIOL -- served as emcee. Sponsors were thanked…A presenter or two badly garbled the names of some of the candidates, raucous hecklers abounded, a couple of musicians puked on the floor…But we won't tell you who any of those people were. And when it was all over, cars full of revelers made their way to Poison Girl, Rudyard's, Leon's, Lola's, the Continental…

In other words, it was a typical Press Music Awards show, except somehow this one seemed to rise above all the rest. Maybe it was the fact that the Meridian -- unlike so many of the venues we have used in the past -- has one of those "air-conditioner" things you hear about sometimes. (Or maybe it was just the fact that it's the best venue in town for this event in general. Kudos to the Meridian's Bob Fuldauer for hosting such a great party.)

Clockwise from left:  Kelly Doyle, Brian Davis, Jason 
McMaster and Michael Haaga.
Clockwise from left: Kelly Doyle, Brian Davis, Jason McMaster and Michael Haaga.
John Evans
John Evans
Los Skarnales
Daniel Kramer
Los Skarnales
Los Skarnales
Daniel Kramer
Los Skarnales
LoneStar PornStar and friends
Daniel Kramer
LoneStar PornStar and friends
Sevrin
Daniel Kramer
Sevrin
Lisa Novak
Daniel Kramer
Lisa Novak

As usual, there were a few surprise first-time winners -- Sevrin taking Best Metal, LoneStar PornStar snatching the Alt-Rock, Fatal Flying Guilloteens finally winning in punk -- and plenty of repeat winners (that Cactus-Big Easy-Zydeco Dots-Mucky Duck-Blanco's aristocracy that wins its respective contest as inevitably each year as the earth rotates on its axis).

Multiple winners included other perennials -- John Evans, Los Skarnales and Drop Trio -- but the biggest kahuna of all this year was Michael Haaga, who took home no fewer than four major awards, and five if you include the one awarded to Best Guitar winner Kelly Doyle, who also plays in Three Fantastic and Clouseaux.

Anyway, time to start handing out the laurels, so without further ado…

Album of the Year
The Plus and Minus Show, Michael Haaga

Songwriter of the Year
Michael Haaga

Song of the Year
"If and When," Michael Haaga

Local Artist of the Year
Michael Haaga

Best Guitarist
Kelly Doyle (Clouseaux, Three Fantastic, Michael Haaga)

"I wonder what the world would think of my song," runs the first line of Michael Haaga's "If and When." The jury's still out on what the planet thinks, but for right now, Houstonians seem pretty high on it. Just as they are on Haaga's album, the rest of the songs on it, and his guitarist. It's no exaggeration to say that Houston is gaaga for Haaga.

Not to mention the man himself. Every time his name was read out from a list of candidates, bands across the room started hollering for him to win -- and what was weird about it was that these cheers came from several entirely distinct camps of Houston's notoriously cliquish rock scene.

How did he pull that one off? By being inclusive, by not being so caught up in his own little scenelet. Metal dudes wanted him to win because Haaga was once -- still is -- one of the most prominent musicians in that genre this city has produced. Indie rock dudes -- at least those who were in Bring Back the Guns -- wanted him to win, because Erik Bogle, that band's guitarist, played on Haaga's album. Hippies and roots rockers were pulling for him because Carolyn Wonderland, Chris King and Leesa Harrington-Squyres also played on the record. The old guard was rooting for him because people like Scott Ayers of the Pain Teens was on the album; some of the youngsters dig Haaga because Derek Dunivan's on there, too. Ramon Medina of Linus Pauling Quartet was pulling for Haaga because he believes, as I do, that the album freakin' rocks and is an ambitious masterwork of slightly surreal pop-rock genius, but that's another story.

What we're talking about here is this: When bands as diverse as LoneStar PornStar and Bring Back the Guns are both in your corner, you've done the Houston music equivalent of walking on water, and I half-expected to find fierce lions spooning little bitty lambs on the Meridian's curtained divans. (Hell, Haaga even looks a little like a beardless, bespectacled Jesus.) And since the working music community votes heavily in these awards, you're damn likely to win a few of 'em if you can unite those warring tribes the way he did.

"In Houston it always seemed to me that people were a little too uptight about music," a hungover and happy Haaga said the day after. "It's kinda corny to say so, but if somebody could make it and push things here, it's nothing but good for everybody. As David Letterman would say, 'It's not a competition -- no wagering!' "

Haaga was extremely gratified by his diversity of support. "That makes me feel really good, and I really do like all kinds of fuckin' music. Shit, Jason McMaster [Haaga's bass player] is about as metal as you can fuckin' get, and Erik Bogle's on the record, too. Hopefully that will send a message that music is just art and not a competition to be the coolest dude…But then it is great to win awards!" -- John Nova Lomax Best Jazz
Best Funk/R&B/Reggae
Drop Trio

Best Keyboardist (Ian Varley)
www.droptrio.com

Somewhere, Jimmy Smith must be smiling. It seems appropriate that the instrumental funk/ jazz/prog-rock Drop Trio should take top honors in the same year that the influential organist passed away. Drop Trio (Ian Varley on keyboards, Mike "Nuje" Blattel on drums and new member Patrick Flanagan on bass) trips the sound fantastic with its amalgamated "spaceship rock." "We are totally honored," Varley said after collecting the first of three trophies. This year saw the band stretching even further with the experimental, totally improvised music on Leap, and fans could follow the group's live progression via extensive free full concert downloads from their Web site to compare different, jam-band-friendly versions of "Wreck of the Zephyr" and "Lefty's Alone." "Every single show, we're reaching for something totally new, and it's exciting," Varley said. "And when you hear a whole show, it has a different character than just individual songs." Hunched over his keyboards like a mad professor concentrating on his next experiment, he sets the standard for piano men by eliciting fat and funky tones out of his Hammond and Rhodes instruments -- all while sporting the best beard on the Houston music scene. Look for the band to release the self-explanatory Live at Cezannein late October. -- Bob Ruggiero

Best Male Vocalist
Best Roots Rock/Rockabilly
John Evans

Just when you think Houston doesn't support its artists well or have much of an original music scene, something happens to you like what just happened to John Evans.

"Man, we were playing CBGB's in New York and we thought, 'How cool is this?' Like we've finally hit the place. Then the openers are like this friggin' jam band and the lead instrument is a flute! Even worse, the band after us is an all-girl band whose shtick is -- are you ready for this? I mean, we're at CBGB's now -- fuckin' ray guns. This one girl actually told us, 'We're a lot heavier than you, but we hope you'll stick around and see our show.' I almost cried when, right in the middle of her set, she said, 'Can I get more iPod in the monitor?' People really dug us there, but man, were we ever aware of how much great music there is in Houston after that deal."

Evans, who's won multiple Press awards muchos tiempos, likes Houston because "there's all these great players and bands, guys like Hayes Carll and Los Skarnales and Resin Valley Boys, stuff that is just so original and artistic and unlike anything else you ever run into out there on the road. And they're not just hacking away at it like it's some cool hobby, they're real artists, perfectionists. Once you've gotten out of here some, you realize most of the good bands here aren't trying to fit into some genre or some commercial clique, and that's why Houston is such a great musical place to be from." -- William Michael Smith Best Rock en Español
Los Skarnales

Best Bassist
Nick Gaitan (Los Skarnales)

Were it not for Haaga's huge year, this would have been almost as much el año deLos Skarnales, who won these two awards and finished a close second to Haaga in the Album of the Year stakes. Folks, this band is peaking right here, right now. If you haven't seen 'em in a while, if you're put off by the idea of seeing a band that has "ska" in its name because that's, like, "so 1996," put aside your prejudices and get your elitist ass down to one of their shows. These days, their blue-collar barrio blend encompasses not just ska and punk and rockabilly, but also norteño, cumbia, ragga/dancehall and even some elements that sound like zydeco. It's like somebody took all the sounds coming out of Houston's eastside petrochemical sprawl, dropped them in a molcajete and mashed them up into one kick-ass guacamole of a band. Most of you know what Navigation Boulevard and Canal Street look like -- this is what they sound like. -- JNL

Best Major-Label Hip-hop
Mike Jones

What's that you say, Mike? "Back then they didn't love me. Now I'm hot they all on me." Bullshit, dude. This is the second time you've won one of these awards -- you can read about it in our archives. Matt Sonzala said you were Houston's next big thing, and as usual Sonzeezy was on point. So, in fact, we didn't think you were too chubby last year, and we damn sure don't this year. We still want to love you, dude, and we showed that love long before BET and MTV knew the answer to your "Who is Mike Jones?" query. We already knew your digits -- 281-330-8004 -- by heart. So don't come talkin' that "Back Then" noise at us! -- JNL

Best Punk
Fatal Flying Guilloteens

Until this year, the infamous Guilloteens were fast becoming one of this event's Susan Luccis. One band had always come between them and top honors, and the Guilloteens would now like to send those guys some props: "We'd like to thank 30footFALL for breaking up," quipped guitarist Brian McGuilloteen, a.k.a. Press columnist Brian McManus, whose Nightfly predecessor, Craig D. Lindsey, accepted the award on the Guilloteens' behalf. Who knows, though? The Guilloteens played a ton of ferocious local shows this year and their margin of victory was pretty big, so they might have sewn it up this time around even with the 30foot dudes. At any rate, Houston's gonna have to wait a while for their next show. Last week's local gig was their final scheduled here until after their six-week national tour. That jaunt will take them to New York (where they will play at CMJ), L.A. (where they will play the Knitting Factory) and then back to Houston (where they will play at Fat Cat's) on October 21. -- JNL

Best Indie Hip-hop
Chingo Bling

Chingo couldn't go pick up his award because, as one of his peeps explained, he was in San Antonio filming a Bud Light commercial. No doubt some of the backpacker types among you will grouse about that not being a very "indie hip-hop" thing to do -- Bud Light! Da horra! -- but we think you should just zip it. Chingo is independent and Chingo is hip-hop. And what's more, he's a comedic genius and a unique character who could come from only Houston. -- JNL

Best Alt-Rock
LoneStar PornStar

"Funk-driven, ass-shakin', gangster style, hard rock and then some" is LoneStar PornStar's self-description, and evidently there's a bunch of you funky, hard-rockin' gangsters with shaking asses out there. Man, talk about coming out of nowhere. LSPS has been around for a little over a year, and here they are winning this intensely competitive category, beating out the likes of previous winner Silverleaf and several other bands with huge local followings. Good stuff's busting out all over for these guys: The band members are signing endorsement deals with instrument makers, studios are giving them free time, and now the band has topped it all with this award. -- JNL

Best World Music
The Gypsies

Look at a map of Europe -- hell, make it one that includes all of Russia, North Africa and the Middle East -- and pick a country at random. No matter if you come up with Syria, Moldova or Ireland, Gypsies bandleader Greg Harbar could probably play you ten or 20 tunes from that country on his trusty accordion. What's more, the gray-maned, heavily mustached Byelorussian-American with the Gypsy soul could discourse at length about that country's song traditions and finest musicians. Harbar seems to be aging in reverse these days, and his band has one of its best lineups ever. Which is saying something, as this is the Gypsies' fifth win in this category (or one very much like it). "I'm just thrilled to death," Harbar says. "This makes me want to do something new. I'm looking for another guitarist. I want to start mixing in some Middle Eastern Gypsy disco flamenco stuff."

See what we meant at the top of this blurb? -- JNL

Best Folk/Acoustic
Hayes Carll

Carll couldn't play at our showcase or pick up his award for the best of all reasons: He was on tour, playing to big crowds full of important people in places like Chicago and Nashville. (His Ego Brother cohort John Evans accepted on his behalf.) For Carll -- a multiple previous honoree whose "Highway 87" was 2003's Song of the Year -- the crowds promise to get only bigger from here. Later this year, the lanky, laconic troubadour will be opening up for country/Americana legend Buddy Miller in places like London and Dublin. (Or at least that was the plan -- after I typed that line I got word that Miller canceled that tour for "family reasons." Carll hopes the tour will be rescheduled for January.) And to think -- a few short years ago, the only people who knew about Hayes were the hard-core regulars at Wrecks Bell's Old Quarter in downtown Galveston, where Carll honed both his talents -- performing and raising hell -- to razor-sharp perfection. Still, his fame has yet to catch up with his talents. To paraphrase Steve Earle, the road lays long behind this kid, and he's still got miles to go. -- JNL

Best Drummer
Paul "Falcon" Valdez (Tody Castillo)

To use a football analogy, some drummers are like Earl Campbell. They're all about power -- they get back there on that stool and knock the snot out of stuff. Think Ginger Baker or Keith Moon or one of those north Mississippi blues guys for a musical comparison. Others are like Barry Sanders -- they dance, they dip, they dodge, they duck around corners. They always surprise you. Paul "Falcon" Valdez fills that bill. It's always amazing to hear the variety of sounds he gets from his tiny kit, and even though you find yourself sometimes focused on his grooves when he plays behind Tody Castillo, he's not obtrusive by any stretch of the imagination. His is the perfect accompaniment to Castillo's honeyed tenor: a gentle cascade of thwaps, jingles and hisses. -- JNL

Best Cover Band
Molly & the Ringwalds

Sure, Ronald Reagan is still dead, at least until Republicans can revive his corpse, but this totally awesome '80s band is flying higher than 99 Luftballons. And whether it's the raucous ("She's Tight"), mawkish ("Voices Carry") or Mohawkish ("Sheena Is a Punk Rocker"), the all-Ringwald surname coalition of Carrie, Jennifer, Sam, Dekan and Gene parties hardy like Kurt Cobain never existed. "We were happy that a Continental Club band won," said Carrie of their third consecutive victory. They also get bonus points for constantly changing up their set lists. Jennifer says they will be adding many more "gay-tees" songs to their repertoire. Gay-tees? "They're cheesy '80s danceable songs like 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go' and 'It's Raining Men,' " she says. The Ringwalds also want to encourage "more making out and porn" among audience members when they play Journey's "Open Arms." And be sure to check out the band photo on their Web site, which now appears in an official DeLorean car calendar! -- BR

Best Record Store
Cactus Music & Video

This perennial favorite continues its stranglehold on this category for two simple reasons: They stock things you can't get anywhere else in town, and the staffers know their shit. "Some of our best-sellers have been [rare] EPs by Death Cab for Cutie, Son Volt and Queens of the Stone Age," says manager/guru Quinn Bishop, who also carries plenty of local and regional artists unavailable elsewhere. (Not to mention a well-stocked selection of CDs from the Bee Gees, who, according to Bishop's girlfriend, are his favorite band.) The store also has started a "Build a Better Music Library" sale that encourages buyers to check out original classic albums rather than best of/greatest hits compilations. And though toys, shirts, videos and knickknacks take up a good chunk of floor space, Cactus still has the widest and most eclectic selection of music anywhere in Houston -- though they may apparently need wider vintage racks. "Our vinyl business has grown significantly," Bishop adds. Time to reorder those '70s-era LP dust brushes. -- BR

Best Salsa/Reggaetón/Latin Pop
Mango Punch

You've got to say one thing for the Punch: They are versatile. Boleros, lite jazz, mariachi, Tejano, rock en español and English, merengue, swing and (of course) tropical music might all coexist peacefully in one set. But it's the dance-floor-filling cumbia and salsa music in which the Walter Suhr-led ensemble really excels, getting hot booties of all nationalities together on the dance floor. Hey, UN, are you listening? Suhr, a native of Guatemala who has made Houston his home since the mid-'80s, alternately oversees, directs and pushes his players (who include Abbie Moolchan, Chad Tumminello, Daniel Prado and Doris Rios) like a Latino James Brown into a unit that could stop on a peso and rev it right back up for both Latino and Anglo audiences. And though they have three CDs under their belts, Mango Punch is best ladled out live. -- BR

Best Blues
Texas Johnny Brown

Not only did Texas Johnny Brown write what may be the greatest blues song ever to come out of the Bayou City (Bobby "Blue" Bland's monster hit "Two Steps from the Blues"), but he can trace his lineage all the way back to Amos Milburn and the Aladdin Chickenshackers; their biggest hit, "Chicken Shack Boogie," was the rage in Houston (and nationally) in 1948.

Any blues collector could die happy if his collection only consisted of sides that included Mr. Brown. The list is staggering: Ruth Brown, Junior Parker, Buddy Ace, Lavelle White and Lightnin' Hopkins. A studio mainstay for Aladdin and Atlantic Records as well as a member of the Duke/Peacock studio ensemble, Brown didn't just play with all the greats of Houston blues guitar, he held his own with them. And he continues to write, record and, most important, play live. The man is the Man, one of our true musical treasures. It's almost a crime that there's not a statue of Texas Johnny Brown somewhere on Dowling Street or Lyons Avenue. Or on the lawn at City Hall. -- WMS

Best Pop-Punk
O'Doyle Rules

If a band credits both Weezer and Weird Al Yankovic as influences, then you can rest assured that its "concept record" won't have that highfalutin a concept. That's just fine for this trio, whose name is an in joke from the Adam Sandler flick Billy Madison. Last year's self-released No Place Else to Go takes an overplayed subject (a bitter breakup) and still manages to tell a coherent and honest story. The current lineup includes Scott Doyle (vocals, guitar), Matt Hone (bass) and new drummer Bill McGraw, and they eschew the tired Blink/Charlotte nursery-rhyme, sing-songy rhythms in favor of a mall punk with meatier guitar riffs. It's true that there's plenty of room for this act to grow and develop, but artistically, they've already broken out of the pack. -- BR

Best Rock/Pop
The Handsomes

Massive word-of-mouth and packed (actually, overpacked) shows -- often at the Continental Club and the Lounge -- have certainly paid off for this soulful quartet with their tentacles in ska, funk, and pop. Not to mention a huge fan base that will finally get a record sometime by year's end. Jordon Blackwell (vocals), David Nachtigall (guitar/vocals), Ben Stark (bass) and newest member Patrick Kelly (drums) have found that small island of confluence between the continents of college rock and party rock. "This is great. I mean, we've only been playing two years and we've won the award twice," Stark says. "I also think we've matured a lot and now know [better] about what to expect from each other as players." And though they'll tell you their name is ironic, you wouldn't know it by the amount of outrageously hot women who regularly jump on stage to dance with the group. Stark swears up and down that they will finally enter the studio in a couple of months. "It's coming!" he adds. "I promise!" -- BR

Best Metal
Sevrin

A surprise winner in a competitive category, Sevrin is known just as much for its aggressive, those-boys-need-some-Ritalin shows as its Incubus/Linkin Park/Korn-influenced sound. Singer Sam Ammash, bassist Chris Murray, drummer (and ska fan) Mike Mann and new guitarist Kyle Coffey have just released Alone, a three-song EP that actually has moody, slower, heavier moments amid the filth and the fury. "Metal is pretty big in Houston, and there are a lot of good bands," Ammash says. "But to win this -- it's unreal!" Murray adds that the addition of Coffey will make the band sound better, and Ammash elaborates that they promise to be "more commercial, but still with an edge." They've also made great use of the struggling band's newest best friend -- MySpace.com -- to spread the message. Sevrin will now hunker down and write songs on a full-length CD, which they hope to have out next April. -- BR

Best Jam/Improvisational Rock Band
Moses Guest

Previous winners in the Best Rock/Pop category, Moses Guest is occasionally described as Houston's own version of the Grateful Dead, but that's a lazy and essentially meaningless comparison. Graham Guest's band is known for innovative musical transitions and brain-teaser psychedelic noodlings, but the trump card is the Southern rock touch that takes the Guest sound into some of those twisting Allman Brothers alleys where the Dead were unlikely to tread. Despite their jam band reputation, the band put out a tightly meshed studio album, Guest Motel, in '04 that highlighted musical skill over showmanship and proved they could tighten it up and trim it down when necessary. -- WMS

Best Female Vocalist
Lisa Novak

Novak is another perennial club fave getting some just recognition after years in the trenches of obscurity. Despite her day job, she's maintained a long-standing Friday-night showcase at the Harp where her style -- soft alt-country mixed with savvy pop and jangly folk -- is a perfect fit. She augments this regular gig with shows at such diverse venues as Rudz, the Continental and most recently the Armadillo Palace. Novak -- a winner last year with sometimes singing partner Melinda Mones in the Folk/Acoustic category -- has as her specialty slightly jaded, I-see-through-you, almost-love songs. Her sophisticated writing has finally begun to get some attention from the ladies of Nashville. Novak always avoids the saccharin, and she's working on a new set of songs for an album to follow up her 2004 release, Tougher Skin. -- WMS

Best Zydeco
Zydeco Dots

Do you think places like St. Louis or Cincinnati or Minneapolis have a Best Zydeco category? Hell, no. All the more reason to thank your lucky stars that the Dots call Houston home. Over the past 18 years, these guys have become an institution, a movable feast, an instant party, the ultimate good-time band. One of the hardest-working groups around, the Dots usually leave a trail of sweaty dancers slumped in chairs when they wind down one of their marathon boogaloos. This gumbo recipe never fails, which is why the Dots are perennial winners -- champs every year but one -- in this category. 'Nuff said. -- WMS

Best C&W
Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys

The name alone is enough to get you arrested, but the Reefers take country several tokes over the line with their amped-up Hank Sr.-meets-the-Ramones treatments. They call their country-on-steroids brand of music THC -- Texas Hill Country -- and they not only talk the talk, they walk the walk when the lights go down. Steel guitarist Dan Johnson recalls Lloyd Maines's early putting-the-psychedelic-back-in-country work with the Joe Ely Band, and vocalist Sean Raiford -- a former bandmate of John Evans, the guy they unseated in this category -- puts the authentic country keen in the Reefer sound. Like all the best H-town country outfits, the Resiners have no compunction about swerving over the yellow into rock or red-lining the tachometer into punk territory, which makes these first-time winners crowd faves at clubs as diverse as the Continental, Fitzgerald's and Last Concert Cafe. Now, when does the rest of the country catch on? -- WMS

Best Indie Rock
Bring Back the Guns

It's not the first time the boys in BBTG (formerly Groceries) have had Best Indie honors hoisted upon them by Space City's adoring public, and it's for good reason. The quartet weaves infectious, spastic and complex confections that are a sweet ear treat. In fact, the band has nearly outgrown traditional applications of the term "indie" (unkempt and barely crafted slacker tunes à la Pavement) with the many tempo changes, time signature freak-outs and red-faced blowouts that dot their tight-as-a-Simon Cowell-tee live set. -- Brian McManus

Best Screamo/Hardcore
The Last Place You Look

"Surprised" was guitarist Richard Sherwood's reaction to his band's win. Asked who he thought might take the trophy, he humbly replied, "All the others. We thought everyone [in our category] was more popular than us." The five of them will keep their hard-earned statue in their rehearsal space at Francisco Studios, perhaps as a reminder of just how far they've come in only two short years. The band will forgo its usual winter tour to record in October. Soon after, they will begin shopping their product to majors and larger indies like Victory Records. -- BM

Best DJ
DJ Sun

DJ Sun continues to dominate with his soular grooves and house beats. One of the most recognized names of deckdom, Sun can be seen all around the city behind the ones and twos, from sleek, upscale lounges (Social) to the relaxed vibes of the coffeehouse (Onion Creek). And it seems that whether you're fully caffeinated or sleepy with hops, DJ Sun can still manage to find the tracks to fit your mood. That's why he's so good and why, again, he has another Houston Pressfeather in his cap. -- BM

Houston's Finest Venues

With the exception of Azteca's upset win over Elvia's, Houstonians tend to vote for the same venues year in and year out. And most of them won again this year. Followers of this event will already know these winners by heart. But for those of you who are new in town, here's the list:

Best Folk Venue: McGonigel's Mucky Duck

Best Latin Venue: Azteca's Bar and Grill

Best Concert Venue: Verizon Wireless Theater

Best C&W Venue: Blanco's

Best Blues/R&B Venue: The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club

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