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."