It wasn't by accident that youth figured so prominently in this year's Houston Press Music Awards. An overhaul of the nominating committee to include a younger segment of nominators slightly more on the fringe -- not to mention the addition of a Best Underground category -- ensured that almost as many young faces as old reliables shared space on the 1997 ballot. And even if that injection of juvenescence isn't as prominent in the 1997 winner's circle, it certainly colored the June 29 Music Awards Showcase at Shepherd Plaza.

Last year, rules keeping minors out of many of the participating clubs limited the options of the under-21 crowd. But this year, the addition of an outdoor stage gave that demographic a chance to make an impact on the proceedings. And the bands playing for the outside crowd more than fulfilled their end of the bargain by keeping a stiflingly hot afternoon alive and hopping. In the end, it was the music -- from the carnival punk of the cross-dressing She Demons (yes, the hairy chick in the hip-hugging, hot-pink-sequined dress was really a guy) to the swift, rap-metal kick of Aftershock (by now veterans of the Houston scene) -- that made standing on the baking asphalt and wilting amongst the sweaty, tattooed bodies not only tolerable but enjoyable. The naughty fun was in full swing by the dinner hour, when profanity-crazed punkers 30footFALL led the restless crowd in a defiant "fuck" chant -- much to the chagrin of the police officers monitoring the area.

And the shenanigans continued indoors. Twisted indie-poppers Clouded made such a racket at the Q Cafe that the club's manager forced them to pack it in after just a few songs; I End Result took the power-trio format to its most abrasive funk-metal extremes at Instant Karma; and a vigorous Rhino Room set by thrash-funk skacolytes Middlefinger had the sidewalks buzzing. Meanwhile, the old guard held its own with enthusiastic sets by the likes of Sisters Morales, Jesse Dayton and Mary Cutrufello, each giving their own uniquely different spin on the country idiom. Ever the trouper, Cutrufello endured nagging sound problems at the Voodoo Lounge with a wink and a smile.

When the votes were tallied, the kids had their say in a few categories. Middlefinger made its first appearance in the Press Awards as both a nominee and a winner; ditto I End Result. Ska purists the Suspects were able to snatch "most categorically unfit" honors from lovable but aging eccentric Beans Barton. Elsewhere, however, the surprises were minimal. Local faves Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys, Dayton, Paul English, Norma Zenteno, Jack Saunders and Toy Subs reprised their roles as winners. Even the Sonnier Brothers, this year's Best New Act, are hardly green to this sort of attention, the group's sibling leadership having enjoyed national exposure with Galactic Cowboys and Atomic Opera. Give Houston music fans credit; their loyalty is unwavering.

(Profiles by Hobart Rowland, Mark Towns, Joe Hon, Craig D. Lindsey and Marlo Cobb.)

Best Rock/Pop
Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys

Album of the Year
Bursting With Flavor by Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys

Local Musician of the Year
Best Female Vocalist
Carolyn Wonderland

Best Guitarist
Eric Dane (Imperial Monkeys)

Best Bassist
Chris King (Imperial Monkeys)

Best Drummer
Leesa Harrington Squyres (Imperial Monkeys)

Well now, what is there left to say? Last year, Carolyn Wonderland and her crew pulled down seven first-place finishes in the Press Music Awards. And this year, Wonderland and company pulled down ... seven first-place finishes in the Press Music Awards. (That's 25 percent of all the top spots available to musicians, for those among you with a statistical bent.) Obviously, her fans have spoken. About the only change this year was in the categories won. More of Wonderland's band was given a nod for excellence (last year Chris King and Leesa Harrington Squyres took top honors in their respective categories, while this year guitarist Eric Dane joined the crowd), and for the first time in recent memory, Wonderland was edged out in the Best Blues category, winning instead the nod for Best Rock/Pop.

It's doubtful anyone's more pleased by that turn of events than Wonderland herself. In past years, the singer has been loath to accept the Best Blues honor; after all, she, Dane, King and Harrington Squyres are quite obviously a rock and roll band, one that shares about as much in common with the likes of this year's blues winner, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, as the Rolling Stones do with, say, Muddy Waters. There's an appreciation, yes, and a connection, sure -- but it's a distant one, at best.

Still, in being an honest, innately soulful rock outfit attuned to its East Texas roots, Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys inevitably retain a distinctly bluesy aura. Bathe that gritty authenticity in a good-timey hippie vibe, and you come up with music that works equally well in frat houses and biker joints. Thus far, the group has had a banner year -- busy even by its own labor-intensive standards. When not touring the region in support of their strong second release, Bursting with Flavor, the group can be found performing weekends at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge or taking up its regular Tuesday post at the Last Concert Cafe. Meanwhile, "Stuck in the Road," Bursting's liltingly pretty (yes, pretty) first single, has been catching on at radio stations far beyond the Texas border.

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Marlo Cobb
Joe Hon
Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey
Hobart Rowland
Mark Towns