John Evans
John Evans
Jeff Fitlow

Big John and Little Joe

Like the record-breaking Sunday-afternoon showcase, the Wednesday-night awards show was hot, hot, hot. While Garden in the Heights' air-conditioning system was operating at only 40 percent capacity, Houston's music community was firing on all cylinders. The turnout for the showcase was over 8,000 this year, an all-time high, and the awards dinner was similarly well attended. In the end, the night belonged to John Evans, one of the tallest musicians in town, and Little Joe Washington, who, as his name implies, is among the shortest.

If you're gonna have an awards ceremony, it helps when the winners don't already know that they've won. Last year they did, and the room lacked the tension that was there in spades this year. Off-the-cuff acceptance speeches seem more heartfelt than prepared remarks, and as usual, nobody was more spontaneous than gnomish bluesman Washington. Though he did have a few things to say after the first of his two victories, it was when he snatched up a stray guitar and plucked a few bars of "The Star-Spangled Banner" with his teeth that he spoke the most clearly and directly. Needless to say, the patriotic notes brought down the house, and Little Joe has never been one to prime the pump and not take a drink. In a flash he was off the stage and in the crowd, passing his battered hat around and soliciting donations to the ongoing hurricane that is his life.

Little Joe's wins were the capper on a great night for the Continental Club Cosa Nostra, as we've dubbed the Main Street Mafiosi who work, play and in some cases actually live in the Midtown roots-rock bar. No, the club itself didn't win any awards -- the very eclecticism that draws patrons back week after week works against it in that regard. But its denizens were another matter. Pete Gray, a manager/booking agent at the club, took home Best Keyboardist honors and garnered a Best Cover Band nod for his work in the El Orbits, a band that also includes fellow Continental manager David Beebe and David's brother Paul, who also performs with Drifter, this year's Best New Act. Another El Orbiteer, Jim Henkel, saw his other band Flying Fish Sailors win Best Celtic, and Continental regular Jesse Dayton was selected as the best C&W act while his Tall Texas Tales garnered the Beaumont-bred Dayton Album of the Year honors. Then there's Little Joe, who lives above the club and performs every Wednesday at happy hour and whenever scheduled performers allow him to "share" the stage.

But on this night, at least, Little Joe's performances were brief. They weren't the only examples of outrageous behavior, either. In this department, slip-hoppers I-45 and punky rappers Simpleton were just about his match. Tony Avitia, of Best Rap winner I-45, noted that he had just been served with divorce papers by his soon-to-be-ex wife and that so far it had been a boon to his music career. "There's nothing that creates better material than a temporary restraining order!" he noted, sounding in spirit much like a mid-1970s George Jones. Later, accepting the award for Best Funk/R&B, Simpleton's B.C. thanked the I-45 guys for a "dime bag of real good bud" that he had enjoyed earlier in the evening with a 12-pack of Busch tall boys.

And by the end of the night, everybody, whether as sober as Billy Graham or as messed up as Simpleton, felt content with the world, as if we had consumed something that should be illegal. The presenters one and all (well, maybe not all -- after all, this writer was one of them) did a fantastic job, even if one of our number pronounced "zydeco" just about every way but the right one. As Press contributor Bob Ruggiero noted, special props are due to Channel 39's staid-looking Alan Hemberger, first for showing up, second for admitting to owning three Fenders and third for being hip enough to know the correct pronunciation of Irie Time.

So once again, it's time to go into Juan Antonio Samaranch mode. These were the most successful Houston Press Music Awards ever, and let's aim to be able to say the same thing when the dust settles this time next year. To that end, here's what we want for 2003: more. More categories, and thus more bands, and thus more people at the showcase and more venues participating. (The only thing we want less of is the jinx on Houston Press Music Awards winners.)

Last year we set a preliminary goal of 10,000 attendees and 100 bands, and we made big strides toward both. Mariachi, rockabilly, garage, regional Mexican, and various African, Middle Eastern and South and East Asian music categories could be added for next year, as could awards honoring the city's best radio DJ, record producer, recording studio, and also the Scenester of the Year, the musician or fan who has done the most to help Houston's scene thrive. Again, if you have any suggestions that would help us construct the perfect ballot, or if you want to be on the nominating committee, let us know.

One thing that we will definitely do next year is eliminate from contention all musicians who are not listed in the Texas Music Office's annual Texas Talent Register as living in the greater Houston area -- or those who cannot be reached routinely at a phone number with a 713, 281, 832 or 409 area code. The upshot of this edict is that musicians who once lived here but have moved to Austin or anywhere else will be barred from the ballot, except under special circumstances, such as Rodney Crowell releasing his Bayou City concept album The Houston Kid last year. (Under this decree, winners Shake Russell and Carolyn Wonderland likely would have been eliminated from contention this year. By virtue of his Houston label and management, Jesse Dayton would not.)

It's counterproductive for Houstonians to continue honoring people who have left us behind for what they consider to be the brighter lights and more bustling scene of Austin. Let's give the new crop of local musicians a reason to stick around. -- John Nova Lomax

Bob Ruggiero, Roger Wood and Craig D. Lindsey also contributed to this feature.

Songwriter of the Year, Best Male Vocalist, Local Musician of the Year
John Evans
"I don't believe it! I'm just an ol' country singer!" said a visibly shocked John Evans off-mike as he climbed the stairs to claim Local Musician of the Year honors and his third plaque of the night. The next day, he was still, as he put it, flabbergasted.

"This is just nuts," the deep-voiced singer said. "What a great deal. Just getting nominated four times tripped me out, but to win three…It's been nuts."

In a previous life, Evans was the greatest quarterback in Lamar University history and later a pro for the now-defunct New York/New Jersey Knights. If there's one thing quarterbacks learn, it's modesty -- otherwise the offensive linemen would allow that swell-headed punk who gets all the girls to be killed once in a while.

Evans has clearly carried that life lesson from the gridiron to the honky-tonk. "The main thing is I want to say thanks to my band," he says. "They turned everything around for me."

He's just getting started lauding his backers when there's a commotion in the background. "Hold on a second, someone's knockin' on my door," Evans tells the interviewer. "Oh, there you are," he says to whoever has arrived. "It's my band," he says, turning back to his acceptance speech. "They heard me talking about 'em and came on in."

Drummer Sean Raiford, lead guitarist Billy Beason and upright bassist Brad Jones are the grunts that Evans credits with leading him on his three touchdown drives this year. "They were young and inexperienced, but I could tell they were all real talented, and they've really done a great job of getting the stuff I was doing rockin'," Evans says of his band's evolution, noting that his previous band with "good buddy" Jack Saunders had sounded "too perfect and too clean."

"The band needed a nasty element to it, and that's what these guys brought to the table," Evans says, sounding very much like John Madden talking about the Washington Redskins' famed Hawgs of the late 1980s.

On the eve of the release of his long-awaited sophomore disc, Out of Control, the John Evans juggernaut will be exporting its Texas heat to cooler climes. The band has gigs set up in Nashville, Chicago, Milwaukee and New York. "But we didn't get to go to Virginia this time," Evans notes sadly. Virginia? Why sweat not going there? "A DJ up there flipped for us, and his station was playing our old record 90 times a week. We're huge in Farmville," Evans laughs. -- J.N.L.

Critic's picks:
Songwriter of the Year - Arthur Yoria
Best Male Vocalist - Greg Wood
Local Musician of the Year - John Evans

Best C&W Venue
Blanco's Bar & Grill
This charmingly low-key honky-tonk plays host to some shit-kickin', beer-drinkin' and little-filly-twirlin' good times. It's a gathering place for cowboys of all faiths -- Urban, Cosmic, Stiff Stetson and No Depression -- where grizzled retirees plop down next to frat rats. "I always try to support both new bands and the favorites. And it's important to have original country music," said manager Karin Barnes at the awards ceremony. "We've tried to do that for 15 years, ever since I've been there. And it's been really rewarding." Many of Blanco's regular performers (Roger Creager, Cory Morrow) have gone on to wider fame, while up-and-comers like John Evans also find a little piece of stage to call their own. -- B.R.

Critic's pick: Blanco's Bar & Grill

Best Latin
Norma Zenteno

Some things never change: The Astros' failure to win the pennant. The boom/bust cycle of the Houston economy. The recipe for the cheese enchiladas at Felix's. Norma Zenteno's success in the Houston Press Music Awards. She walked off with the Best Latin trophy yet again this year, despite the fact that we wrongly lumped her in the Tejano category as well. "I'm gonna kill somebody," she is said to have said about that. Meanwhile, the perennial winner is still gigging (catch her Friday, August 2, with Celia Cruz and Arturo Sandoval at the Houston International Jazz Festival), and she has replaced a certain musical ex-Astro as Casa Olé's spokeswoman. It's always Zenteno Time around here, so don't worry, Norma -- we won't trade you to Detroit for a salsera to be named later. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Los Skarnales

Best Celtic
Flying Fish Sailors
First-time winners FFS were more than happy to hook this prize, even though Celtic music is only a part of the band's repertoire. The Sailors also play old English ballads, folk and hilarious "novelty" numbers that still pass musical muster. "We're thrilled and honored after all these years; it gives us a good feeling," vocalist/whistles/clarinet player Joseph Linbeck said at the awards ceremony. "We've had some great songwriting and a great fan base, plus support from clubs and KPFT this year, and that meant a lot to us." More frequent gigging has also helped. Linbeck said that the group plans to stay busy during the fall festival season with gigs at Garden in the Heights and the Texas Renaissance Festival. FFS is also rereleasing its self-titled debut record from 1989. -- B.R.

Critic's pick: Flying Fish Sailors

Best Folk Venue
McGonigel's Mucky Duck
This frequent category winner has one of the most loyal (and cyber-savvy) customer bases in town. "It's gratifying to know that the audience appreciates the club and the music," said co-manager Rusty Andrews. "I think it has to do with the consistency of the artists who have graced our stage year after year." Indeed, in addition to regularly scheduled open mikes and Irish sessions, performers of regional and national fame (Kelly Willis, Derailers, Rory Block, Robbie Fulks, Junior Brown) frequently play here. And the club is as open to country, blues and other ethnic musics as it is to folk. If you need further prodding, the kitchen serves shepherd's pie and the bar draws Guinness. -- B.R.

Critic's pick: McGonigel's Mucky Duck

Best Traditional Blues, Best Guitarist
Little Joe Washington
Over the past few years this eccentric, incorrigibly scruffy 63-year-old bluesman has ascended to folk-hero status on the local scene. He's done so mainly by connecting with new fans beyond his native Third Ward turf, a phenomenon facilitated by his upstairs residency and weekly gig at the Continental Club, where he's considered a genial mascot of sorts. Though he began his career on drums, and dabbles with any musical instrument he can grab, Washington is generally acknowledged as the most uninhibited, risk-taking and spontaneously inventive guitarist in town. Many of his admirers point to his wailing, weathered voice (and his often improvised lyrical tirades) as much as his nimble fretwork on gut-bucket electric guitar as the basis for his bizarre genius. Meanwhile, his detractors -- some of his more professionally polished peers -- mutter about his ragged persona, occasionally brazen panhandling and disconcerting tendency to shift gears abruptly, mid-song, whenever a new idea strikes his strange fancy. But everyone concurs that this wiry, dreadlocked character is absolutely unique. Whether he's bumming money, pedaling his patched-together 20-inch bicycle across town, impishly flirting with women or stunning another audience with his raw musicianship and onstage antics, there's nobody else like Little Joe. -- R.W.

Critic's picks:
Best Traditional Blues - Texas Johnny Brown
Best Guitarist - I.J. Gosey

Best Folk
Shake Russell
So visible -- thanks to frequent gigs at the Old Quarter, the Mucky Duck and Anderson Fair -- is this elder statesman of the Texas folk scene here in his onetime hometown that many people don't realize he's been based in Austin since 1999. It's also easy to forget that his long ago and present duet partner, Dana Cooper, has been living in Nashville since the first Bush administration. Russell, who won his initial Press award back in 1993, says he is surprised by the nomination, and even more so by his runaway victory. "It's great to be able to win this with so many young people coming up," he says. "It's nice to know that so many people still enjoy what I do, and they like my new music." He's also pleased that his appeal has been able to make a generational leap. "It's funny, lately I've been getting a lot of people in their twenties and thirties telling me that their parents played my music, and now they enjoy it, too. It's really nice." One thing that puzzles him, though, is another recent phenomenon: all you Houstonians who claim to have gone to high school with him. You didn't, unless you went to high school in Blue Springs, Missouri. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Hayes Carll

Best Bassist
Rozz Zamorano
The short man with the tall, thumping sound regularly beats the hell out of his bass strings for longtime local favorites the Fondue Monks and in his nascent solo career. A frequent nominee, and critic's pick in this category last year, the Zam Man takes home the popular vote for the first time. "I don't know what made this year special; we just had a lot of good, high-profile gigs," he said at the awards ceremony. "But it definitely feels good. There's a lot of good [bassists] in Houston." The band's gigging this past year has spread far outside Houston as well, including several shows at the New Orleans House of Blues. And Zamorano added that the Monks are on "pins and needles" preparing for a mid-August showcase for longtime ZZ Top manager Bill Ham. The bassist's fine solo instrumental CD, Eudamonia, showcases the intense virtuosity he always brings to a live show. -- B.R.

Critic's pick: Rozz Zamorano

Best Industrial
Bozo Porno Circus

Bozo Porno Circus is not the kind of circus most kids want to run off and join, and the only three rings they'd find are probably piercing a body part usually visible only in science textbooks. But the fetish gear-clad BPC crunched the competition with their hard and heavy sound, winning this category for the fourth time. When asked at the awards ceremony what set them apart from the others, drummer Ador Charming sounded like Bob Dole pitching Viagra: "Staying power, pure staying power!" he said. "We've been around a long time, we've stuck to our guns, and we had a strong album [Regenerate] come out. But this award feels great. It's just great to be acknowledged." Vocalist/guitarist Chris O. said the band plans to tour a lot more in the next year, particularly on the coasts and in Canada. "We have a really good response," he added. "It ranges from 'shock' to 'really great.' Most people haven't seen or heard anything quite like us." -- B.R.

Critic's pick: Bozo Porno Circus

Best Latin Venue
Elvia's International
As reliable as Tito Puente's hands, Elvia's wins this category for an amazing ninth year in a row. "It's great. Hopefully we can make it to ten!" general manager Oscar Amaya said at the awards ceremony, already laying the groundwork for next year. "We've expanded the dance floor and have a lot of new bands playing. It's a great place to be." Though Elvia's serves up a full menu of mostly Mexican dishes, it's the live salsa and merengue bands that create the energy no DJ could duplicate. "We look for groups that can put on a good show," Amaya said. Plus, there's no hierarchy out there on the dance floor -- fumbling beginners and smooth experts alike are welcome and encouraged to shake their bon-bons. "Everybody's friendly there. There's a good mix of all nationalities," Amaya enthused. And it's obvious that his customers both dance and vote. -- B.R.

Critic's pick: Elvia's International

Best Ska/Reggae
The Suspects
The Suspects' eight-year run will come to an end at an August 23 Fitzgerald's gig. For singer Thomas Escalante, going out a winner is a bittersweet experience. He sees this plaque as something of a band lifetime achievement award. "It's a great way to go out, but what meant more for me was Claudio [Depujedas] getting nominated for Best Drummer," Escalante said. "Hearing his peers cheer for him that loud meant a lot." The same goes for the band as a whole. "I heard the reactions for some of the other bands, and they weren't as loud as ours was," he noted. "That meant a lot, too. Being recognized by your peers means a bunch. It's a cliché, but we're closing the book on this chapter of our lives, and some of us are starting new ones." For the record, Escalante's new "tiki-style exotica" band, Clouseaux, will soon release a debut, while Depujedas is banging the drums in psycho-surfobilly act Magnetic IV with fellow founding Suspect member Charlie Esparza. Other Suspects past and present are continuing along in Middlefinger. So if you look around a club and find yourself surrounded by the usual Suspects in other bands, you shouldn't be surprised. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: The Suspects

Best New Act
The guys in Drifter are, well, energized by both their win and what Red Bull has in store for them. Not only have they garnered the esteem of the Houston music community and a very cool plaque, but the folks at Red Bull are sending them on an all-expenses-paid trip to Cleveland, where they will play a show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Drifter guitarist Paul Beebe, who as an El Orbit also beat out his third band, Beetle, in the Best Cover Band category, was mildly surprised to win New Act honors. "I thought we had a pretty good shot, but I wasn't superconfident," he said. "I didn't really know the other bands, but I did see that one of them [MenMechanical] had a pretty big crowd, so I thought they might sneak in. I also thought Hayes Carll had a pretty good shot." After the band returns from Cleveland, Drifter will complete the as-yet-untitled follow-up to its debut, Wherever You Will. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Hayes Carll

Best Rock/Pop
Blue October
Though the band lost its Universal deal and has been primarily based in Austin the last year or so, Houston still loves Blue October -- so much so that 200 of you wrote in various band members in numerous categories and the band drew more votes overall than any other act in the last two years, if not the history of the awards. Not that the perpetually worried Justin Furstenfeld, whose band also took this category in 1999 and 2000, was counting his chickens before they hatched. "This was my first time to be able to accept the award, and I was nervous as hell," he said the day after the ceremony. "I thought I was gonna puke, I was so nervous. I just knew we weren't going to have our names called." -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Simpleton

Best Funk/R&B
The only actual puking (see Best Rock/Pop) that we know of on awards night was emitted by Simpleton front man B.C., who got his Johnny Rotten on in grand style. After the show wrapped, the manic rap-rocker was cherishing his award with his bandmates at the Tavern when a fateful, celebratory shot of Tuaca wouldn't stay down and wound up garnishing the bar's floor and part of the wall. Looking to conceal his digestive faux pas, B.C. picked up his award and propped it over the telltale stain. But Simpleton guitarist Jon Black snatched it up and dressed down the rapper for disrespecting their prize. It's not surprising that B.C. chundered, since the band confessed to having knocked back more than a few before the ceremony, a few more with the ceremony and many, many more afterward. But hell, they deserve a binge. After getting nominations the last two years and coming up empty both times, the third time proved lucky. Simpleton is hoping that they won't have to wait for album no. 3 to break big; their sophomore disc, Baby You're a Star, drops on August 6. Here's hoping that title will soon apply to the band. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Simpleton

Best World Music
Okay, so they didn't snag Best Ska/Reggae, but this long-running, exotic ensemble did manage to take home a win for the other form of music they're associated with. You knew these cats were going to win something in the end. After all, Alafia Gaidi and his crew of organic beatmakers have left too much of a legacy in this town for people to forget about 'em come awards time. "It's always an honor to win because it shows the approval of our audience," says Gaidi. "We try to do things that are innovative. I think that's the thing that keeps us in people's minds." The group is working on an album to be released later this year, and though D.R.U.M.'s weekly gig over at the Hotel Derek has been dropped, you can still catch them every other Wednesday at the Red Cat Jazz Café. And you can still catch Gaidi at his percussion school, which he remembers being described in these pages -- after a reporter spent a humid, a/c-less evening there -- as "hot as Salma Hayek in a thong." Chuckles Gaidi, "It's one of those good memories." -- C.D.L.

Critic's pick: D.R.U.M.

Best Cover Band, Best Keyboardist
The El Orbits, Pete Gray
There's a certain five-letter word to which El Orbits 88-radiator Pete Gray attributes his dual victories for himself and his band. The word's second letter is I and it ends in O. If you guessed that Gray is crediting his piano for his success, you guessed wrong. B-I-N-G-O is the way Gray spells out why he and his band won the game-o. The El Orbits' Monday-night bingo party at the Continental is rapidly becoming an institution, a fun way to ease out of the worst day of the week. "People have a lot of fun with that Monday-night bingo thing, and that's where a lot of [votes] transfer from, you know?" he says. Gray, who would seem to vie with David Beebe for the title of cap di tutti capi in the purely theoretical Continental Club Cosa Nostra, will neither confirm nor deny the existence of such an organization. But he does admit that if such a group existed, it racked up. "We did good!" he says, and you can read as much as you want into that "we." -- J.N.L.

Critic's picks:
Best Cover Band - Dreambreakers
Best Keyboardist - Rick Thompson

Album of the Year, Best C&W
Jesse Dayton, Tall Texas Tales
Considering that one of his two releases last year was a slap in Music City's face called Hey Nashvegas!, it was somewhat ironic that Jesse Dayton couldn't attend this year's ceremony because he was recovering from jet lag after a tour stop in Amsterdam on his way to…Nashville. Don't fret, folks, he's not eating his words and moving up to the city that has forsaken him and virtually every other true-blue, real-deal country act in the world. He was just going to play a show for that city's seamy, real-country underbelly. Lately, Dayton has been playing a once-a-month gig here at the Continental Club with Stag Records labelmate Greg Wood, both of whom have albums due out soon. Wood's is slated to come out in September, while Dayton's is tentatively scheduled for about a month after that. "We're taking our time with this one," says Dayton's manager Gary Moore of the as-yet-untitled album. "Tall Texas Tales was more of a shotgun-blast approach." -- J.N.L.

Critic's picks:
Album of the Year - Songs from the 6, Mary Cutrufello
Best C&W - Davin James

Best Drummer
Max Schuldberg, the Hunger
Max Schuldberg is already pondering a second career. "Have you ever been to traffic court?" he asks. "Does everyone go to court and think, 'Man, I'd make a good lawyer! I know what I would have said right there'? There was this one guy ahead of me, and I was like, 'Discredit the cop by asking this.' I had 20 questions ready to go in my mind." Not that he'll be giving up skin-pounding anytime soon. His victory means a lot to him. "My bank account's not gonna grow exponentially or anything like that, but it's a cool thing to win. I was talking to an acquaintance of mine who used to play in Chlorine -- one of the very few other rock bands here in Houston to do anything nationally -- and he was like, 'Man! That's cool! It's not a Grammy or anything, but I never got recognized for my playing.' And he was right, it is cool." Note that when Schuldberg said his bank account wasn't gonna swell, he was picking his words with the care of a seasoned trial lawyer. He later admitted that the award just might get him a few extra dollars after all: "It's a great tool for picking up endorsements and stuff like that, or something to say if I ever wanted to audition for another band." -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Claudio Depujedas, Suspects

Best CD/Record Store
Cactus Music and Video

No matter how unpredictable these awards get (and judging from this year's ballot, they do get unpredictable), one thing's for certain: Cactus is gonna win Best CD/Record Store. Even after Tropical Storm Allison flooded the store last year, people still flocked to Cactus to take in the pop-culture bumrush of it. It's gotten to the point now where people go by just to hear the employees -- men and women who could easily win on Beat the Geeks any day of the week -- debate on such topics as who was the best Batman: Keaton or Kilmer? (Clooney was kind of the George Lazenby of the franchise, don't cha think?) "If you spend a minute around one of my employees, you'll learn that they love music and movies," says general manager Quinn Bishop. "We try to allow them to be who they are." The perseverance of Cactus proves that if you have an educated staff, a loyal following, plenty of free beer for in-store concerts and a bunch of '70s sexploitation movies on DVD, you can overcome any disaster. -- C.D.L.

Critic's pick: Cactus Music and Video

Female Vocalist of the Year
Carolyn Wonderland
This bluesy babe couldn't pick up her award this year, because the ceremony took place on the eve of her customary summer tour of the Great Plains and the Mountain West states. By the time you read this, she'll be rolling out of Iowa toward her ninth consecutive engagement at Sturgis Bike Week at the Buffalo Chip campground in South Dakota. She'll share the stage with Blues Traveler, Billy Idol, Patrice Pike and Steppenwolf, whose "Born to Be Wild" could have been written for the pint-sized blueswoman. She'll be there through August 10, so it's not too late to jump on your Harley and flug-lug on up the highway to where every biker worth his leather jacket will be. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Trudy Lynn

Best Metal
If you didn't get the e-mail, the face of metal is changing, and the victory of this rap/ metal fusion ensemble from Pasadena proves it. Anguished tunes about death and hell, screeched vocals and guitar virtuosity are out; rapped lyrics about the good times are in. Tattoos, beer, weed, groupies, thudding beats and revved-up power chords remain the same. Less a band than a full-on spectacle, Faceplant puts on one of the best shows in town, as the 1,000-plus of you who took in their showcase at the Verizon will agree. These guys must have heeded their own advice and tapped a keg, because their phone number didn't work, their Web site was all but empty, and the Press's e-mails about their win went unanswered. But they'll be back on August 24 with a show at 2002's Best Rock Club, Fitzgerald's. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Pure Rubbish

Song of the Year
"Magnolia," Davin James
Long ago, Houston was known as the Magnolia City, and there was a brewery on Buffalo Bayou that made Magnolia Beer. Since then, the nickname has been supplanted by two lackluster substitutes. Bayou City? Naah. Too many of our bayous stink, and they sure do turn on us when the rains come. And Space City? It seems odd to name your city after a governmental agency -- no matter how sexy -- with offices some 25 miles from town. We should have stuck with magnolias. Then we could have sung this epic anthem of bluesy honky-tonker Davin James with even more spirit. James really caught lightning in a bottle with this one. His lyrics personify the world's most fragrant tree as a woman, and the conceit works. Few trees can inspire a sense of physical love the way a magnolia can; nor can any tree better evoke James's beloved South. Musically, the tune starts out with the bare instrumentation of voice over a Piedmont-style blues riff. Then the full band kicks in, complete with several backing singers. From there the song canters along at a toe-tapping trot to a Dixie-fried crescendo, and James's slashing guitar drives the tune to its fade-out at just under the five-minute mark. If this one doesn't have you singing along, then you probably aren't from around here. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: "Magnolia"

Best Jazz Venue
Upon learning of his establishment's win, general manager David Forman is literally at a loss of words. In fact, all he can muster up is a "Wow, cool!" It's understandable that he would be shocked at the news; Sambuca hasn't won the jazz venue prize since 1999. But after he regains his composure, Forman remembers why his club/eatery deserved to win this time around. The downtown spot has been known to feature such well-known jazz hands as Joshua Redman, Steve Tyrell and Eddie Palmeri. "We're the only people that bring them in," says Forman, referring to the city's lack of out-of-town jazz visitors. Forman insists that getting national acts to perform can be a challenge at times, but once an act is booked and turns the jazz cafe out, it is oh so sweet. "It's hard for us to do it, but we're going to keep doing it," he says. Wow, cool! -- C.D.L.

Critic's pick: Red Cat Jazz Café

Best Bluegrass
Lone Star Bluegrass

Lone Star Bluegrass's Chris Hirsch is not as glad to have won an award as he is to have a category for his band and their competitors. "We've been around since 1982, and we've lost in a bunch of other categories like country and folk and acoustic to a bunch of other people. We lost to Clint Black and Shake Russell. Hell, I think we even lost to Perry Como one year. I'd kind of given up hope," he says. "But when y'all came out with that category, I thought, 'Now here's something we can do something with.' " As to our tongue-in-cheek allegation that he was using his Saturday-afternoon KPFT show to stump for his band, Hirsch wants it to be known that we said it, not him. "If somebody requested it, I'd play it, but not otherwise." -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Lone Star Bluegrass

Best Rap
Whenever the name I-45 pops up, the first thing that materializes inside a person's head are those immortal lines from their "Bike Song": "Bitch I got a bike / So don't ask me for a ride." Apparently, those lines sprung up in the heads of many a voter. That could explain why the slip-hop team easily won this year's Best Rap prize. Of course, the group's numerous appearances at spots like Fitzgerald's and the Engine Room over the past year probably helped. Perhaps this win is the homecoming present the boys have been yearning for since their return from the gilded trenches of sunny California, where they relocated after the release of their Lost Between the Lines album in 2000. (Or maybe it's just a consolation prize for Tony Avitia's pending divorce.) At any rate, this has been the shakiest year in Houston rap history, with local luminaries getting caught up in everything from child molestation to murder attempts to car wrecks. So it's comforting to see a couple of MCs come out of it unscathed -- and holding an award. -- C.D.L.

Critic's pick: K-Otix

Best Jazz
Free Radicals
Nick Cooper is surprised to hear that his band, Free Radicals, won Best Jazz honors. He called the Press the day after the Wednesday event and got the good news. But didn't his band tell him first? "No, I really should call those guys," Cooper said. Cooper played the Sunday gig and then went back to his borrowed summer digs in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he's been working on a novel. (So far he has 37 pages in the can.) This is his freewheeling combo's sixth win in three categories, but this year Cooper was particularly excited about the band's showcase gig. "We always get nominated separately from [Free Radical] Harry Sheppard," he said. "So this year we asked for our gigs to be scooted together so he could play his set and then join us for ours." Cooper is also pleased that Houston audiences have taken to the band's new, all-but-horn-free lineup, which includes Sheppard, Aaron Hermes and Tom Sutherland. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Free Radicals

Best Blues/R&B Venue
The Big Easy
For eight consecutive years this unpretentious Kirby Drive establishment has been voted the place to cut loose, kick back and dig the music that birthed rock and roll. "That's what you get for livin' the blues," owner Tom McLendon quipped upon hearing that his joint had again clinched the award. And the tall, perpetually sunglasses-wearing, harmonica-honking entrepreneur seems to love the life he lives. So, too, do his customers: people of various ages, races and affiliations who pack the midsize room to groove to live music six nights a week. Though the venue name and decorative theme (including a purple-and-gold facade) reveal McLendon's love of New Orleans, the booking policy almost exclusively celebrates the contemporary Houston blues scene, featuring venerable vets such as Joe "Guitar" Hughes along with younger, rock-savvy players such as Mark May as well as retro revivalists like Harlem Slim. McLendon explains that the club's slogan, "The House of Mixology," refers not as much to the well-stocked bar as to the mix of blues-based musical styles and the diverse clientele that enjoys them. The key to his success? "The only cover [charge] I require," he says, "is respect -- respect for your brothers and sisters." -- R.W.

Critic's pick: Miss Ann's Playpen

Best Contemporary Blues
Tony Vega Band
Tony Vega knows how to bring down a house, whether it's full of fans or musicians. After thanking everybody at the awards ceremony, Vega addressed the Houston music community with some final words: "All you musicians out there, ask for more money!" The roar from the crowd was immense, despite the silence of club owners and David Beebe's dissenting note. "If you want more money, you should join the union!" Beebe hollered. Union or no, picking up blues honors is getting to be old hat for the bluesman in the cowboy chapeau who won the award for Best Blues last year. This summer has unfolded just like the last one in other ways as well. The band just completed another successful tour of Germany, Holland, Denmark and even FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Back home, Vega's still hosting a Tuesday-night open mike up at Cactus Moon in Humble and steadily burning up the Texas circuit. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Sherman Robertson

Best Dance/DJ
DJ Sun
DJ Sun has won again, and as Chris Farley would say, well, la-di-freakin'-da! With the rather wacky selection of nominees, it seemed almost inevitable that the jazz/soul/groove maven would take home the prize this year (again!). But Sun feels he won because audiences are attuned to what he spins. "I think I'm consistent with what I do, and I think I bring some freshness to the table," says Sun. "That's what people comment on when they see me perform." But if Sun had it his way, he would be known as a DJ and a teacher. "I always want people to be informed about the music," he says. "I want people to know what I'm spinning, because I think it opens up avenues for these underground musicians." Lately, some national ink has been opening up avenues for him: "Soular Sessions," his long-running residency at Cafe Brasil on Monday nights, was recently named one of the ten hottest nights in America by URB magazine. So don't be surprised if Sun pulls a DJ Spooky one of these days and moonlights as a professor of the art of the groove over at UH. -- C.D.L.

Critic's pick: DJ Ceeplus

Best Punk
30footFALL is a little uncomfortable with its punk designation. Here's how the band describes itself: "30footFALL is a rock band conveniently labeled 'punk rock' so that you will know what clothes to wear when you go to the show. The same label applies for your convenience when buying records." Clearly, 30footFALL has come a long way from the days when lead singer Butch's lyrics consisted entirely of "arrgh, fuck, puke, kill." In fact, they've since released eight of their own EPs and full-lengthers. Houston band trivia: For 50 points, name the prominent local musician and 2002 award-winner who sang at 30footFALL's first gig. Give up? It was I-45's Tony Avitia. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Sugar Shack

Best Indie/Alt Rock
Westbury Squares
We wrote in the Music Awards preview that this band and Groceries have been neck and neck as Houston's top indie act for several years now. It continues to be so, as this was one of the closest races of the year. In the end, the Squares pipped the Groceries at the post by nine votes out of several thousand cast. Vocalist/guitarist Erica Cruz told the assemblage that "Groceries probably deserved the award," but we think she was too modest. The Squares' new album, The Sound Made Visible, gets better with each listen and with each knob twist toward ten, and it was probably this record more than anything that pushed them over the top. If you want to see for yourself, check out the Westbury Squares at the "Fuck Y'all, We're from Texas!" show August 17 at Fitzgerald's, where they'll perform on a huge bill with a bunch of yet-to-be-revealed bands. Who knows? Maybe Groceries will show up for a good old-fashioned battle of the bands. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Westbury Squares

Best Zydeco
Zydeco Dots
The Zydeco Dots' Web site describes the band's stranglehold on this category as "incessant," and we really can't think of a better word for it ourselves. It's also a good way to describe the beat and the good times at one of the Dots' several hundred shows a year. Now led by zydeco legend Leon Sam, who first hit the tour road with his family as a 16-year-old in the '70s, the Dots figure to maintain their relentless hold on this accordion-driven grouping yet again in '03. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws

Best Tejano
La Mafia
This was the second competition in the last 12 months that pitted La Mafia's Oscar de la Rosa against his brother and former bandmate Leonard Gonzales, whose Los Magnificos were also nominated. The first one was the Grammy Awards, and though neither hermano took home the prize this year, each of them has a trophy case full of awards. De la Rosa will just have to make room for one more. No doubt he'll be shoving his Grammys and Latin Grammys to the side in order to give his 2002 Press Music Award pride of place, at least until September, when the Latin Grammys come around again. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Lisa y Aventura

Best Rock Venue
Though its Web site is still advertising the Robby Krieger, Disco Biscuits and Sir Mix-A-Lot shows that happened back in April 2001, Houstonians know that the ramshackle former Polish dance hall is the place to go for rock in all its permutations. This is the club's 25th year in existence, a run that few clubs in this city have ever approached, and Fitz's has survived near-bankruptcies, the oil bust, genre changes (anyone remember when it was a blues club?), flash floods and "doobie-us" pot busts along the way. With the area's best punk, rock and rap-rock bands taking turns on the stage downstairs, regional and national acts touring through the upstairs, plus a weekly Emo's Tribute Night, Fitzgerald's may just make it another 25 years. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Fitzgerald's

Best Local Label
Solar Flare Records
Solar Flare's Bob Wilkinson is a man with a plan. The first phase of his multilevel scheme was to sign up a diverse stable of Houston's modern rock bands. Now that he's snapped up rockers Pilot Radio, industrial synth-core act Lights Over Roswell, hard rockers Liquid Youth and Album of the Year also-rans Superna, consider phase one complete. The second step was to get some product on the shelves -- ergo Superna's Reflect, the label's first release and also a candidate for Album of the Year in these awards. Not bad for a rookie. Next, Wilkinson is hoping to chart Pilot Radio's Solar Flare debut when it comes out on September 17, as well as finish up projects by LOR and Liquid Youth. This year Solar Flare's award was a big surprise, but future ones likely won't be. -- J.N.L.

Critic's pick: Plethorazine

Best Horns
Grady Gaines
Old-school with a capital O. It's obvious what made voters decide to give the Best Horns award to Grady Gaines over the young, fresh-mouthed whippersnappers who were nominated alongside him. The man has enough musical history to be his own exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He started out leading a backup band for a young talent named Little Richard. He has toured and performed with the likes of Sam Cooke, Etta James and Jackie Wilson. Just looking at his bio at is enough to make a person wanna go out and do something more with his life -- with or without a wind instrument. And Gaines is still at it. The dude is inching toward 70 and yet out there laying down sax notes for audiences all over the world -- from the Third Ward's Etta's Lounge to Paris and Amsterdam. -- C.D.L.

Critic's pick: Grady Gaines


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