To belabor beyond all recognition that old saw about what you should wear to your wedding, this year Houston went in for something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Representing the old were such hardy perennials as the Zydeco Dots, Norma Zenteno, Cactus Music and Video, the Mucky Duck, Elvia's, Bozo Porno Circus, Blanco's and the Big Easy. As for the new, Japanic, Red Cat Jazz Café, Moses Guest, Sevenfold, John Evans and Snit's Dog & Pony Show were all first-time winners. We borrowed Houstonians Rodney Crowell from Nashville, Carolyn Wonderland from Austin, and Eric Taylor from Columbus. The blue(s) were furnished by the likes of Grady Gaines, Texas Johnny Brown and the Tony Vega Band. (Then there were the ones we "blew," such as putting Sevenfold in Metal/Hard Rock and seeing them win, and the newly hornless Los Skarnales in the Best Horn/Horn Section category. The booking flubs will be ironed out next time around. Me to you, Houston: Oops.)
But on the day, who was counting? The skies cooperated. The ridiculous heat of the past several years was supplanted by weather that seemed merely warm. We weren't visited by any of the rogue thunderstorms that have been visiting so often of late. Some 7,000 of you turned out and enjoyed tramping around downtown, making this the biggest Houston Press Music Awards showcase yet.
This year's multiple winners included Japanic, Snit's Dog & Pony Show, 30footFALL and last year's grand champeen, South Park Mexican.
The wish list for next year includes, well, not much except for more bands. It is hoped that next year there will be both traditional and contemporary blues categories; Tejano and Latin will be separated; and there will be new ones for gospel, bluegrass, mariachi and jam bands, among others, as we march toward 100-band splendor and an attendance of 10,000.
Now that's an idea I can get married to. -- John Nova Lomax
Best Rap/Hip-hop; Local Musician of the Year; Best Local Label (Dope House Records)
South Park Mexican
For the second year in a row, Dope House Records, home to South Park Mexican and his escalating Latino rap empire that boasts songs with enough weed references to win the company a platinum-plated bong courtesy of NORML, has won the prize for Best Local Label. This past year, along with a couple of SPM albums, Dope House has dropped well-buzzed efforts from Lone Star Ridaz, Rasheed and Baby Beesh.
For the fall season, Sylvia Coy and the rest of the Dope House cartel are looking to bring some more no-bullshit, off-the-hinges rap for the hungry Houston masses, with October releases from SPM and debut artist Juan Gotti. Hell, if they keep going like this, they may get that bong after all.
For a moment there it looked like Carlos Coy, better known to H-town hustlers as South Park Mexican, wasn't gonna get the same fanfare, the same accolades, the same noise as he got last year when he won a whole bunch of these awards. Just look at his main competition this year in Local Musician of the Year category: Big Moe, who officially ushered in the codeine cocktail with his hit debut, City of Syrup, and the late DJ Screw, who received a special memorial nomination for his years of service. But SPM not only won LMY and Best Local Label, he also snagged a win in Best Rap/Hip-hop.
Ever the modest MC, the Mexican accepts his trophies on behalf of his Gulf Coast contemporaries, especially his dearly departed mentor, Screw. "I was the first Mexican, and the only Mexican, to be in the Screwed Up Click," says SPM. "DJ Screw has touched all of us, you know. He was the most hate-free person in the world. And I'm gonna keep his name alive, you know."
The rapper and his label already have seen to that by releasing a series of chopped-up and screwed-down tunes called Screwston. But not everything he will release will be slowed down for your protection. His next album, Never Change, will drop nationwide in October, and he is in talks with local filmmaker Greg Carter (Fifth Ward, Thug Life) to put his long-awaited movie debut, Hustle Town, in production. -- Craig D. Lindsey
Critic's pick (Best Rap/Hip-hop): K-Otix
Critic's pick (Local Musician of the Year): DJ Screw
Critic's pick (Best Local Label): Plethorazine
Texas Johnny Brown
It's been a productive 15 years for Texas Johnny Brown. He became a red-hot bandleader. His 1997 release, Nothin But the Truth, was heralded by many blues journalists as one of the comeback records of the year -- hell, the whole decade. He and his impeccably attired Quality Blues Band have torn up stages from the Third Ward to the City of Light. He accompanied the legendary Teddy Reynolds during that renowned ivory-tickler's last days.
Not bad for a guy who, according to the liner notes for 1986's Atlantic Blues Box, died sometime back in the mid-'80s. While those notes couldn't have been more wrong, the music they accompanied couldn't have been more right. Three of Brown's early recordings (made with Amos Milburn) reissued on that set -- "There Go the Blues," "The Blues Rock" and "Bongo Boogie" -- helped to reacquaint the blues world with a talent who had wandered too long in the thickets of obscurity.
After all, this is the man who wrote the title track to Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bobby Bland's Two Steps from the Blues, perhaps the greatest single document to ever have emerged from the Bayou City. Elvis Costello thinks so, anyway; in Vanity Fair he recently pegged it as one of the 500 most essential CDs of all time. The hoi polloi agree, as it was the most commercially successful blues album in history until Robert Cray's Strong Persuader eclipsed it in 1986, the year Brown "died." Then factor in (among other plums) his touring with Junior Parker and the fact that he gave I.J. Gosey some of his first lessons on the six-string, and you have one ace résumé.
So while the rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated, praise of Texas Johnny Brown never can be. -- John Nova Lomax
Critic's pick: Aaron Loesch
Best Blues Venue
The Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club
Blues lover, club owner and damn fine harmonica player Tom McLendon may have to build another shelf just to hold all his trophies, as this marks the seventh consecutive year his no-frills juke joint on Kirby Drive (a.k.a. the House of Mixology) has taken this award. In fact, McLendon and his place have a lot in common: Both are loud, boisterous and full of a joie de vivre that celebrates real blues music and the men and women who make it.
While its small stage regularly hosts local favorites like Rick Lee, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, and Luther and the Healers, the club also has showcased traveling national acts like Greg Piccolo and Allan Haynes. It knows how to treat royalty, too: It threw the 86th birthday bash for Houston blues legend Big Walter The Thunderbird. And even when there's no live music, we defy you to find a better blues jukebox in town. And Sunday is zydeco night!
"It's not a bar, it's a church," McLendon said after winning a previous award. "And people come here to testify!" -- Bob Ruggiero
Critic's pick: Miss Ann's Playpen
Best Rock Venue
Though there have been changes in personnel, booking practices and increased competition from places like Rudyard's, this venerable and lovably ramshackle venue takes top prize this year for the best place to see rawk and roll. And no matter how old you are, Fitz always has that magical ability to make you feel a lot younger -- and that's not just because of the median age of the crowd upstairs at the mosh-friendly shows. In fact, the cavernous upstairs stage has played host to everyone from the Jayhawks, Sir Mix-A-Lot and John Paul Jones to, well, just about everybody local. The downstairs stage is a perfect showcase for smaller acts and solo artists like Rozz Zamorano and his thumping bass. And the recent increase in booking of rap, reggae, punk and metal proves that what some might see as fringe music will always have a home on White Oak. -- B.R.
Critic's pick: Fabulous Satellite Lounge
Bozo Porno Circus
I once tried to describe to my brother-in-law exactly what Bozo Porno Circus does on stage, and though he occasionally muttered "Really?" and "No shit!" it still didn't prepare him for this self-described "super group of super freaks" -- and he's been to prison.
Taking this category for the second straight year, BPC combines loud, grinding, balls-out industrial music (both arranged and improvised) with hell-bent-for-leather-and-rubber stage costumes, audience participation and, oh, a trio of female dancers called the PoRnStaRZ who like to spank each other. Now that's family entertainment! But really, what would you expect from a band that has headlined both the S&M and Vampire balls?
With a new record coming out this fall and an accompanying North American tour, Chris O, Ken Gerhard, Chris Crispy, and the rest of the boys and girls will show the country what Houston has known for so long: Stephen King's Pennywise has nothing on these killer clowns. -- B.R.
Critic's pick: Bozo Porno Circus
Best Alternative; Best Keyboardist (Rob Smith); Album of the Year (Social Disease)
When Japanic did its nine o'clock set at Cabo for the big Music Awards showcase/hootenanny, lead vocalist Tex Kerschen took it upon himself to appease the teeming audience by hanging upside down from the ceiling beams and performing a few verses there. "I know that we've never been there before, so I don't think it was planned," says co-vocalist Margeaux Cigainero. "I think it might've attributed to him not winning Best Male Vocalist -- maybe a little bit."
Hey now, don't get greedy! This retro synth-rock outfit took in the most nominations this year, and walked away with a cool three awards. But Kerschen's impromptu abandon may explain why Japanic is becoming quite the popular band. With Japanic's second album, Social Disease, making its way into people's CD changers and the group's rep as a charismatic, eccentric live act ever increasing, Cigainero can speak for her cohorts and say they're glad at least folks are noticing.
"I think everyone will agree that we've worked really hard in Houston, and outside of Houston, too," says Cigainero. "You always say, 'It's no big deal. Awards are nothing.' But it still makes you feel good that people know you're out there making an effort."
Cigainero confirms that Kerschen will handle all acceptance speeches. Oh, let's just hope nobody gets hurt. -- C.D.L.
Critic's pick (Best Alternative): Japanic
Critic's pick (Best Keyboardist):
Critic's pick (Album of the Year): The Houston Kid, Rodney Crowell
Since the release of American Trailer Home Blues in late 1997, psychedelic rockers Moses Guest have followed the basic blueprint for mid-level success. Aside from a semiregular gig at Last Concert, they make their annual springtime jaunt to the High Sierras and check in on their South Central outposts in Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee. But next year promises much more for the first-time winners.
The big news, you see, comes in the smallest package. They have released a preview EP, foreshadowing the whole enchilada that will arrive around Christmastime in the form of a double, self-titled CD. Says Graham Guest: "We're considering this our ma--" he almost said magnum opus, I believe, which is okay, considering his advanced degree in philosophy -- "er, our major effort."
To the philosopher Hegel, the German word Aufheben, MG's unofficial motto, meant to replace yesterday's blues with today's joys, while wringing those blues for all the higher truth they are worth. Aufheben away, boys. -- J.N.L.
Critic's pick: Moses Guest
Best Metal/Hard Rock
Like when Jethro Tull took home the inaugural Heavy Metal Grammy, it's unclear if even Sevenfold knows what to make of this award. During balloting, the band's Web site asked visitors to "vote for Sevenfold in the Best Metal/Hard Rock category or write them in where ever you feel they deserve." Sevenfold describes itself as modern rock. The Press once used the term melodic rock. Regardless of the label, there can be little arguing about the quality of the band. It has performed with acts ranging from the Newsboys to Godsmack, even mixing in an opening spot for John Fogerty at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The ability to straddle the Christian/secular fence and maintain an edge probably won't hurt in an age where vaguely spiritual goodies by the likes of Collective Soul and Creed seem to be omnipresent. Viva la Fold! -- Chris Smith
Critic's pick: Pure Rubbish
Best Punk/Ska; Best Underground; Best Drummer (Brian Davis) 30footFALL
It just wouldn't be the Houston Press Music Awards without 30footFALL once again rising to the top of the heap. And in case you haven't yet had an opportunity to check out the band, there's a reason for the enduring accolades: They deliver, time after time after time. 30footFALL entertains, gets its lefty views across, makes sure there's a party going on, and does all of this with aplomb often far removed from the "punk" genre. The underground classification is, frankly, somewhat dubious, given the group's gigantic local profile and multiple national releases on established labels such as Nitro and Fearless. But maybe the punk label merely recognizes that the band members still have their day jobs, that the band doesn't fit completely into any given mold and probably wouldn't be liked by your parents. And a 21 rim-shot salute to Brian Davis for maintaining his recent stranglehold on best drummer honors and demonstrating the terms "punk," "drummer" and "musician" can legitimately coexist. -- C.S.
Critic's pick (Best Punk/Ska): Middlefinger
Critic's pick (Best Underground): Fatal Flying Guilloteens
Critic's pick (Best Drummer): Albert "Tony" Stewart (Lil' Brian & The Zydeco Travelers)
Grady Gaines & The Texas Upsetters
Back when R&B was more blues than rhythm and owed an obvious debt to the likes of Ray Charles and Louis Jordan, Grady Gaines was picking up his tenor and blowing like a Texan. His three-year association with Little Richard in the mid-'50s yielded recordings like "Long Tall Sally," "Ooh, My Soul" and "Keep A Knockin'," which are at once R&B classics and seminal moments in early rock and roll. As Richard's right-hand sax man, Gaines proved to be one of the few reedmen with enough testicular fortitude to keep up with Mr. Penniman.
After Little Richard retired from rock circa 1957 (the good reverend came back
of course), Gaines took the Texas Upsetters and his volcanic horn on the road, backing up other R&B greats, including such titans as James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. With the last, Gaines appeared on the classics "Bring It On Home" and "Twistin' the Night Away." Meanwhile, in Houston, Gaines and his Texas Upsetters have become an institution. After a brief retirement during the early '80s, Gaines has been knocking out Houston audiences with powerful R&B that's authentic because, well, he helped invent it. So young wanna-bes take note. Grady Gaines plays R&B the way it should be played: with swing and soul and a whole lotta fun. -- Paul J. MacArthur
Critic's pick: Phuz
Clandestine was on the road when the band won the Best Folk/Acoustic award. That's not surprising, since Clandestine tours up to 200 dates each year. The Celtic quartet combines an extraordinarily high level of technique with a fiery verve that comes from playing full throttle in front of festival-sized crowds. Perhaps the best Celtic band in Texas, Clandestine has begun to spin off side projects, including Jen Hamel's solo album this year. -- Aaron Howard
Critic's pick: Denice Franke
True story: In 1999, while on a business trip in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this writer crashed a folk festival and tripped upon a Houston showcase put on by the Mucky Duck. What act was blowing the roof off the joint with a serious Southern rock sound? The same one that just took home its fourth Best C&W Pressy. There is a country flavor to the good sisters' music. But they are hardly "just" a C&W band. In 1998 they took home a Best Folk/Acoustic Pressy and have been nominated in that category several times, but they could sound at home next to the Marshall Tucker Band or even the Allman Brothers. In other words, no one really knows where to put the Sisters Morales. Well, actually, we at the Press know where to put them: on your "must see live" list.
Fronted by Lisa and Roberta Morales, the group mixes Americana sounds (rock, folk, country and even a touch of Latin) with a sense of verve. Their vocals are both beautiful and genuine, and convey a sense of integrity. The music, well, that sometimes takes a turn for the rougher side as the group rips out some smoldering jams. Mix it all together, and you have one of Houston's finest groups, be it C&W, rock, folk or something in between. -- P.J.M.
Critic's pick: Davin James
Prior winners of the now-defunct Best Band Without a Category prize, the Hellcats take home the inaugural Best Rockabilly award with their patented vatobilly. What is this vatobilly, you ask? High-octane, fully automatic Uzi boogie with occasionally screamed Spanish lyrics (though most are hollered in English), as evidenced by their recent version of "Should I Stay or Should I Go" on their new CD, Comin' to Your House.
That title, when delivered by one of these dudes, is anything but welcome news. Unless you're Hunter S. Thompson or share his appetite for destruction and debauchery, you won't want these three vatos locos anywhere near anything fragile, including your ego. Call it music to massacre by. -- J.N.L.
Critic's pick: Jesse Dayton
The Tony Vega Band
"What a year it's been," says Tony Vega after learning the band won the Best Blues Band category. "We've done our work, and this is the cherry on top." There's always room for another great Texas blues band, and the Tony Vega Band is rapidly approaching that level. Catching Vega's live act is like being anointed with a blazing guitar fusillade. For Vega, being nominated alongside blues guitar heroes Texas Johnny Brown and Joe "Guitar" Hughes was a thrill. "If it wasn't for guys like that, I wouldn't be doing any of this," he says. "I wish I could share the award with them." -- A.H.
Critic's pick: Joe "Guitar" Hughes
The Free Radicals describe themselves as "a jazz, funk, ska, reggae, African music, Indian music, punk, klezmer, polka and Latin-jazz group committed to noncommercial original innovative music, political action and incessant rehearsing." In other words, these guys dig different types of music.
The Free Rads' attitude comes more out of a jam-band tradition than of jazz. They permit taping at their show, as long as you don't sell the tape and you send them a copy. They can play seemingly forever. (They once played 24 hours straight for charity.) But like jazz icon Sun Ra, the Free Rads aren't afraid to play cacophonous sounds that scare off the average listener. Their game, it seems, is mixing influences in new ways, and the moment something sounds normal, they search for a way to make it out of sight.
Will you hear the same performance by the Free Radicals twice? Not likely. The Rads' nonmainstream approach has created a bit of a commercial quagmire -- their audience is loyal, promoters like their music, and they've even been written up in The New Yorker. But some local club owners and promoters are afraid to take a risk on a band that's unabashedly noncommercial. -- P.J.M.
Critic's pick: David Caceres
Best World Music
You can't even begin to discuss the city's reggae scene without a mention of D.R.U.M. The band's long-standing prominence has paid off on several levels. The sextet has earned opening slots for Steel Pulse and other renowned touring acts. But its reputation as an awesome live unit can command a headlining gig at just about any club in town. Evidence of its prowess was in effect during a hot (literally hot, as in an overtaxed a/c system) showcase at Cabo. Despite the frat boy ambience of downtown's Tex-Mex hangout, the band tore through a succession of roots-fueled numbers. Where some acts merely stop at reggae, D.R.U.M. takes things a degree further. By incorporating jazz and funk within its worldly sound, the band's music appeals to even non-dreadheads. The Cabo show had the sweaty crowd grooving away to tight beats and hypnotic sax lines. Just when things reached a funky peak, the familiar strains of Parliament's "Swing Down Sweet Chariot" filled the room with a psychedelic air. Some dancers closed their eyes and sang along, while others merely swayed back and forth, gazing upon the hardworking musicians. The steamy, primal vibe may have affected the impact of this particular show, but the music certainly can stand on its own no matter what the climate is. -- Mike Emery
Critic's pick: The Gypsies
She's a Houston mainstay, although her talent suggests that she could easily go on to international notoriety. With three bands at her command (all of which contain many of the same members), Norma Zenteno appeals to a variety of fans, thanks to an ability to instantly switch creative gears. From cool jazz to contemporary rock to cumbias, Zenteno isn't so much a Tejano figure as she is an all-around musician. With a gorgeous voice and a warm stage personality, her different personae have earned her prime gigs and followers aplenty. Of course, being a fourth-generation musician has helped her career, but in the end, Zenteno's success can be attributed to her flexible skills and ardent delivery. It's rare to find an artist who plays three different types of music with three different lineups -- and does so with apparent ease. Her set at the Mercury Room during the awards showcase had a few sound problems, but she quickly rebounded with a killer set that combined Latin-flavored rock and dance-friendly rhythms. Judging from the crowd's ovation, there was little doubt who would win this category. -- M.E.
Critic's pick: Norma Zenteno
The Zydeco Dots
Is it any surprise that the Zydeco Dots walked away with this year's prize? They have done so every year since the award's inception.
While the competition was stiff (Step Rideau, Lil' Brian, not to mention J. Paul Jr., who wasn't on the ballot), there's no disputing the Dots' stellar work ethic as well as their keen ability to wow crowds with diverse set lists.
Leon Sam's confidence as front man certainly contributes to the Dots' popularity. Aside from his prowess on the keyboard accordion, his rapport with fans and poised vocals help win over crowds at every gig. The dance floor at the band's Mercury Room gig remained jam-packed throughout the sharp set. From Gulf Coast boogie to straight-up zydeco, the versatile combo was in prime form. And outside of the expected Creole soul, the Dots also served up decent versions of the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden" (to be fair, Buckwheat Zydeco has been known to do the same tune) and Prince's "Purple Rain." Such is the crowd-pleasing nature that has earned the band a fanatical following. -- M.E.
Critic's pick: Lil' Brian & The Zydeco Travelers
Best New Act; Best Bassist (Jessica Buchheit)
Snit's Dog & Pony Show
It's déjà vu all over again for bandleader Kevin "Snit" Fitzpatrick. The ex-Hollister recalls that when his old outfit won the Press's Best New Act award, "that's when everything happened for us." So winning the award again is a nice parallel, he says. "It shows the work the band has done in the few months we've been together has been recognized by Houston."
In March, Fitzpatrick began pressuring Buchheit to become a full-time member of Snit's Dog & Pony Show. After finishing a tour with Sherman Robertson, she agreed. Buchheit, who has played with Robertson and Trudy Lynn, among many other luminaries on the city's rock and blues scenes, says she never expected things to happen so quickly. "This is the first band I've seriously committed to full-time," she says. "People have told me that I've never looked happier." -- A.H.
Critic's pick (Best New Act): Southern Lights
Critic's pick (Best Bassist): Rozz Zamorano
For a person who works mostly in the city's underground dance-music field, DJ Sun has become the scene's most recognizable face. Spotting DJ Sun doing his thing is about as easy as spotting a photo of a surgically altered socialite in the pages of 002 magazine: Oh, there he is, spinning beats along with DJ Ceeplus at The Hub on Tuesdays. Wait a minute, there he is doing his long-running Monday-night gig at Cafe Brasil. Hold on, there he is hawking his new live album, Nine Before Ten, at his Thursday-night workout over at Saba Blue Water Cafe.
Surprisingly enough, he keeps his weekends mostly open, mainly because he wants to spend quality time with his little daughter, and because he also wants to gear his music toward folks who just got off work. "What I do kinda lends itself to weekdays rather than weekends," says Sun (a.k.a. Andre Sam-Sin). "You know, on a Friday night, it's like the happy-hour special. People wanna hear commercial music, and it doesn't necessarily work unless you have a smaller environment."
And for those who think there's gonna be some tension between Sun and fellow nominee DJ Chicken George, who co-hosts Sun's Soular Grooves show on KPFT, you better think twice before launching into all that Melrose Place bullshit. "I think it was a tribute to what we do that we had two people from the crew nominated," says Sun, referring to his circle of acid jazz-spinning friends. "I think it's a tribute to the whole soular-grooves vibe."
Ironically, even though he's the most ubiquitous DJ working in Houston, he gets uncomfortable when speaking in front of large groups of people, which may make accepting his award a tad nerve-racking. "Can I have a representative, like, pick it up for me?" he asks. -- C.D.L.
Critic's pick: DJ Sun
Best Male Vocalist
The former Lamar University and WFL New Jersey Knights star quarterback has called a pretty good game so far this year. He has branched out from his Texas stronghold and has, in fact, turned heads in the Evil Empire, having played such Nashville showcases as FanFair (on an all-Texas bill with Charlie Robison, Cory Morrow and Jack Ingram) and Billy Block's Western Beat Revival, formerly of CMT fame. Then there was a trip to Gotham, where Evans rocked the Rodeo Bar. How has his act traveled? "They dug us," he says. "I thought it was gonna be like, 'What the hell are you doin'?' But they dug us." His fears are well placed, as not every rockin' roots combo attempts to weld AC/DC-ZZ Top intensity to the steel guitar, electric guitar and stand-up bass, but Evans can -- and pulls it off. All the same, 2001 was just a short completion in the flat for Evans. Look for him to drop back and connect on the long bomb next year. -- J.N.L.
Critic's pick: John Evans
Best Female Vocalist
Back in the old days -- measured in musician, rather than human, years -- Carolyn Wonderland didn't think too much about her singing style; she just wanted to be in a band. Having taken Best Female Vocalist honors four times in the past five years, Wonderland is moving on and spending most of her time in Austin these days. The move is an acknowledgement that her writing and charismatic talents are the catalysts for her career. No need to spend time gigging around the state capital with her band or just blending into the scene; Wonderland has been there, done that, and more. -- Greg Barr
Critic's pick: Margeaux Cigainero (Japanic)
Best Horn/Horn Section
Another one bites the dust? Well, not quite yet. But rumors of this band's demise continue to circulate without any official refutation. In the meantime, the Suspects have the most important element of their ska routine nailed down: the horns. Being recognized as the band with the best horns goes a long way toward letting the world know that you're dealing out serious quality, and in the Suspects' case, this is well and truly the fact. See for yourself on Saturday, August 18, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. -- C.S.
Critic's pick: TKoH!
Song of the Year
"Telephone Road" (Rodney Crowell)
Crowell's entry into the mythical Official Song of Bayou City Sweepstakes casts Houston as a place where lightning bolts split pine trees during hurricanes, and kids pulled by mopeds water-ski in drainage ditches. There are visions of frosty shakes at Prince's Drive-In and sawdust-covered icehouse floors. "Telephone Road," Rodney Crowell's ode to his eastside childhood, is (to this critic, anyway) the best song ever written about Houston. Steve Earle's epic ode to the same road was hard to beat, but Crowell has done it. A stunning invocation of place and time. -- A.H.
Critic's pick: "Kid Chemical," Groceries
Songwriter of the Year
Eric Taylor's tunes should be a songwriter's benchmark. Taylor would be the first to say that writing a good song is worthwhile in and of itself. Yet this year he delivered a masterpiece of Texas storytelling, Scuffletown (Eminent). It's a revelatory work, the result of an examined life. Taylor knows how a good tune can set things right. Take his ode to Charlie Rich, "All the Way to Heaven": "with a song like that, you make it all the way to heaven / when you can sing like that, all can be forgiven." Amen, and thank you, Eric. -- A.H.
Critic's pick: Rodney Crowell
Best Cover Band
The El Orbits
Already spinning the momentum from his Best Cover Band Pressy, David Beebe says maybe the award will sell a couple more copies of the El Orbits' soon-to-be-released live album of jazz and pop standards from the '50s and '60s, which was recorded recently at the Continental Club. Beebe, who admits he could relate to some of the stuff in Adam Sandler's flick The Wedding Singer, says that a great cover band knows how to get 80- and 20-year-olds dancing to the same song; sounds good even at low volume; and can survive lineup changes without losing a beat. More important, it can find a cool, obscure tune that older people relate to. For drummer/vocalist Beebe, that song is a version of "Talk to Me," released by San Antonio's Sunny and the Sunliners in 1962. -- G.B.
Critic's pick: AB/CD
Best Record Store
Cactus Music and Video
Here we go again: This Press Music Awards wouldn't be complete without bestowing Best Record Store to the diligent men and women of Cactus Music and Video, the Frasier of the annual contest. And once again, general manager Quinn Bishop is excited, and a little bit surprised, at the win.
"I know that the competition out there, in my opinion, is fierce," says Bishop. "There are so many great record stores -- independent music stores, certainly." Bishop points to spots like Vinyl Edge, Serious Sounds and the increasingly mighty (particularly if they keep showing those commercials with buxom bikini babes) Soundwaves chain as independent stores that constantly try to take a chunk out of Cactus's business.
For a while there it looked like Cactus might lose by default. Thanks to that cruel bitch-of-a-storm Allison, Cactus was briefly flooded with about a foot of water, damaging 15 percent of the stock and forcing the store to shut down. But with floor fans buzzing in the background, sopping up the last of the fluid, Cactus opened up the following weekend and, according to Bishop, had one of its biggest weekends ever.
So you can see what we mean when we call these folks diligent. "We really strive to be Houston's retail store for the music lovers," says Bishop. It just goes to show that not even a force of nature can stop this store from doing what it does best. -- C.D.L.
Critic's pick: Hi Volume
Best Jazz Venue
Red Cat Jazz Café
When it comes to jazz venues, Houston Press readers have been a fickle bunch of late. Not since Cody's claimed a three-peat from 1995 to 1997 has a club won so much as two Pressys. In 1998 Ovations took the Best Jazz Venue, even though it had been featuring full-time jazz for only three months. In 1999 the trendy Sambuca, which opened the previous November, won the award. And last year Scott Gertner's Skybar got the nod. It's only fitting then that the Red Cat Jazz Café, a new entrant into the jazz kingdom, takes home the award this year.
Located in a prime downtown spot, the Red Cat opened its doors late last year with an ambitious full-time schedule under the direction of keyboardist Dave Marcellin. At first the venue didn't even charge a cover on weekends, trying to lure in new customers -- and it worked. Now they pack the place regularly, even with a $10 cover, and for a jazz club in Houston, that's an accomplishment.
On stage, the flavor is mostly local, though some national acts with Houston ties have played the club. If there's a drawback here, it's the acoustics, which with their long decay time are nightmarish. Between the echoes and the crowd noise, serious listening is restricted to a few areas. But in front of the club, where the band performs by the window, some of Houston's finest musicians play to receptive audiences. -- P.J.M.
Critic's pick: Cezanne
Best C&W Venue
This is the place where locals take out-of-town visitors in search of "the real Texas." In its unlikely location hard by River Oaks, Blanco's regularly fills with a sea of Stetsons, and resounds to the muffled thunder of hundreds of boots on the club's wooden boards. The crowds are hearty and hail-fellow-well-met; with much back-slapping and good-natured cussing, they rib each other and knock back the Shiners and (not so long ago) the Pearls (R.I.P.). A regular host to the likes of John Evans, Davin James and Houston Marchman, the club is riding the cresting Texas music wave into what appears to be a bright future. -- J.N.L.
Critic's pick: Continental Club
Best Latin Venue
Elvia's Latin Grill and Bar
Although the folks at this downtown establishment are modest when it comes to accepting the Best Latin Venue award, even they aren't altogether surprised. On the weekends, this restaurant/bar/dance palace becomes something like a Space City Studio 54. A long line forms around the block. Crowds of people clamor around the front door in the hopes of getting in and gaining that feeling of importance.
Once they do get past those velvet ropes, they're treated to an entertaining, exotic experience: music, dancing, women, men. It's like one big Miami Sound Machine video! "We try to do everything for our customers," says manager Augustine Lopez. That means staying one tango step ahead of everyone else. "We try to be fresh, you know, every weekend. We try to bring good bands, good music and big things -- stuff with the lights and the different atmosphere."
With its musical mix of merengue, salsa and other exotic genres -- as well as its good drinks and tasty delicacies -- Elvia's hopes that others will come to this spot and do the conga without worrying that they look like a freak. -- C.D.L.
Critic's pick: Elvia's Latin Grill and Bar
Best Folk Venue
McGonigel's Mucky Duck
The Harvard Business Review ought to use the Duck in its "case study" section as an example of how to run a club. In a business with an 80 percent failure rate, the McGonigels have turned the Duck into one of the best folk venues in the country. Part of the secret is Rusty's acumen for breaking artists. From Martin Sexton to Eddie From Ohio, the Duck brings them to town way ahead of the buzz. Local audiences trust that even if they've never heard of a musician, they'll get a good show. It doesn't hurt that every seat in the house is a good one. And did we mention the superior kitchen and the great choice of beers (and the huge beer garden out back in which to enjoy them)? No wonder audiences pick the Duck as the city's Best Folk Venue year after year. -- A.H.
Critic's pick: The Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe
Lifetime Achievement Award
Blind Lemon Jefferson was the father of Texas blues, and T-Bone Walker was the son. (Fitting that they first met on the banks of the Trinity River.) The Holy Spirit of the music resounds in the guitars of everyone who has come after, especially that of Pete Mayes. If all of this sounds a little too metaphysical, consider this: In the past five years, Mayes, who suffers from diabetes, has undergone the amputations of both legs and open-heart surgery, and has battled lesions on the fingers of his fretting hand. For a time, it looked like his live music days were through. But not for this tough son of a gun from Double Bayou. Mayes has fought back and this very week returns to the stage at Paesanos downtown. -- J.N.L.
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