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More Fun than a Barrel of Monkeys

Dispatches from the 17th annual Houston Press Music Awards

Allen Hill, the High Priest of the Oldies, has the best take on Sunday night's Music Awards showcase. He's in his tux, red-faced and sweating after his gig, when he delivers it to me on Main near the Preston light rail stop.

"If you only go out to hear live music one night a year, this should be the night," he says. "Just for once, you should skip the movies and the restaurant meal and come out and see bands."

We couldn't agree more. This is my sixth go-round with this deal, and I think it just might have been the most downright fun one of all. The only way I could have had more fun is if I had a few clones so I could catch more of the shows.

My festivities began at Live Sports Cafe, where JW Americana positively scorched. This was despite the fact that behind them on the stage was a bank of four or five huge TVs playing sports, and at the other end of the room, a poker game raged. We're okay with the latter -- after all, degenerate gamblers have to have their fix -- but come on, Live people: Switch the fucking TVs off when the bands are playing, if only on this one day. JW front man Rodney Elliott played it off gamely. "Welcome to Padre Island," he said from the stage. "We hope you're having a great time on your spring break." And despite the fact that drummer L.C. Dupree had broken his knuckle playing the night before, despite the fact that the band had told me that they had been up until five in the morning that same night and all had seriously severe hangovers, and despite the fact you could see a golf match, the A's-Twins game and the 1992 Peach Bowl all raging behind them, they pulled it off.

Mrs. Racket had joined me by then and we next headed over to the Hooters stage in Market Square for the last couple of songs of what was, for Los Skarnales, a very low-key, if still enjoyable, set. Temperatures of 95 degrees will do that to a band. And to a music critic, for that matter -- Mrs. Racket and I repaired for the next hour to the hospitality suite in the Rice Hotel's Empire Room, where all the bands congregated before and after their sets. In another room off to the side, Los Skarnales bassist Nick Gaitan, drummer Beans Wheeler and a guitarist I didn't know were playing laid-back ska-blues in the vein of James Hunter.

We headed back out at seven to go back to the Hooters stage to see Million Year Dance, who already have a backlash working against them. And it's easy to see why: The band takes chances. Singer Jonathan Welch took the stage looking like Gandhi -- he had on some kind of man-sari and some Hindu face paint. They had scattered some potted plants around on the stage, along with a few little statues of Buddha.

Welch has a million-dollar rock and roll voice, and when he takes it a cappella he can even silence the backlashers -- there were a few rowdies who were bordering on heckling the band, but for a minute or two he won over their grudging and fleeting respect. But overall the band comes over as way too dramatic and pompous -- we're talking Blue October levels of pretension here. (Like Blue October's Justin Furstenfeld, Welch has a background in drama.) In introducing one of his songs, Welch intoned something like "Have you found the ocean yet?" "Oh, dear," Mrs. Racket said.

So yeah, they don't have the big hit song yet, but they'll probably be huge. Welch has no problem taking himself seriously enough to be a Maynard James Keenan-type rock star, and while that won't win him many friends in other Houston bands, he probably has a platinum record in his future. I won't be buying it, but people who like that sort of thing like that sort of thing.

Next, the two of us tried to catch some of Medicine Show's gig at the Red Cat, but we were turned away at the door -- those guys packed the place tight. (Actually, the Red Cat was packed all night long.) We also made a wrong turn trying to get to see the Legendary K.O. at the Mercury Room, so we ended up popping in to St. Pete's for the last couple of songs by country-rock/Americana songsmith David Brake, who was as solidly professional as ever. The guy writes freaking incredible songs and really knows how to work a crowd.

But on this night, nobody worked it better than Opie Hendrix, who took the M Bar stage with his red hair lacquered up into a giant spiky Mohawk. And the dude was simply sanctified up there -- the band was finely honed after a month or so on the road, and Hendrix was utterly consumed. M Bar is in an old art deco bank building, and when Hendrix walked out into the crowd on a couple of tunes, I couldn't help but have flashbacks to Albert Collins at Rockefeller's in 1984. (Not for the first time, it occurred to me what a shame it is that these venues don't do live music more often -- downtown has the nicest rooms in town.)

I stuck around M Bar and caught the first half of Chango Jackson's set -- this time around the guys decided to be German, so they decked themselves out in white face paint and "Sprockets"-style black turtlenecks. (God knows why -- maybe it had something to do with that "Do you vant to touch my monkey" catchphrase.) They opened with a jokey piano jazz intro and then tore into "Sana Sana" and then never let up after that. And then I took the hike over to Brewery Tap to see the Fatal Flying Guilloteens, who were as good as I've ever seen them. Seems like the less often they rehearse, the better they get. The Alvarez Report: Our New Assistant Music Editor Weighs In

I loved the Free Radicals at the Grasshopper -- they filled the room with sound without blowing everyone out the door. This had to be my favorite performance. Tight band, deep, dirty baritone sax, with an equally talented tenor. With all the Texas tenors who have played Houston, it's hard to measure up, but this guy did. And the crowd was most into them. It wasn't abstract, "I'm too deep to be understood" jazz, but they did push and pull the melodies around, stretching them into something fresh. Upright bass, percussionist -- all of them were dead on. And there was just enough New Orleans jazz/funk thrown in without it becoming a stereotypical Louisiana band.

As for Bojones at the Hooters stage, the guitar player was toooooooo white and skinny to be on stage with no shirt. You should be in better shape if you're gonna do that, or at least get some sun -- every time the light hit him at a certain angle, it looked like he was glowing. I really liked the guy on the keys, despite his tendency to get so abstract.

The Riff Tiffs are a nominee for Best New Act, and that seemed appropriate. Their instrumentals didn't bother the crowd, and the lack of a singer on those songs didn't keep them from finding plenty of melodies. And Casino was pretty good -- the guys sound like they're ready for a bigger pond than Houston.

God's Temple of Family Deliverance, on the other hand, did not play the room. They were way, way too loud, and way, way too wild. They didn't notice that they were losing the crowd. If you want to please just yourself, play in your garage. If you want to please -- or at least interest -- a crowd, look up sometimes and see how it's going.

I noticed that more than any other band that night, Los Skarnales brought -- and took -- their own crowd with them. Lots of folks were gone by the time poor Tody Castillo took the stage. More people overlapped at the other shows, but the Skarnales fans were there for Los Skarnales first and everyone else a distant second. It was similar with the Zydeco Dots: Like Skarnales, this crowd came for them. But while I saw the Skarnales fans walking around after, the Dots' people zoomed.

The Hunger worked a crowd better than anyone else I saw. They sounded fine -- I loved the keyboard player swinging his piano all over. You've got to find a way to hold everyone's attention, and they did. It was almost like they were checking in with the crowd every few bars: "Sing, sing, sing... (Y'all still with us?) Okay, sing, sing, sing, (still okay?)... Okay, sing, sing." And they seemed to get the most sound per pound -- not a lot of musicians, but lots and lots of sound. They had a sweet time slot, people were just drunk enough to loosen up, but not so drunk that they didn't get the music.

I loved the Ceeplus street team standing outside the Jéfe Bar telling everyone that there was free beer inside. It worked -- people would wander in and then get caught up by the music. He sounded fine, and of everyone, he probably had the hardest room to work.

For me, "best music" honors overall go to the Free Radicals, while the Hunger had the best stage show, but my favorite performance of the night was the drunken "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" free jam in the Rice around 8:30 p.m.

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