Though The Hub looks like a diner, with its booths and linoleum floor, it's actually a swell place for live music. For her Houston Press Music Awards 2000 showcase last week, R&B singer Song had set her band up in the corner. While she and her musicians were difficult to see, the funk came through loud and clear.
Song was one of 60 Houston acts performing throughout the day on July 16, in 12 different locales near Bayou Place. Some spots, like the Aerial Theater and the Mercury Room, were ideal for gigs. Some, like The Hub and its next-door neighbor on Main, No tsu oH, weren't exactly built for bands, yet in these atypical settings, the live music experience took on an edgy luster. Further proof that rock and roll can happen anywhere, at any time.
Diversity was the main element in this year's showcase, which attracted 6,500 people from cities as far away as San Antonio and Lubbock. The turnout was the largest in the awards' 11-year history. From jazz to funk to hip-hop to metal, nearly every genre was represented by at least one act. Saxophonist David Caceres packed 'em in at the Mercury Room. R&B act Fo Sho played to a steady stream of watchers on Spy's outdoor patio. And South Park Mexican pulled a larger crowd at his 9 p.m. Aerial Theater performance than national headliners 8STOPS7. Who says homegrown talent is lacking?
Racking up five awards this year (plus one for the label he owns and operates, Dope House Records), South Park Mexican has asserted himself as Houston's most potent creative force. Nothing unexpected there. Some new winners include Drunken Thunder (Best Metal), Houston Jazz Trio (Best Jazz) and Scott Gertner's Skybar (Best Jazz Venue). Mostly, though, awards voters went with the known names and commodities. The Suspects, the Hollisters, Texas Johnny Brown, TKoH! and Norma Zenteno made their usual appearances at the tops of their respective lists. Newcomers the Groceries won Best New Act. Here's to their ascension.
And here's to next year and even more quirky and diverse acts. -- Anthony Mariani
South Park Mexican
Last year, if you would have told Carlos Coy (a.k.a. South Park Mexican) that he would become the latest rapper to break out of H-town, that his albums would become regional best-sellers, that his songs would get continuous radio and club airplay, and that he would win every HPMA 2000 category he was nominated for, he would probably tell you to shut the fuck up and pass the damn blunt already.
My, how things change.
It's true. SPM has made a clean sweep, marking the first time a rap artist has won awards for best local musician, songwriter, song and album (along with the standard best rap/hip-hop honor) in HPMA's 11 years. His label, Dope House, also snatched up an award for best local label. But these multiple wins are just latest things for the optimistic orator to celebrate. Following in the footsteps of Suave House Records and Lil' Troy's Short Stop Records, Coy recently inked a deal with Universal Music Group. The mega-label will distribute Dope House's forthcoming compilation, The Purity Album, as well as Coy's next two solo works.
But just like Ol' Dirty Bastard before him, Coy is for the chil'ren. Through his flava, Coy wants to show people of every race, every color, every creed, that if a burly vato from the scorching streets of Hillwood can make it, hell, it's open season for everyone. "The only way to ever fight hate, and be successful, is to fight hate with love," Coy says. "That's the only way. I just want the world to know that's what we do at Dope House, and that's why we're so successful, because we're not letting anybody pull us down. We don't listen to negative things. We just wish the people who say them well." And to think, this is coming from a guy who once asked all the radio stations that weren't playing his music to suck his dick. My oh my, how things change. -- C.D.L.
Critic's choice: Musician of the Year: South Park Mexican; Best Rap/Hip-hop: South Park Mexican; Songwriter of the Year: Jimmy "T-99" Nelson; Song of the Year: "Wanna Be a Baller," Lil' Troy; Album of the Year: Sweet Inspiration, The Hollisters; Best Local Label: Dope House
Countless rock star wanna-bes have told their buddies over a beer that if they could get an impromptu audition with some big label, they'd be shagging groupies in the back of the limo within a month. Trouble is, most of 'em would simply soil their trousers if given such an opportunity. When this scenario popped up in front Justin Furstenfeld of Blue October, who signed almost a year ago to really big label Universal Records in L.A., he nailed the sucker. "I was talking to [label chief] Doug Morris, and that was nerve-wracking enough. Then he says, 'Well, since we're going to be a team now, how about playing a few songs for me?' So then I'm suddenly in his office, sitting cross-legged on the floor with my shoes off, playing this old 1920s hollow-body he handed me, trying, like, not to break the thing."
Furstenfeld promises he'll be in town for this year's awards presentation -- his brother accepted the same award in 1999 -- and says he'll stick the 2000 trophy on his bedside table, right next to last year's. He has another rather important date to keep in H-town: On August 19, accompanied by a posse of record label honchos, Blue October holds its long-awaited CD release party at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Even with so much going his way, Furstenfeld still has two more items on his wish list: to open for his fave band, Radiohead, and for a Houston radio station to join the more than 30 others across the country that have just added "James," the first single from the new record, to their playlists. "Geez, you'd think [the Houston station] would give us some kind of break. I mean, I was born in this city." Yeah, you'd think so, but c'mon, Justin. This is Houston. -- G.B.
Critic's choice: Blue October
The Big Easy
For the best live local blues, Houstonians must like taking it Easy. Nowhere else but at The Big Easy can you find blues five nights a week and zydeco on Sundays. And during those rare moments live music isn't making the crowd move, the jukebox is. Owner Tom McLendon sees himself as an educator, enlightening patrons to various folk variants and teaching good listening skills. Pick any night of the week, and you can see McLendon sitting at the bar among regulars. Perhaps that's the lure of this stylish dive. It's cozy enough for musicians and audiences to feel each other's pain. McLendon takes it all in. His original vision was to bring the blues to everyone. Judging by his "smart" crowd, he's done a pretty good job. -- G.G.
Critic's choice: C-Davis Barbecue
Bozo Porno Circus
Industrial music is only the basic skeleton of Bozo Porno Circus and, especially, its act. "Houston's Top Fetish Band" goes for sensory overload with stimulated sex play, clown makeup, raunchy costumes and multimedia blitzing combined with sinister vocals, heavy beats and grinding rhythms. "I think we appreciate that there's a lot of competition out there for people's entertainment dollars," says vocalist Ken Gerhard, "so we're just trying to give them the whole package all at once."
Sponsored by a local fetish store, BPC is ToneZone Records' most popular live act. Gerhard and drummer Ador Charming formed the band in 1991, but it wasn't until 1997 that the band stopped kidding around. Regular female dancers, the Porn Starz, officially joined the group, and an album, Cybersmut, was released in 1998. With deranged, cheeky lyrics and song titles like "Biker Sluts from Pluto" and "Texxas Chainsaw Masochists," BPC betrays its mission to upset and scare people. But the band insists this is all in good fun. The audience seems to think so, too. Even those who are initially shell-shocked after a performance usually go back for more. -- S.C.
Critic's choice: Asmodeus X
Clandestine is on the road about ten months a year these days. The band will be traveling to France to play with the Chieftains soon, carrying the Lone Star flag all the way. "The cool thing about the traditional music thing is there are so many bands in Texas now," says vocalist/guitarist Jennifer Hamel, speaking by phone at a tour stop in Philadelphia. "We just finished playing a Scottish festival in Westfield, Massachusetts, and all three of the bands were from Texas. They could have gone to Boston to hire Celtic bands, but they brought in three bands from Texas. Obviously there must be a lot of great traditional music happening in Texas.
"We'd like to see more acoustic and traditional music categories in the awards," she continues, "because there are so many talented musicians in Houston. There's an all-Ireland flute player living down the street from me, and he's never been nominated for anything. We need an 'Acoustic Instrument' category." -- A.H.
Critic's choice: Clandestine
For all SXSW folk know, this band, in its previous incarnation as Ghandi in Vegas, could've been the next big thing. It really wasn't; but what it has become is a super-likable local (for now) indie-pop act. After Ghandi in Vegas, which consisted of Groceries mastermind Matt Brownlie and studio help (read: friends), parted ways with Austin and its impersonation of a glamour town, the band's brain began, ummm, shopping for Groceries bandmates. A little more than a year ago, the quintet was ready. Longtime friend and GIV collaborator Eric Bogle, drummer Thomas Clemmons and bassist Blake Powell now work with chief songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Brownlie to deliver fun and accomplished rock and roll. Live, the band is tight, quirky, frenetic. And harmless-looking. At least the band knows it's on to something. "We promote like motherfuckers," says Brownlie. That, and he says, "We try to give an unusual performance. And people seem to be getting into that." Fans at Karma, Fitz's and Rudz, just some of the local spots Groceries has played, will testify. -- A.M.
Critic's choice: Groceries
Brian Davis, 30footFALL
Brian Davis keeps 30footFALL on the rails, never dropping a beat no matter what the shifts around him might be, musical or otherwise. "I'm really flattered," says Davis, regarding both the nomination and the award itself. "There're lots of really talented drummers and percussionists in this town. These sorts of things are always funny that way. They pretty much come down to a popularity contest." -- C.S.
Critic's choice: Sebastian Whittaker
Dope House Records
The Dope House motto is "dope sells itself." How profound. (Really.) Yet it's always good to have a dealer who'll lay down that slick-as-Ricky-Martin's-leather-pants sales pitch to make buyers wanna score some product. As any employee of the Dope House dynasty will tell you, South Park Mexican is the most charismatic dealer since Superfly, or even more dastardly, David Geffen. With SPM large and in charge, the label's stable (Rasheed, Grimm, Low G, 24-7 Hustlaz, Hillwood Hustlaz, Baby Beesh) looks primed to blowuptuate, just like SPM. Together, the latest releases from Rasheed and Lone Star Ridaz (the latter a joint effort between SPM and producer Happy Perez) have moved about 40,000 units, says Dope House. And now, since the boss is hitting the big time -- Universal Music Group will distribute his next record -- he's looking for other major-label assistance. "Sony-Columbia is really interested in Baby Beesh," says SPM (a.k.a. Carlos Coy). "Elektra is very, very interested in obtaining a project. So we're not putting all our eggs in one basket." But it's not just SPM who's keeping the goings-on bubbling. Dope House has always been a family affair. Carlos and his brother, Arthur Jr., are co-chairmen, and the brothers' father, Arthur Sr., is president. Along with product, Dope House is also heavily stocked with loved ones. "[Compared] with the other record labels I've seen, I would say we are a more tightly knit family," says Sylvia Coy, Coy's big sista, who is also the general manager. "We try to work things out as a family. We believe in working together as a team." Damn, why can't everybody's family have that kind of love? -- C.D.L.
Critic's choice: Dope House Records
Heck, Drunken Thunder has played a Motörhead cover at least once in its day; there must be some kind of metal in there somewhere. But the band's Robert Lee Williams thinks otherwise: "We're not a metal band," he says, "but it's great to be one at times like this." (Damon O'Bannon, meanwhile, says he would like to "thank everyone that voted for us.") Garage power rock is Drunken Thunder's stock-in-trade; turn it up loud enough, and you end up in the metal neighborhood. Plans for the balance of 2000 include playing in and around town and going to New York City later in the summer to record CD no. two with Phil Lala, who just finished work on the next Lunachicks disc. New record in hand, Drunken Thunder plans to strike out on tour in 2001. For now, you can see the band play an unplugged (!?) set at Cactus Music & Video on Friday, August 11, at 6 p.m. -- C.S.
Critic's choice: demonseeds
Elvia's remains one of Houston's most treasured Latin bars. You gotta hand it to owner Elvia Parsons-Kras. She knows her market. Elvia's bands come from seemingly every aspect of Hispanic culture. Tejano, salsa, merengue, cumbia, you name it, the club has hosted it. And anyone who's anyone goes. Of course, white folk are more than welcome, and they fill the place by the dozens. The dance floor sometimes looks like a utopian vision of world peace. -- G.G.
Critic's choice: Elvia's
What Los Skarnales does with its horns is above the usual blow-hard approach most ska-influenced bands take. Ever-shifting tempos and strong, memorable melody lines allow the sax tandem of Jason Bird (alto) and Vince Palumbo (tenor) to insert themselves whenever. It's an arrangement built on trust: The other five guys in the band depend on the horn section to kick ass -- by any means necessary. "Our horns are hot as hell right now," says guitarist Jose Rodriguez. "They're our greatest so far." Bird and Palumbo know their boundaries, hitting sharp and in unison when they must, spreading out individually when they can. A raw and improvisational attitude buoys the band's overall sound. "When we're writing and we feel like a horn line should be there or when we say, 'Y'all can put something there,' we are trying to do new things," says Rodriguez. "Out of that fact, it's hard to just call us ska. We're a little different." Nothing is forced. Every line of every Los Skarnales horn lick comes off as genuinely as a baby's first words. -- A.M.
Critic's choice: David Caceres
Though Global Village doesn't play a lick of reggae, its dependence on strong rhythms and dance beats fits the "world" classification perfectly. The band has won the Press's Best Funk/R&B Band three times. Maybe Houston's reggae fans are so laid-back they forgot to vote for their faves.
Meanwhile, Global Village keeps forging ahead, making great funky music. "We don't care if it's an empty or full room, just as long as everyone is out on the floor dancing," says trumpeter Keith Van Horne. "We've shaken the image as a cover band, and we're able to draw lots of people to our gigs. I think a lot of bands win their categories because of name recognition. We've been around a long time and are recognized by a lot of people in town. We just want to make sure that people know us as a funk/R&B band." -- A.H.
Critic's choice: Jeepneys
Call it diligence. Call it efficiency. Call it working yourself to the point of overexposure. Andre Sam-Sin, better known to friends, family and fish heads as DJ Sun, has been working his lil' turntables off to get people from all corners of the city -- well, at least inside the Loop -- entranced in his blues-soul-jazz mood music. Let's take a look at this dude's weekly rundown: On Sunday nights, he performs "experimental grooves" on the rooftop lounge at Privé. On Mondays, he hosts "Soular Sessions" at Brasil. On Tuesdays, it's "Soular Transit Authority" at The Hub. On Wednesdays, it's "Groovement!" (formerly "Ascension") at the Swank Lounge. On Thursdays, it's over at the Swank again for the Afro-Cuban/Brazilian rhythms of "Sol." On Friday, he rests, but that's just to recharge for his double shift on Saturdays. First, he oversees his long-standing radio show, KPFT's Soular Grooves. After he's done with that, he's off to Hyperia for a wee-hour DJ shift. And that doesn't count the special appearances he makes at concerts or events here and out of town. And he's not done. He's looking to record another volume of his Soular Grooves series, since his debut collection, Soular Grooves IV, was a cult success. He's also collaborating with classical/jazz pianist Robert Boston for an upcoming fall concert and possible album. It's just another persona for him to dazzle audiences with. "I think that's where I make myself stand out a little," says Sun. "I don't want you to feel like you come to one of my events and get the same thing. I wanna distinguish myself in everything I do, and I think that's what people are accepting." -- C.D.L.
Critic's choice: DJ Sun
Houston Jazz Trio
Maybe it took the release of last year's exceptional LandHo! to put the Houston Jazz Trio over the top. Regardless, the fact that it took HJT nine years to win its first Pressy is a surprise. The straight-ahead trio has been one of the area's more popular and powerful groups almost since its inception, and with good reason. The interplay is as fine as you'll find on any local bandstand, and HJT's laid-back, spacious sound is never threatening, yet at the same time it's filled with some intense playing and ideas.
"We always try to make it palatable to the non-jazz-listener's ear," says drummer Tim Solook. "We try not to play over people's heads. We just try to have nice melodies, improvise over those nice melodies and play something that people are going to kind of remember."
Another HJT staple is the band's unconventional repertoire. When Solook formed the trio with guitarist Paul Chester and bassist Dave Nichols (who died in 1996 and was replaced by Dave Klingensmith), he decided to avoid the jazz warhorses, opting instead to play more obscure songs from the canon (John Coltrane's "Up Against the Wall" or Gil Evans's "Las Vegas Tango"), pop tunes that most jazzers avoid ("Change the World") and a few originals. "It always made the band sound a little different," Solook says.
So does the group's arranging. Forget the melody-solos-break-melody formula. HJT mixes it up. It even has the guts to play Burt Bacharach's classic 3/4 song "What the World Needs Now (Is Love)" in 5/4 measure.
With creative arrangements, a unique repertoire and subtle artistry, the Houston Jazz Trio has done Houston and the jazz scene proud. -- P.J.M.
Critic's choice: Houston Jazz Trio
Joe "Guitar" Hughes
Though some aspiring know-it-alls have lost plenty of sleep pondering why Joe "Guitar" Hughes seems to win more Best Guitarist awards than Best Blues, the simple fact remains that Hughes's talent transcends any particular genre. The fiery guitarist who came up through the authoritative Third Ward training grounds is a champion of the rough-edged Gulf Coast sound. The 62-year-old Hughes, who is booking some gigs in Greece for the fall and hoping to finish another record by year's end, has been relaxing at home, keeping his high blood pressure under control by staying out of the 100-degree heat. "You know that when I do a show I give it my best shot, and some of those outdoor festival gigs have been tough," he says. "The sun really does a job on you."
But on a coolness factor, Hughes blows the needle off the scale. He has been a continuing inspiration to a legion of young players whose jaws collectively drop when they catch one of his occasional local appearances. "At my age, you don't need to be practicing all day long," says Hughes. "You better know all of the notes by now, so you're really trying to reach another level in creativity. I don't need to be writing all this down, either, because I can play the guitar in my mind. You know, the blues is all about expression. That was what Ornette Coleman once told me, that he kept seeing all these young guys picking up the trumpet and trying to play as fast as they could, but they didn't understand you have to feel what you play, and if you do that, the audience feels it too." -- G.B.
Critic's choices: Joe "Guitar" Hughes and Texas Johnny Brown
Inspired by a live recording of Maceo Parker, saxophonist Kelly Dean co-founded TKoH! nearly six years ago. That's over half a decade ago. Still, by virtue of what Dean saw at the band's HPMA 2000 showcase, it seems there's more territory to be conquered. "I'd say a good third of the audience had never seen us before," he says. "I guess we're still a well-kept secret." Every Sunday night, TKoH! jams at Instant Karma, and the revolving cast of characters, ranging from seven to 13 people, draws the kind of diverse crowd interested in early funk classics or jazzy, improv-heavy soloing. The focus is on musicianship. Most of the members perform around town during the week, then use TKoH! as a way to cut loose and have some fun. Loaded with two trumpets, two saxes and two trombones, TKoH! regularly features a killer horn section along with a guitarist, a drummer, a percussionist and (as if the band weren't textured enough) a keyboardist. -- S.C.
Critic's choice: Vintage SKV
If it's sound quality that matters, then the Aerial, as it's affectionately known, is pretty much the best venue for anything that makes sound -- not just random rock and rollers. Even the Pretenders sound like a real band in this, the loudest venue in town. Clean and pristine, the Aerial makes going to and from events comfortable. In a wash of rowdy Powerman 5000 fans, that's quite an accomplishment. Endearing itself to HPMA voters is also some feat. Scenester-voters overlooked the fact that the Aerial's stock-in-trade is big concert business. They voted for the venue, anyway -- either because it's so far beyond the competition or because the Aerial is actually super-vital to the Houston scene. The venue co-sponsors music awards year after year. Talk about showing local love. -- A.M.
Critic's choice: Fitzgerald's
Hollisters front man Mike Barfield asked if he had won a new microwave oven when told his band had been selected as Houston's best musical cowpokes for the third time in the past four years. This was obviously no passing attempt at witty banter, because after the usual "it's nice to be recognized" stuff, Barfield revealed he is planning to tie the knot in September with longtime girlfriend Yvonne Shimek. Heck, no time like the present to drop hints about the gift list.
In the same breath, Barfield dropped an equally big bombshell. After getting married, the happy couple will pack up and move to Austin, meaning the next time the Hollisters appear on a music awards ballot, it will be in the Austin Chronicle. Barfield is the only member still living in Houston, so the move will clear up some logistical problems and put the band on more secure ground in one of the world's two alt-country meccas. It seems the honeymoon period won't be too long or leisurely, even though the band's Sweet Inspiration album shot up to No. 3 on the Americana chart this past year. The band is still working in new drummer Tom Lewis (ex-Junior Brown), who replaced Kevin "Snit" Fitzpatrick; once that transition is made, the Hollisters plan to record a live album in Shiner and keep riding the club scene while there are still some legs left on the studio album. "I've always wanted to keep moving forward," said Barfield. "And there's no secret to what this band has been able to do, other than plain ole hard work." -- G.B.
Critic's choice: The Hollisters
Mike Sinclair (Jug O' Lightnin')
Mike Sinclair didn't create his style by imitating the usual monsters who have produced so many clones (Stanley Clarke, Ron Carter, Chris Squire, Jaco Pastorius, Larry Graham, et al.); he developed it by focusing on Delta blues and jug bands. "[My style] is based off of jug music where there was no bass," says Sinclair. "Where the bass was just a guy going, 'whomp, whomp, whomp' in a jug." For Sinclair, finding like-minded musicians in Jug O' Lightnin' has been liberating. He started taking lessons from his father in 1974 and began playing in public in 1996 in cover bands. But when he met up with vocalist Aaron Loesch and formed Jug, he was able to develop his Delta-ragtime-jug style. As for the band's future, Sinclair is optimistic. "We put this thing together, and it's worked out good. This is all original music, and we're very picky. It won't be long before we're touring." -- P.J.M.
Critic's choice: David Craig
Each year Sisters Morales takes this category, and each year they wonder why. After all, front woman Lisa Morales says, they rock. "It's not that we're ungrateful," she says. "It's just that I wish [the Press] had an 'Eclectic Music' category."
No matter what they're called (or what some music critic calls them), sisters Lisa and Roberta Morales manage to pound through barriers. They appeal to any race, any music buff. They blend rock with country with blues with Tejano. So it's only natural to be at a loss when trying to describe their sound. "We aren't one kind of music," Morales says. "I think our sound works in Houston because it's such a melting pot of different races. In fact, we hear that from our audience a lot, that they like our shows because we cross borders."
Just recently they crossed a huge border over to Europe, where they performed in the Mirande Festival. They're going global. Come fall, the sisters will have a definite sound when they go into the studio. They're working on an all-Spanish album that will lean toward traditional Spanish music. -- G.G.
Critic's choice: Jack Saunders
Norma Zenteno and her band are perennial winners in this category, even though they are technically neither a salsa nor a Tejano band. Yet since they're closer to Marc Anthony than Flaco Jimenez, they fall in this spot. "This is such a widespread category," says drummer Javier Zenteno. "We're thrilled to win in this category. That means the people still like our music. However, we're certainly not a Tejano or a Spanish rock band. Norma does a lot of her material in English.
"Norma is so original, nobody has her style," Zenteno continues. "However, the best is yet to come." The group plans to record material written ten years ago, some big-band Latin tunes that have never been committed to tape and an album of father Roberto Zenteno's music, with the patriarch playing the horn.
The Zenteno family's musical roots go back two generations to Mexico, where the paternal grandparents starred in early film musicals. In Houston, Roberto fronted one of the best Latin dance bands for decades. So it's no wonder that most of the Zenteno kids ended up as professional musicians. And pretty darn good ones, too. -- A.H.
Critic's choice: Moscas
Rob Smith (Japanic)
No one was more surprised than Smith when he learned that he had been nominated in this category -- much more that he won it. That's because even he will admit that what he does on the keyboards in Japanic is a far cry from the flashy or intricately skilled key pushing of other musicians. In fact, in addition to being the group's keyboardist, he's also its bassist, playing all the bottom lines on the keys. "When you look at what I'm doing, it's not really complicated or about chops," he says. "It's just how I use the keyboards in context of the band to fill out the sound. To be honest, I don't know if the nomination has something to do with just being in a high-profile band or playing in front of a lot more people than some of the others. Maybe people just like hearing something different than just the typical organ stuff."
Smith never had any formal musical training but remembers toying around with the family's piano from a young age. "I just played around with it," he remembers. He started playing in a ska band five years ago, then in a group called the Sperlings (which he is still part of), by just applying to a new instrument what he knew about playing guitar. The formation of Japanic in early 1999, however, afforded Smith the chance to pursue his favorite instrument full time. He says: "I just try to put in a lot of different sounds. And I really want to be creative." - B.R.
Critic's choice: Robert Boston
At the HPMA 2000 showcase, the Suspects looked tiny among the massive throng gathered to see the band at The Hub. The stage, crammed into the corner, barely fit the nine members. But that was okay for front man Thomas Escalante. "It was great 'cause we fed off the crowd," Escalante says. "It gave us energy." So much energy that the band didn't even use a playlist. It simply played what the crowd wanted to hear. Everybody loved it. "Our sound is a variance of everything," Escalante says. "Ska just happens to be the medium." However you describe the music, the Suspects will remain Houston's top ska band, no matter what it's nominated for next year. Escalante says with a wink: "Our horns could use a little recognition." -- G.G.
Critic's choice: Los Skarnales
Texas Guinness Lovers
Despite the name, this band does not simply cover songs favored by Irish pub denizens, although that type of tunesmithery is solidly represented in the band's repertoire. TGL is just as quick with a classic rock song, an original or an obscure ditty as it is with a tune by Bob Willis and Ernest Tubb or a piss-drunk fave by the Chieftains and Pogues. "We're not wholly a cover band, because we mix in a lot of originals," says front man Killian Sweeney. "In the folk tradition, which is what we come from, there's also no question about it: You are expected to perform songs that you didn't write." These Lovers are perennial favorites in this category, bringing honest musical skill to a style that often brings out the worst in local musicians. Plus, these players aren't afraid to tinker with a melody or lyric. Or to let the tuba player go nuts. "What makes a good cover band?" says Sweeney. "The irony is that it's originality. You have to find a fresh way to play the songs so it doesn't sound like a cover. The goal is to make the [songs] palatable." -- B.R.
Critic's choice: Commercial Art
Texas Johnny Brown
It's funny, but the septuagenarian Brown didn't even start officially singing the blues until Clinton was in office. Sure, Brown had been in demand from the late 1940s through the early 1960s on stage and in the studio before he quit the biz to take a steady day gig as a forklift driver. But that was as an instrumentalist. It was only after he "retired" and formed a band in 1992 that he stepped up to the mike and began belting out blues in his baritone. "I never sang, but I always could," he says. "I caught a lot of people by surprise. And I only really started because I would hire [singers] who would come to the gig and not know the songs or be late, so I got tired of putting up with it."
Texas Johnny Brown released his long-delayed blues debut CD in 1998, the well-received Nothin' But the Truth. He hopes to have his sophomore effort out by the end of September, just as soon as he can finish tinkering with the horn sections. He took time out to play the HPMA 2000 showcase, whose diverse lineup of acts reminded Brown of "the old package shows, the kind I used to play a long time ago at places like the Apollo Theatre."
When asked what makes great blues vocals, Texas Johnny Brown says it's simple. "All you need is a good blues feeling. It's when you actually feel what you're doing. It just gets up inside of you, and you want to express yourself. Just let it go. That's what I say. Just let it go." -- B.R.
Critic's choice: Best Blues: Jimmy "T-99" Nelson; Best Male Vocalist: Heath Spencer Philip
Cactus Music & Video
Well, it has officially become a tradition around this time of year. After winning this category six times, Cactus (which must've been remodeling the year it didn't win) has once again snatched the Pressy. "It's always a thrill to be recognized for our commitment to local and regional music," says general manager Quinn Bishop. It's fitting that as the store approaches its silver anniversary -- yes, kids, it was around when your parents were young, broke and sexually irresponsible -- the famed audio and video shop is still held in the highest regard, more so than those other flashy retailers. "For us, in particular, we just try to be the music lover's store," says Bishop. "At the heart of our business is that we're community-oriented, and that certainly includes the Houston music community." Giving love to local CDs is what the folks at Cactus consider their biggest strength. New CDs from Britney or 'N Sync share prime floor space with works from South Park Mexican or Sisters Morales. "We try to be as nurturing of that as we possibly can," Quinn says, "and provide an avenue of sales for local artists where they are positioned next to whatever the hottest national act is." -- C.D.L.
Critic's choice: Chemistry Records
How darn modest. Carolyn Wonderland is genuinely surprised at winning this award, and figures her victory has more to do with her playing in a band that plays out "all the time" than it does with her actual vocal talents. "I'm not the best singer in town," she says, "but it's still nice. I mean, some of the other people in the category, like Gloria Edwards and Diunna Greenleaf, I couldn't hold a candle to. I'm just happy to get to play the awards show again. That was fun last year." -- C.S.
Critic's choice: Diunna Greenleaf
Scott Gertner's Skybar
Occupying the space formerly known as Cody's, the old jazz club that has been closed for several years, Scott Gertner's Skybar is a refurbished version of the defunct Montrose nightclub, and in 15 months it has knocked off Sambuca for this award. Boasting two terraces and one of the best views of the Houston skyline -- okay, even though there are no great views of Houston -- the Skybar is filled with atmosphere and a touch of chic. "[The club] had always been appropriate for the type of jazz and contemporary R&B that has gone in the venue," says Gertner, owner, jazz master and the guy whose name is in the title.
A few nights each week, vocalist/guitarist Gertner and the house band offer smooth jazz/soft R&B, but it's not all about him. Working with national and regional acts, Gertner recently instituted Mondays as Big Band Night and Thursdays as Latin Jazz Night. (And, of course, he has the occasional ladies' night.) The Skybar is one of the few places to host first-tier national jazz artists. In the past year, Chick Corea, Bob James, Acoustic Alchemy, Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria all graced the Skybar's bandstand. Gertner also plans to pull in some top-ranked straight-ahead talent. Between his band, the local groups and the national acts, Gertner is slowly developing a schedule that adds another dimension to the Houston jazz scene. "I'm just trying to find quality entertainment," he says. "I know that people will follow [them] to come into the venue." So far, Gertner's plan is working. -- P.J.M.
Critic's choice: Cézanne
The fact that fans have chosen Blanco's as their favorite C&W watering hole four years in a row should make aspiring musicians just as happy as general manager Karin Barnes, who was as giddy as a kid with a new Harry Potter title when she heard the club had won again. Barnes was right on the mark when she succinctly summed up the reason why this little honky-tonk on West Alabama is so popular: "Great bands." It's not just the fact that Blanco's has no interest in catering to the boot-scootin' crowd, which has unwittingly kept burgeoning country fans from packing the place when marquee acts like the Derailers, Two Tons of Steel or the Romeo Dogs perform. Barnes takes a personal interest in watching new talent emerge and catch breaks. She recalls how Mike Barfield (of the Hollisters) began his tenure at Blanco's back with the Rounders. While Saturday is considered the best night to be out on the town, Blanco's has consistently bucked the trend by featuring its main acts on Thursdays and Fridays (and closing for private parties on Saturdays and Sundays), keeping Wednesdays reserved for new talent night. -- G.B.
Critic's choice: Blanco's
Probably Houston's busiest zydeco band, the Zydeco Dots log about 200 gigs a year in the area. That includes a lot of clubs, and corporate and private parties, especially during crawfish season. "So even people who don't go out to clubs regularly get to know the band," says guitarist Tom Potter. The band, in Potter's opinion, is also playing as tightly as ever these days. "After 13 years as a band, you learn to do something right," he says. "We've been playing since we were preadolescents. Most of us come from musical families, in addition to the 13 years with the Dots. Multiply that times 200 gigs a year, and you're bound to become good at what you do. Of all the styles of music I've done, zydeco is my favorite. It keeps me going." -- A.H.
Critic's choice: Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws
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Just can't get any more underground than shock 13. This outfit is so underground, so badass, in fact, that no one knows how the hell to get ahold of it to break the victory news. So let this be the message. What we do know is that the band was formed from the ashes of the once hugely popular jock-rock ensemble Aftershock. Losing some members, adding a DJ and appropriating hardcore hip-hop made continuing on impractical for a band whose name is more suitable for a product sitting on a Walgreens shelf between Old Spice and Aqua Velva. Made up of local vets Ray "Bone" Herrera, Carlos Medrano, Gabriel Quintero, Steve Wilgus and Que, the band presents itself as an alternative to basically everything. Too hard for hardcore, too hip for hip-hop and too subterranean for underground, shock 13 wants you to believe it's completely off the radar and only surfaces for the Bud Light specials at Emo's -- which may very well be true. Musically, it's a strange, relatively bass-free mix of metallic barre chords and riffs, clean and sharp beats, and rapped lyrics. Though not adventurous with song lengths or breakdowns, shock 13 can -- with a straight face -- pull off a number like "Crackhead," in which rapper Que brags about the main character's smoking addiction. So maybe that's where shock 13 has disappeared to. Rehab. -- A.M.
Critic's choice: Giancarlo
Profiles by Greg Barr, Sande Chen, Giselle Greenwood, Aaron Howard, Craig D. Lindsey, Paul J. MacArthur, Anthony Mariani, Bob Ruggiero and Chris Smith.