Well Aware

Think of Aware Records as the little label that could. For better or for worse, the Chicago-based imprint -- with brief histories in Boston, Vail, Colorado, and Dallas -- is partly responsible for launching the careers of several of modern rock's most profitable players. Perhaps most impressive is the way the label has maintained its indie credibility the whole way, even as it enters a deal with industry giant Columbia.

You might remember Aware bellwether bands Better Than Ezra and Hootie and the Blowfish, both of which broke the frat-rock cult barrier earlier in the decade soon after contributing songs to Aware II, the label's second compilation of unsigned talent. Other, more recent additions to Aware's inventory of nationwide success stories include the Verve Pipe, Matchbox 20 (then called Tabitha's Secret) and Mighty Joe Plum. The question of whether those acts, with their ubiquitous goatees-and-guitars formula, will still be burning up the charts a few years from now (unlikely in this era of the one-hit wonder) is really not the issue -- not so long as Aware is on a roll, anyway.

The label's third annual showcase tour kicks off this month to promote the label's fifth compilation, Aware 5, as well as the first two groups signed to the new Aware/Columbia venture, Train and Nineteen Wheels. Both of the latter are lovable, if stylistically unremarkable, roots-rock outfits touting debut releases that hardly do their energetic live shows justice. For the label's latest store of unsigned artists, Aware scouts also dipped into the Texas talent pool, plucking out Houston-bred Trish Murphy, who headlines Aware's show in Houston Wednesday. Hometown bias aside, Murphy's wily, irresistible "Concession Stand Song" -- lifted intact from her 1997 debut, Crooked Mile -- is one of 5's standouts. Its excellence also underscores that Aware's compilations are light on the female perspective."

Regardless of its shortcomings in the originality department, Aware deserves credit for its music-first philosophy and artist-friendly policies. And its grassroots rise to prominence is nothing short of heartening. The label was founded in 1993 by then-Boston resident Gregg Latterman, who wanted to see bands with strong regional followings expand their fan bases. From that goal emerged his idea for the Aware compilation: a selection of well-produced tracks by unsigned acts, marketed on the assumption that each band's fans would buy the disc and learn about other exciting acts.

Latterman had help along the way, often from the artists themselves. As it turns out, the now-defunct Jackopierce (who found themselves the object of a major-label bidding war after the first Aware compilation) were instrumental in the release of Aware II, helping Latterman in his temporary move to their Dallas hometown. That 1994 disc featured, in addition to Hootie, Better Than Ezra and the Verve Pipe, regional favorites Edwin McCain and Vertical Horizon.

Three Aware tours, three compilations and a couple of major-label signings later, Aware has relocated to Chicago (so that Latterman can pursue his M.B.A.) and is in cahoots with Columbia. With a distribution kingpin at its disposal, the once-tiny imprint's reach is now almost limitless. All of which, so far, has meant next to nothing for still-struggling unsigned artists like Trish Murphy. But who knows? If she plays her cards right, it could mean everything.

-- Hobart Rowland

The Aware Showcase, with Trish Murphy, Nineteen Wheels and Train, begins at 9 p.m. Wednesday, February 25, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $6. For info, call 869-COOL.

Bryan White -- Bryan White may be known as a country artist, but his recorded output makes it clear that he also has a passion for pop. And, of course, that can be a tricky situation within an industry that often goes out of its way to play up an artist's "authentic" country roots -- real or no. But in his young career, White has already helped give unabashed pop hooks a good name in Nashville. The Oklahoma native came to the Music City in 1992 and quickly landed a songwriting contract and an artist management deal, signing with the Asylum label in '93. His eponymous 1995 debut and its 1996 follow-up, Between Now and Forever, have spawned a steady stream of Top 10 singles, including the number one hits "Someone Else's Star," "Rebecca Lynn," "I'm Not Supposed to Love You Anymore" and "So Much for Pretending."

His image, too, straddles the pop/country divide. At 23, he's a bona fide teen idol, clean-cut and fair-haired, down-to-earth and openly single. Is it much of a stretch to call White the Donny Osmond of modern country music? We think not. Opening for LeAnn Rimes at 4 p.m. Sunday, February 22, at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Astrodome. Tickets are $10 and $12. 629-3700. (Alan Sculley)


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