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Feature: Wednesday, June 15, 2005
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Cover Illustration by Doug MacDonald
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MUSIC AWARDS HALL OF FAME
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Fort Worth Music Awards

We Are Fam-a-lee, Dammit!

Everybody always talks about Fort Worth’s great sense of community. What’s less frequently advertised is the great sense of community in Fort Worth’s music scene. The scene is, in many ways, just like a family — tight-knit. One guy who played with this guy in that band probably also played with that guy in this band. Dave Karnes played with Byron Gordon who played with Tim Locke who played with Ben Roi Herring who played with Jeremy Hull who played with Dave Karnes.

This sense of family comes not only from musicians bouncing from one band to the next without ever leaving the county, but also from the respect that is forged by struggle. Fort Worth isn’t the easiest town in which to make a living as a musician. Sometimes it seems as if the entire citizenry is divided up into two camps — classical-loving rich folk and mainstream radio listeners — and everything in between is hot air. The musicians who fight to show us otherwise eventually become stronger, wiser, and more steadfast in their devotion to the scene.

Love of community is also present in the souls of all of our Hall of Famers. Like last year’s inaugural class (Johnny Case, Mac Curtis, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Vaden Todd Lewis), this year’s roster — “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, Doug Ferguson, Flickerstick, Lady Pearl Johnson, and the Old 97’s — is full of artists who cut national profiles but always considered the Fort Worth area home. We salute their humility and grace — posthumously, in the case of our three individual honorees.

You also know that where there is family, there are also neighbors. Without great neighbors like Fort Worth’s local music fans, there probably wouldn’t even be a Fort Worth Music Family. Congrats to all of you — and thanks.

— Anthony Mariani

Blues

The blues, it’s true, is the grand common ancestor of most American popular music genres. But let’s face it: The blues is best understood, not in the context of other kinds of music, but in the context of another discipline that turns sadness and violence into artistry — boxing.

Blues is its own “sweet science,” wherein the sonic pugilist who knows just three chords is expected to transform that dumb jab into a graceful repertoire of reaction to life’s hooks and knock-outs. Blues artists turn bruises into pretty colors, make pain feel like an exhilarating high, and recognize sheer, wily endurance as a reason to celebrate — like how, say, singer-guitarist James Hinkle regularly transforms kicks in the ass into song.

Hinkle, a Cowtown native who got a youthful taste of blues greatness from visits to the legendary local club Mecca on Jacksboro Highway, continues to defy fans who want to give a precise definition of “Eclec-Tex,” the phrase he uses to describe his own style. That kinda Mexican-jubilation-meets-honky-tonk-with-a-whole-lotta-blues vibe sound was recently streamlined for Hinkle’s recent full-length, the aptly titled Straight Ahead Blues. Hinkle’s frequent collaborator on stage and in the studio, Johnny Mack, could turn an undertaker’s convention into a dance party with one trademark Jimmy Reed cover. His rich, wise vocals and guitar licks continue to soar from blessed local venues. The statuesque Miss Kim — a.k.a. Kim Pierce — does her legendary mom, the late Lady Pearl, proud with megaphonic vocal workouts that obliterate the already thin line between soul and the blues. Guitarist John Nitzinger rebounded from having a vanful of pricey sound equipment stolen (along with the van) last year to hold court at Bass Hall — of all places — with Delbert McClinton and Billy Joe Shaver. And Fort Worth’s handsome devil of the blues, Holland K. Smith, soldiers on with a loyal fan base that adores his dedication to undiluted blues ministry. — Jimmy Fowler

Album of the Year

A vast spectrum of sound is represented here. There’s straight-ahead jazz, acoustic singer-songwriter material, oldies, alt-rock, and country-western. Even though there is overlap in both “rock” and “C&W,” it’s only nominal. With the exception of a few extended jams, Flickerstick’s Tarantula is pure radio-ready alt-rock, while its nearest relative here — Coma Rally’s eponymous full-length — is downright indignant about anything remotely reminiscent of formula. Similarly, Tommy Alverson’s Heroes & Friends is a traditional crowd-pleaser, while Collin Herring’s The Other Side of Kindness is confrontational. Rounding out the category are c.d.’s that are worth more for their historical importance than intrinsic quality. First Sunday ... Worst Monday finally commits to polycarbonate disc the handiwork of some of Fort Worth’s most lauded and respected alt-singer-songwriters, including Herring, Coma Rally’s Tim Locke, Flickerstick’s Brandin Lea, and John Price. Pianist Johnny Case’s Waiting for the Moment once again proves the long-time jazzbo is all that and more. And Fort Worth Teen Scene, Norton Records’ three-volume anthology of Fort Worth’s garage-rock from the 1960s, documents a significant yet oft-overlooked period in rock ’n’ roll history. — Anthony Mariani

Country & Western

Those practitioners of jazz and avant garde/experimental stuff must sometimes feel like exchange students from some “furrin” country when they play in Fort Worth, ’cause this school is ruled by the C&W gang.

Here are the turf rules: Sentimentality is allowed, but not pretension. Well-told tales of broken hearts, lost lives, and outlaw victories can push the bullshit meter but not break it. Booze must figure prominently as a character somewhere in the past, present, or future.

It’s been six years since singer and guitarist Tommy Alverson’s “Una Mas Cerveza” reached new fans nationwide. He’s only solidified the elements of roadhouse, Mexican, and swing with his latest c.d., Heroes and Friends, whose song titles could tell a hundred different stories: “I Feel Like Drinkin’ Today” at a “Starlight Lounge Review” where a certain “Bordertown Girl” likes to hang. There’s less adherence to the raw country basics with Calhoun, one of the many guises worn by revered Fort Worth muso Tim Locke, although the band’s pure musicianship and Locke’s gorgeous, achy eloquence shine through. Straddling the line between folk and country, John Gomez might more accurately be described as “American”: a singer-songwriter with a love for acoustic simplicity and the stories of folks struggling for daily reprieves from hard luck. Collin Herring minds his own dark business, and we love him for it. The brooding side of country is raised almost to the level of existential dilemma in Herring’s songs. The fact that country veteran Bodie Powell threw over his native Nashville for Texas many years ago proves he’s a connoisseur of rowdy twang. For proof, check out one of his White Elephant gigs and ask him to play “Pissin’ On My Leg.” Phil Pritchett also had to ditch Nashville to find his Full Band as well as faithful audiences; the trio currently flourishes around the city and the state with a riotous brand of roots rock. The finely spun traditions of catch-in-the-throat retro crooning, stately strumming, and infectious scooting are exemplified by The Insiders, whose spit-shined covers sound like fresh tunes even to old bastards. — JF

Cover Band

Cover bands get a bad rap. News flash: If you think a person who plays another’s music is a lesser human being, check out Yo-Yo Ma.

Still, it’s understandable: As a scenester, if you go to a club and pay to get in, you definitely don’t wanna hear stuff you heard in the car radio on the drive over. And if you do wanna hear stuff you heard in the car (you sick bastard, you), you probably wouldn’t mind if the renditions were a little — how you say? — original.

Velvet Love Box is one of the Metroplex’s most beloved cover outfits, primarily for its members’ talents as kick-ass musicians but also for the ability to put on a great show. VLB epitomizes the potential of the concept of the thoughtful, talented cover band. Any of their performances — either somewhere in town or out in Euless at Bronco’s Sports Bar, where the three dudes of VLB hold a weekly gig — will be full of gems that people with good taste probably know and love but that are a little ... different. The guys in VLB aren’t afraid to twist much-ballyhooed contemporary classics into new constructs. In this respect, VLB kinda resembles two other nominees, Poo Live Crew and The Sultans. All three exhibit great taste in source material. VLB’s choices reflect an erudite, music-snobbish (in a good way) eclecticism (from Tears For Fears to Alice in Chains). The Sultans’ are total classic rock but not what you hear 900 times a day on either one of the classic-rock radio stations in town. (The band’s sets are leavened by a good dose of originals.) Poo Live Crew, well ... they’re just good-natured and silly. Yes, each performance more than often includes the gratuitous playing of a kazoo.

Then there’s Hard Nights Day, a Beatles cover band.

See, good taste abounds. — AM

Avant-Garde / Experimental

Contrary to persistent rumors, we Weekly-ites do have an idea of what the “avant-garde/experimental” category means.

It’s more than just a File 13 into which we dump all those musicians that we can’t comfortably fit anywhere else. (Although it’s that, too). “Avant-garde/experimental” defines any group that takes established genres and conventions and bends, twists, and remakes them into sounds that expand the possibilities of those genres and conventions without completely erasing them. These musicians have an eye trained on the cliff they just jumped off from.

This is also the perfect category for musical funny guys Best FWends, a duo sorta like They Might Be Giants without the old-fashioned songcraft elements. Anthony and Dustin mix samples and original riffs to create a kind of Pixie Stix-fired kiddie dance punk for Atari nostalgists. Squeezing his songs into tight little paper wads of lo-fi, Denton-based Cavedweller (a.k.a. Dirk Michener) understands that brevity is the soul of aural freakiness: He sometimes harmonizes with himself on multi-tracks but otherwise keeps the tunelets spartan and weirdly haunting.

As Shaolin Death Squad perfectly illustrates, “avant-garde” does not mean “humorless.” These Dentonites decorate the clanging metallic terra on which their complex song structures are staked with lyrical non-sequiturs delivered in Androo O’Hearn’s sly, overtly grandiose prog-rock style. As Sonic Death Monkee, fraternal instrumentalists Eric and Mike Reyes whip up long organ-and-drum interludes, creating a briskly rhythmic Goth groove that would get the worshippers floor-scuffing at a Satanic church social. Steve Hill is the crazy ol’ dude of the bunch. Former keyboardist of defunct sludge-rockers Bloodrock, Hill has mellowed into a Dave Frishbergian comedian-slash-lounge act — but with great style, great melodic instinct, and great dexterity on the 88’s. Contemplative Americana purveyors The Theater Fire continue to ooze with dusty, literary grace, both in their songwritten short stories of scary and sad outsiders and their subdued, carefully composed instrumental reveries. — JF

Vocalist (Female)

Popular music doesn’t put up the testosterone wall of, say, pro hockey or bass fishing, so where are the musical women of Fort Worth?

They’re around — though seriously outnumbered by the boys, especially as solo artists and band leaders. There’s a thin line between artistic gutsiness and foolish egotism, so maybe not as many women share the desire to make onstage asses of themselves, like guys are normally wont to do. Still, more innocent female recklessness could only bolster the Fort. Singer-songwriter April Geesbreght has that whole wounded-by-love, confessional thing down pat, but what’s really cool about her is that she doesn’t have to be depressed or angry to pen a solid, precise tune. Her clear, strong, reflective voice proves that contentment and curiosity aren’t boring when the songs are direct. Heather Knox stays a bit closer to the grand tradition of solo performers who sound fed up about getting beaten down — but only just. Her tough singing walks a great high wire of coiled tension, sounding like it could break into a thunder-wail at any turn. Every time we hear country-rock chanteuse Heather Morgan, we can’t help but wonder what she’d look like in a beehive wig and rhinestones. She has traces of Dolly’s glissando, Loretta’s righteousness, and Tammy’s weary stories-from-the-battlefield-of-womanhood approach to a ballad. With the recent release of her sixth album and a 2005 win in the Kerrville Festival’s New Folk competition, Beth Wood borrows just enough of Nanci Griffith’s wryness, tender vocal inflections, and silky melodicism to capture your ears without being a Griffith impersonator. — JF

Folk / Acoustic

In all honesty, it’s pretty hard to go wrong in this category, but if your idea of acoustic music involves less folk and more rock, then The February Chorus is hard to beat. The side project of Flickerstick frontman Brandin Lea, the Chorus is anything but what you’d find in a coffee shop on some random weekday evening. There are sometimes a dozen musicians on stage at once, and, yes, some of the guitars are plugged in. The sound is space-rock for the emo kid who also digs good, melancholy melody — but everything begins and ends with the strumming of an acoustic guitar.

Rock star nonpareil Lea also makes an appearance here as a member of the “Acoustic Mafia,” the name for the group of musos that gathers on a monthly basis at the Aardvark to strip down their rock songs to their barest, most acoustic elements. (The group also includes Tim Locke, John Price, Collin Herring, and former members of defunct alt-rockers The Action, Danny Weaver and Joe Rose.)

Those who like their folk folky have two options. Daniel Katsuk’s A-Hummin’ Acoustical Acupuncture, a nominee in multiple categories this year, can shift from music built around tribal rhythms and Middle Eastern melodic flourishes to old-timey folk on a dime, while All Braves No Chief, a side project of some of the guys in Spoonfed Tribe, has the unique ability to turn nearly every song into an island party.

In between the rockers and folkies are guitar virtuoso Darrin Kobetich, who brings a quiet aggression to his signature blend of bluegrass with jazz with country with prog-metal, and somber dude Russ Walton, Fort Worth’s answer to Jandek (except that Russ doesn’t mind if you take his photograph). — AM

Wild Card Category:

Best Guitarist

For whatever reasons, the ol’ six-string remains the province of dudes, and the nominees here are dudes in every sense of the word — testosterone-addled, occasionally crazy, and pretty good with a guitar.

Their styles are all wildly different. Even the bluesmen — James Hinkle and Holland K. Smith — differ in their approaches to the genre. Hinkle rocks his ax into a booze-soaked frenzy, while Smith makes the damn thing cry. Woodeye’s Scott Davis isn’t as fleet as either of those two, but he can create a sound bigger than that of 10 ordinary guitarists. Daniel Katsuk plays his guitar from bridge to fretboard and sometimes like a drum. Both Darrin Kobetich and Keith Wingate can make you believe they have 20 fingers apiece, but while Kobetich devotes much of his fretwork to melody and music-making, Wingate rips through arpeggios in the tradition of the best straight-ahead jazzbos — all male, of course. — AM

Hard Rock

The boys in Cadillac To Mexico may have copped their name from the famed Wailers album, but their gut-wrenching odes to the scaly, red, horned one with the bifurcated tail are anything but that. Gravelly death metal has its place (read: Norway), but that’s not to say that Cadillac needs to come out only at night — they’re perfectly capable of turning a beautiful, sunny May afternoon in the park into a slasher flick.

They share their taste for blood with only one other nominee — though Dedlock changes members more often than most of us change socks, the band continues to churn out hard, fast metal. Yes, they’re angry, too.

With hearts a-filled with aggression in lieu of angst, the Me-Thinks rifle through the drawers of history’s lesser rock outfits like KISS, The Stooges, and The Dead Boys and show them a thing or two about musicianship. The name for the movement to which the Me-Thinks subscribe is “Stoner Rock,” but while everyone else has put the weed away and moved on to the latest fad, the Me-Thinks continue rocking your stones off.

“Stoner Rock” was very ’70s, like the era that clearly informs the wild handiwork of Underground Railroad. You could contend that their sound isn’t necessarily fit for this hard category, but since it’s full of guitars and guitar solos and more guitar solos, what the hell. — Justin Press

Jazz

Jazz has been compared to science, mathematics, and religion. The genre is often called one of America’s few original cultural products, and it creates detractors and devotees with equal passion. But for all of its multi-faceted dimensions, one fact remains: You don’t have to understand how the hell they do it to get sucked in by its strange, noodling energy.

With its warm, reposeful atmosphere, The Black Dog has become a local scene hub for good reason: It’s a great spot for Fort dwellers to bask in the hypnotic power of live jazz. Earlier this year The Dog’s Sunday “Jazz Jam” parted ways with its founder and convivial long-time host Michael Pellecchia, but the tradition continues. The emphasis on jazz standards over experimentalism — though you’ll find the latter on good nights — still reigns. With his early country-and-western roots evolving into jazz improvisation over four decades, pianist Johnny Case continues his work as a sturdy bridge — that’s a compliment — between the city’s cultural past and its ambitious present. Case played alongside fusion-funksters Confusatron at last year’s Jazz by the Boulevard festival, lending his seal to the future torch-bearers. Black Dog habitués Dave and Daver — featuring Dave Williams on sax and Dave Karnes on drums — recently released their first full-length, which captured their signature blending of original and classic material. Given that jazz is a naturally incestuous art form, most of our nominees continue to perform with Keith Wingate, whose trio flashes a repertoire that includes both Mingus and Lennon-McCartney. — JF

Vocalist (Male)

OK, just for fun, let’s imagine this category as a Battle Royal and each singer’s voice as his weapon. Some of the guys would be Old World. With its flexibility and poignancy, the voice of Kevin Aldridge from Chatterton is a fencing sword but one with a razor-sharp tip; Aldridge, who writes all of Chatterton’s songs and lyrics, always goes for blood. Daniel Katsuk’s, of A-Hummin’ Acoustical Acupuncture, is a scimitar — simple but, with that sexy curve, suggestive of danger. John LaMonica’s, of LaMonica and Tiebreaker, is some sort of liquid poison, easy to overlook but extremely deadly when confronted.

Of the modern-day warriors, the massive, pretty pipes of Brandin Lea of Flickerstick are the pistons of an artillery tank/Ferrari. The voice of Tim Locke of Coma Rally and Calhoun is a ninja — sometimes it’s barely detectable; other times, it has its hands wrapped around your throat. Cory Watson’s, of Black Tie Dynasty, is equally stealthy but a bit more debonair. You could say that his voice is the assassin in the tux.

Until the day when we can throw all of these guys onto the same stage for a sing-off, we’ll just have to settle for hypothesizing. No matter the weaponry, they all have a pretty good chance of achieving victory. — AM

New Artist

So what if, like, 90 percent of the nominees here have been around for years? They’re still “new” if their band names are, right?

You may remember Kevin Aldridge from such memorable hits as Brasco and Woodeye. His newest project, Chatterton, is severely quiet (unlike big Brasco) and severely emo-ish (unlike tear-in-my-beer-ish Woodeye). He shares with fellow nominee Walker Wood a jones for Neil Youngian roughness.

Loud where both Aldridge and Wood are merely dark, Cityview (formerly punkers PVK) and Merkin (formerly Murkin) bring the rawk, y’all. Cityview’s brand is poppish and punky. Merkin’s is heavy metallic but with pop and prog accoutrements.

Then we got Nubian rapper Tahiti, whose ability to flow gracefully with tongue firmly planted in cheek defies logic; and The Color Of May, a bunch of young’uns from Joshua whose music was O.C.-cool way before Ryan and Marissa were even old enough to know how to kiss. — AM

Producer

To understand what a producer does, imagine playing around with a picture of your favorite band on the computer screen. The producer is the guy you’re pasting into the photo, and where you put him depends on which role he played during the recording process of the band’s album.

You can place the producer behind the musicians, merely there to watch over. He can stand beside the group, as an equal. Or he can be in front of everyone else, like a filmmaker who thinks of actors as nothing more than the vehicles through which he expresses his own personal artistic vision. As the former songwriter-guitarist of the defunct Valve, Casey Diiorio works with both newbies and old pros alike — one day, he can give a young Cowtown band its first taste of the professional recording process; the next, he can be working with some of the area’s most lauded and respected musos.

One case in point: Diiorio produced Album of the Year nominee, First Sunday ... Worst Monday, by the Aardvark’s “Acoustic Mafia” crew, featuring Brandin Lea (Flickerstick, The February Chorus), Tim Locke (Coma Rally, Flickerstick, Calhoun), Collin Herring, John Price, Diiorio himself, and Danny Weaver and Joe Rose from defunct alt-rockers The Action.

Then there’s Salim Nourallah, who takes enough time off from being an internationally beloved cult musician and Garboesque enigma to have notched some pretty impressive bands on his production resume — like the cut*off, the Old 97’s, the Deathray Davies, and Lousy Robot.

Todd and Toby Pipes, from Bass Propulsion Laboratories, still reign as arguably the most prolific producers of area bands, presiding over deliciously listenable releases by Lauren Fine, Sean Russell, Collin Herring, John Price, and Coma Rally. And Fort Worth producer Bart Rose may be the real Renaissance man in the bunch, with a palette that includes country, rock, blues, reggae, and all hues in between. — JF

R&B/Hip-Hop

There are two weird things about this category. One, a wide variety of styles is evident. Two, even though the heading is “R&B/Hip-Hop,” every nominee is either a rapper or rap act, with not an R&B crooner in sight. Back in the day, rap was simply that — just rap. Not anymore. There’s gangsta, East Coast, West Coast, jazzy, crunk, screw, and several dozen other sub-sub-styles. Nearly half of them are represented here.

At the gangsta end of the spectrum are the Eternal Thugs and the Immortal Soldiers. Both are straight-up, stone-cold gangbangers, but where the Soldiers are militaristic, the Thugs are more mafia-esque. Basically, the Soldiers would be comfortable in camo, the Thugs in Versace.

With a delivery as aggressive as that of both of the above, Twisted Black is so street you could drive a car on him. Yet he’s different from both the Thugs and the Soldiers in that his lyrics sometimes verge on the confessional. His distant artistic cousin is D’Mac, another upstart who obviously enjoys boastin’ and toastin’ but isn’t afraid to either get the party started or shed a tear for a loved one.

Tribe Called Quest-y rapper Tahiti is equally enthusiastic about the par-tay, but he also wants to make sure that throughout all the booty-shaking, heavy stuff is contemplated — you know, stuff like the state of the music industry, racism, duplicitous lovers.

Clearly the most college-radio-friendly of the bunch, Tahiti is also probably the most active in the nightclub scene. The fact that he typically performs with living, breathing musicians as opposed to machines probably has something to do with his burgeoning local profile. — AM

Rock

Good rock has to be premeditated but not too straitjacketed by intent. Like public sculpture or department store classical music, it’s defined by more than just a feeling but by less than the rules of a strict art form. Ideally, it should roll, but practitioners have also been known to bounce, jump, preen, pine, and navel-gaze. By definition, the presentation should be loud, but it shouldn’t be so loud that the passion and despair are blunted by being funneled through a blood-clogged eustachian tube. No matter how bombastic or sensitive, the material should rate that one simple, paramount declaration: “Dude (or dudette), you rock!”

With that non-rule in place, this year’s finalists fill the rock spectrum nicely. All the media gods have aligned to bless Black Tie Dynasty, those twentysomething revivalists of big and spacey synths, doomed romanticism, and male mascara who have us elders diving back into our Echo and The Bunnymen cassettes. Coma Rally may not be just another one of Tim Locke’s disguises — the other three guys in the band are not merely his session players in this moody, grunge-infused whole — but they do benefit from a Locke-ian sense of studious composition and grace. Happy hedonists Flickerstick unleashed a thrilling Tarantula to crawl up our leg this year, showing that the big-time rock lifestyle remains enviable despite the eternal popularity of success-bashing. With its mild-mannered moniker, Goodwin continues to prove that names are deceptive, chiefly by churning out near-flawless specimens of catchy but muscular rock. Ether captains Titan Moon emerged from another one of their periodic months-long siestas with a dreamy new c.d. and a reminder that classically trained kid prodigies sometimes grow up into classically informed shimmer-pop purveyors. — JF

Song of the Year

This category is anything but vanilla. We got it all, baby! Organic rap, “Lilith Tour” pop, synth-rock, heartwrenching emo, stone-cold radio country, and balls-to-the-wall rawk. Each song is a perfect poster-child of its style, beginning with Flickerstick’s “Teenage Dope Fiend.” Yeah, the title suggests something kinda Staind-y, but the song — with its huge chorus of “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon / I love the way she screeeams!” — burns rubber from the first note and zips by at about 100 mph before you even know it’s over. The tune shares a super-polished, gloss-rock sheen with only one other song here, Black Tie Dynasty’s “Crime Scene.” A little bit slower in tempo and a little less intentionally frenetic, the track still manages to generate heat and light by fomenting a keen interplay of melancholy sonicscapes and frontman Cory Watson’s plaintive yet authoritative voice. Fans of kick-ass alt-rock vote Flickerstick. Fans of brooding neo-wave pop, check the box next to BTD.

As a bridge to the other nominees’ songs, “Tiny” by John LaMonica creates heat and light not by cranking up the amps or the minor chords but by whispering so quietly that you’re carried to a place where all you’re left with is your own reflection. The lovelorn should place this song back on the shelf and back away slllowwwly, and then cruise over to April Geesbreght’s “After Me,” one of those serious, flat-out beautiful love songs in which positivity is conveyed in terms neither clichéd nor pedantic. Fans of good singer-songwriter fare, “After Me” is for you. It’s super-duper uplifting.

Maybe melancholy is the new black? It’s not only prevalent in songs in which it should be — like rock tunes — but it also plays a large role in C&W star Tommy Alverson’s single, “Maybe in Mexico.” Held together by lazy-day, Parrothead-ish DNA and a big, somber chorus, Tommy’s tune teeters on the border of melancholy and just plain sad. It’s about a guy trying to talk his old lady into running off with him to Mexico to possibly capture some of the romance that’s been lost. I’m tearin’ up just writing about it.

Tahiti’s entry brings the good mood back. While “The Birth of Wack” has that whole ethereal, Manhattan-at-dusk vibe, it is about how the rapper is willing to eschew ghetto stereotypes to rhyme about important, personal stuff — like racism, love, and life. Doesn’t sound humorous but couched in Tahiti’s always-wry lyrics, it is. Oh, it is. — AM

Songwriter

Holy murderer’s row of talent, Batman. Not to toot our own “Dixie”-tootin’ horn, but you could pit the six nominees in this category against any six still-breathing young songwriters in the country — for real. Chatterton’s Kevin Aldridge versus Ben Kweller? Aldridge is not only a more seasoned musician and thus better able to articulate his emotions through instruments and arrangements, but he also pens more resonant, more mature lyrics. Period. Daniel Harville and Tim Locke of Coma Rally versus Modest Mouse? Close but no cigar. The Harville/Locke team wins on points, chiefly for being able to take Sonic Youth-y alt-rock deeper into inner space without ever losing control. April Geesbreght versus Catie Curtis? A wash. Geesbreght — with her perfect, tasty Triple-A gems — doesn’t depend on clichés to get her points across (and is much better-looking). Collin Herring versus Iron & Wine? Another good match-up, but most songwriters — including Iron & Wine frontman Sam Beam — can’t use simple yet brilliant metaphors to make listeners see and hear the world completely differently, as Herring does so effortlessly. John LaMonica versus Bright Eyes? Pretty close to equal, but LaMonica comes out on top by virtue of his maturity (and his ability to not get wasted in front of and then insult hundreds of people). Daniel Katsuk’s A-Hummin’ Acoustical Acupuncture versus ... Nah, man. Groovy dude Katsuk is anti-violence, dig? Pitting him in a battle, even a hypothetical one, just ain’t Rasta. So just trust us: He’s damn good. — AM

Live Band

It’s a good bet that, when playing out of town, none of the nominees for best live band says something like: “Hello, [insert: name of city we’re playing here]!”

“We heard [insert: name of nearby rival city here] rocks harder! Are they right? Lemme hear it!” That’s because a strong live set transcends geographic and social divisions like only death and taxes can. The very rag you hold in your hands referred to Darth Vato last year as “the clown princes of Sublime-ian white boy boogie.” We can’t really improve on that description, even when talking about the always-jam-packed shows that undulate with DV’s sunny-drowsy-goofy ska-ness. Pablo and the Hemphill 7 burn with a purer reggae-infused, sweet stench of riddims, although those legendary Sunday night three-hour jams are more the exception than the rule now. A newbie to a Pablo show is still stunned by how they manage to be so loose and so tight at the same time.

One sign of concert-going maturity: When you realize good live music doesn’t require that you stand up during the whole show to be captivated. The spiritual-synth, sit-down stylings of Engine of the Ocean generate the sensation that the band is serenading several levels of consciousness at once. Over their four years of togetherness, the guys in Sally Majestic — whose range of influences is so broad we’ll just call the band “alt-rock” and be done with it — have earned big audiences, gig after gig, proving that perspiration is at least as important as inspiration. Constantly changing their set lists and sometimes opting for shows with no vocals or a last-minute acoustic emphasis, perennially hosanna-ed rockers Spoonfed Tribe are truly servants to their own unpredictable whims. That they manage to piss no one off is a tribute to their ability to play harder and smarter every year. — JF


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