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Buffet of Champions

You came, you saw, you voted: the winners of the 2005 Riverfront Times Music Awards

We shook up the Riverfront Times Music Awards this year, killing a few categories, adding some and squishing others together. The best change, in our humble opinion, was the addition of Best National Band from St. Louis. Just think: a national-act category makes sense for us now. People around here may moan that the Lou's music scene ain't nothing to crow about. Bollocks. Just ask the emo fans around the nation who swoon for Story of the Year, the country-rock aficionados who have made the Bottle Rockets a South by Southwest standard, the alt-country fans dying to get their hands on Son Volt's latest or the hip-hop nation that made Chingy and, of course, Nelly household names from Portland to Miami.

Not that you need to play in Peoria to make people smile in the Lou. Just shake it like you mean it, and someone will listen and cheer. From electro-mad artistes to blues stalwarts to hip-hop fusion, whatever your tastes, you'll find someone you love in the following pages. Even if you don't know it yet. -- Jordan Harper

Best National Artist

Nelly/St. Lunatics

This year it was almost easy to forget that Nelly is famous for putting St. Louis hip-hop on the map. It's been almost twelve months since Sweat and Suit signaled Nelly's desire to go two directions at once: Sweat was all dance-floor bangers while Suit paired our pop-hopper with, no foolin', Tim McGraw. In the strange world of mainstream music, the fact that the two albums sold a whole bunch, but not a whole whole bunch, was seen as a bit of a defeat. And in the month following Nelly's film debut (we're not counting Snipes) in The Longest Yard, we have to wonder how much more Nelly has to contribute to the St. Louis music scene.

But, heck, we're just as proud as the dickens for him. So it's no wonder that Nelly and the Lunatics won our first Best National Artist award. While Story of the Year continues to blow up, they just don't have the megatonnage to compete with the man who introduced the world to the country grammar of the Lou. Last month's Tivoli premiere of The Longest Yard drew Burt Reynolds, Chris Rock, Darius Miles, Adam Sandler and Ozzie Smith onto a Loop red carpet right underneath the RFT's office, all while raising money for charity. It all but defined what a world-class national artist should bring to his hometown. What have you done for St. Louis recently? -- Jordan Harper

Best Blues

Soulard Blues Band

There have been some serious changes in the St. Louis blues scene over the past year. Perennial local favorites Oliver Sain and Johnnie Johnson have passed on, leaving us richer for having known them and their music, yet indisputably poorer in their absence. The departure of Sain and Johnson also prompts once again a nagging question: With so many of the music's elder statesmen no longer with us, who's going to carry the torch?

For RFT readers the answer is clear, and it hasn't changed in more than a decade. The Soulard Blues Band has been the favorite local blues ensemble in our music poll more than a dozen times now, even when Sain, Johnson, Tommy Bankhead and many other departed giants were still working regularly on St. Louis' stages.

SBB bassist and leader Art Dwyer isn't a boastful sort, and he's more the type to worry about the practicalities of tomorrow night's gig than his band's place in local music history. Yet as one of the region's most popular and enduring blues acts, the Soulard Blues Band have to be considered elder statesmen of a sort now, too. For more than 25 years they've kept rolling like the proverbial big river, surviving personnel shakeups, stylistic shifts, changes in public tastes and the myriad vagaries of the music business to keep on doing what they do, night after night, week after week, year after year.

With the recent departure of trombonist John Wolf, the SBB is, for the time being anyway, a lean four-piece featuring Dwyer, drummer Kirk Grice and guitarists John Mondin and Bob Kamoske. At this point, another RFT Music Award on their already-bulging trophy shelf isn't going to change their lives much. There's always another gig to get to, another audience to win over, another song to sing, solo to play or story to tell. Perhaps there will be a brief celebration, but then they'll be back at work soon enough -- partly because it's what they do best, and partly because, as all blues fans know, even elder statesmen have to pay the rent. -- Dean C. Minderman

Best Club DJ


We'd like to counsel St. Louis' other club DJs against violence toward Steve-O. Sure, it might seem to you that the only way you'll win Best Club DJ in this lifetime is to permanently sprain Steve's mixing hand or give him an incurable case of swimmer's ear. But put the bag of oranges down. Drop the needle-nose pliers. Don't do something you'll regret.

For one thing, you love Steve-O and his insistent house style as much as the rest of St. Louis. You can't help it: The man is a well-practiced master of his craft. He knows how to read a dance floor the way a surfer knows a cresting wave, and Steve-O can ride that crest until the crowd ebbs into exhaustion. And his legendary record collection always seems to have that one song that can put off the ebbing for just a little while longer.

For another thing, if you did take Steve-O out, you wouldn't be able to fill his multiple weekly gigs all over the city. And it's this constant and varied work schedule (for more than a decade, we might add) that truly allows Steve-O to lord over the club scene. Because if you love to dance in this region, then you've danced to Steve-O's beats. So put down the brass knucks and get on the floor. -- Jordan Harper

Best Garage/Rockabilly

The Trip Daddys

Some things are certain. Death, taxes, the changing of the seasons, the Trip Daddys taking the crown in the Rockabilly category. "Why do they always win?" one might ask. That hapless inquirer would probably be the one person who goes to see bands in St. Louis on a regular basis who hasn't seen the Trip Daddys play.

The Trip Daddys have been playing around town and around the region for a decade now, honing their homegrown psychobilly chops at every place with a stage and a PA -- and surely some places with neither. Sure, they always win the best rockabilly category, but throughout their long, diverse sets they could also probably contend with the best punk bands, the best country bands, the best bar bands, the best instrumental surf rockers and anyone else with a guitar, bass and drums. They're a great rockabilly band, but one should probably just say that they're a great rock band.

Guitarist and usual vocalist Craig Straubinger towers over the stage with effortless cool, not sweating a lick or messing one strand on his pompadour while coaxing metallic speed-twang from his hollow-bodied axe, playing behind his head and in the crowd or executing a perfect Townshend scissor-kick to announce the banging end of a song. When bassist Jamey Almond steps to the mic to sing a song, it's usually a more wistful, soulful country tune, giving the hard-working dancers at the stage's front lip a chance to kick back and relax a second. Drummer Joe Meyer is a workhorse behind the kit, pounding away with what looks like excruciating effort. The band's original tunes match their always well-chosen covers -- their version of Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance" must be heard to be believed.

Some people in this town are probably getting bored with the Trip Daddys winning every year. But it's guaranteed they wouldn't be bored at a Trip Daddys show. -- Travis Petersen

Best Funk/R&B/Soul

Dogtown Allstars

We love them because they're funky. We love them because they're from Dogtown. We love them because they don't hyphenate the word "Allstars," and really, it looks much better that way. It's hard to say when the band officially began -- three years ago, was it? Out of the combined efforts of members of Hip Grease and Gumbohead and various solo projects was birthed the Dogtown Allstars, a quartet of musicians who nix vocals in favor of deep, soulful, rhythm & blues-laden funk. And when we say funk, we mean funk. The real deal, not a white-boy impression or a brick-house tickle.

All seasoned St. Louis musicians, the Dogtown Allstars know how to work the scene and a crowd, and they can make even the most sparsely populated weeknight bar seem like Dance Party USA. Consisting of Drew Weiss on drums, Andy Coco on bass, Adam Wilke on guitar and Nathan Hershey on keys, the band throws down sets with some original material but heavy on spicy covers from Robert Palmer to Jimmy Smith, Grateful Dead to Grant Green. They take notes from the Meters and Parliament, and are constantly tweaking their consistent repertoire while remaining dedicated to playing locally. The band rarely ventures out on the road, but we're selfish enough to be happy that they have every intention of sharing their flavor with St. Louis and St. Louis alone. They appear monthly at Magee's in the Central West End and are regulars at Pop's Blue Moon and a host of other local and metro-east establishments including the Famous Bar, the Broadway Oyster Bar and the Stagger Inn. No one ever said St. Louis doesn't have soul, but thanks to the Dogtown Allstars, we can also say we have plenty of funk. -- Jess Minnen

Best Hard Rock

Riddle of Steel

Out on tour, driving through the wilds of America, listening to some old Led Zeppelin or Jawbox records while avoiding coyotes, the members of Riddle of Steel most likely won't know they've won the title of Best Hard Rock Band in St. Louis for a few weeks. Unless they've got some newfangled connection to The Internets, in which case they probably just found out.

Either way, these guys are one of the most national local bands we know. For several years, albeit with almost as many drummers as Spinal Tap, guitarist Andrew Elstner and bassist Jimmy Vavak have been grinding out their rock, playing frequently in St. Louis and all over the U.S. In a perfectly timed marketing move, they've just released their third CD this month, with newest drummer Rob Smith providing the beats for Got This Feeling, on the well-respected Ascetic label.

Hard rock is the genre because the music of Riddle of Steel is loud, aggressive and propulsive. But while happy headbangers can attest to the joys of pumping fists to this stuff, it's not all sturm und drang. For one thing, the mathematically precise guitar riffs, filtered through Elstner's seemingly endless supply of harmonic devices, are darn near as precise as the work of Bach. Vavak's elastic bass lines zip around the spaces beneath the notes and lock in with certain portions of Smith's over-the-top drumming. Elstner sings most of the songs with a long, loping melodic approach that helps recall early '80s King Crimson, a clear inspiration for this band.

It's not as though Riddle of Steel invented the idea of music that punches you in the jaw at the same time it challenges your brain, but they have come up with a highly distinctive and pleasurable brand of it. St. Louis may not be able to keep these guys a secret too much longer. -- Steve Pick

Best Hip-Hop

CORE Project

Let's just get it out in the open: This is a strange one. After dealing gruesome death to the Groove category this year, we weren't sure where to place its dominating band, CORE Project. Did their metal riffs put them in the Hard Rock grouping, or did the rapped vocals put them in the land of Hip-Hop? Never wanting to be too catholic with genres, we went with the latter, much to the woe of the fast-rising All-Stars, exhilarating Ruka Puff and the other hip-hop nominees.

Marketing, dude. Hip-hoppers of all sorts are more familiar with marketing than their rock counterparts. Whether you are Nelly on the cover of Billboard or a street MC striking your name on a wall, in hip-hop getting your name out has never been the sin that silly rockers think it is. And CORE Project knows how to get noticed. If you happen to be reading this in a bar or club, look around: There's probably a CORE sticker nearby.

And if you caught the DJ- and guitar-filled set at the Music Showcase last week, you know that CORE has an intense fan base that adds heat to the show onstage. People willing to get sweaty and dance in the midday sun for you will vote for you. And there's nothing strange about that. -- Jordan Harper

Best Hip-Hop DJ


St. Louis seems to be a little bit indecisive when it comes to hip-hop DJs. This year the award goes to underground wax-master DJ Needles. Last year it was big-time big boy Charlie Chan. The year before that? Needles. And before that? Chan. We have resolved not to make up our minds on this one. And why should we? Isn't there enough room in our hearts for both the tastemaking Charlie and the showstopping Needles?

Needles may have won out this year for his electrifying live skills, a powerful kung-fu that he displays at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room at the justly famous Friday-night Science shows. (For a change of pace, he destroyed BBH's Elvis Room for the Music Showcase.) Needles has the underground sensibilities that make the heads', um, heads nod, but he never strays so deep as to scare off surface dwellers who just want to hear some beats. Don't call him middle-of-the-road; he's the whole damn street. As hip-hop continues to be the beat of choice for so many St. Louis clubgoers and music fans, Needles will continue to lead the charge. With Charlie Chan right at his side. -- Jordan Harper

Best Indie Rock/Indie Pop


Just wait until long-time Bunnygrunt fans hear the new record. Their once-whimsical light pop songs have been toughened up, revved into guitar overtone overdrive and occasionally even made incomprehensible. It's not as though they've abandoned their fondness for sweet and catchy melodies, ironic observations and knack for turning a sharp lyrical phrase. They've just expanded their palette.

The best indie-pop band in St. Louis has a long and complicated history that is most easily understood if you concentrate on Matt Harnish and Karen Reed. In the '90s Harnish and Reed, teamed with revolving bassists, became international indie-pop darlings before moving on to separate projects for a few years. When they returned in late 2003 to Bunnygrunt, they found themselves looking for a harder rock sound than they had previously desired.

So, after another full-time bassist left the band, Harnish and Reed decided Bunnygrunt would be just the two of them. Their new album, The Karen Hater's Club, was recorded with Harnish on guitar, Reed on drums and each taking turns on bass. Live, they've mixed things up even more, borrowing bassists and drummers from other bands every time they play. The variety of approaches seems to have energized them. The performance they gave in the Halo Bar at this year's Music Awards Showcase was one of their best ever.

The Karen Hater's Club is short, and padded out with the occasional noisy screamfest and a couple of very odd solo vocal remix tracks that call to mind the work of Steve Reich more than any other indie-pop band you could name. Fans may be confused at first, but they'll be singing along to songs like "Nobody Rides for Free" and the gorgeous "More Loves Than Stupids" before they know it. Bunnygrunt has changed, but they're still themselves. -- Steve Pick

Best Jam Band

The Schwag

The Schwag is nothing short of a St. Louis institution. For thirteen years the band has played weekly local gigs, as well as countless dates around the country. They don't play "Free Bird," but they play just about everything else. Like the band they strive to emulate, they don't make up a set list before taking the stage but instead keep a master list of song possibilities onstage and rely on the all-too-eager audience for the power of suggestion. The idea is to create a totally different Schwag show every time, and they're not joking around with this ambition: The past four set lists from their weekly Tuesday-night gig at Cicero's are always taped to the wall, and even the most discerning Deadheads should be impressed by their variety. You'll get a stellar "Sugar Magnolia" and "China Cat Sunflower," just not every week.

When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, things became more serious for the Schwag. Instead of being emulators they became torchbearers, and they take seriously the role of keeping the vibe alive. With a catalog of more than 200 songs at their disposal, keeping things lively and interesting without being repetitive isn't hard to do. Though the lineup has changed over the years -- older St. Louisans will surely remember Blue Dixie and the Kind, both of which have shared members with the Schwag -- the goal has remained the same. That goal was solidified in 1997 with the first-ever Schwagstock, a weekend-long camping festival featuring music from the Schwag and support from other like-minded local and regional acts. Eight years later, the Schwagstock tradition is still going strong, with at least one event per month during summers at Camp Zoë in Salem, Missouri.

So why with all the goodness do they call themselves the Schwag? Why not the Headies or the White Rhinos or the Mango Skunks? Sure, we'd all rather have dank, but when it comes right down to it, we'll take whatever gets us off. And in St. Louis, that's the Schwag. -- Jess Minnen

Best Jazz

Dave stone trio

With the recent emergence of St. Louis vocalist Erin Bode as a rising star on the international jazz scene, complete with attendant publicity in the Wall Street Journal and various slick music magazines, you might think the talented Ms. Bode would be a lock in this year's RFT music poll, too -- but you'd be wrong.

See, St. Louis music fans aren't about to let any highfalutin media types from somewhere else tell them what's what. And so, in the "best jazz" category for 2005, the lock apparently belongs once again to a laconic young saxophonist little known outside St. Louis, yet beloved by RFT music poll voters: The Dave Stone Trio has won yet again.

Stone's steady Friday-night gig at Mangia Italiano undoubtedly helps him maintain top-of-mind awareness among younger listeners who frequent the South Grand area, but those votes alone wouldn't necessarily be enough to put him over the top. Fact is, Stone has matured significantly as a musician since he first began showing up in our poll results in the mid-'90s. He's greatly expanded his repertoire, developed and deepened his timbral resources, gained confidence and learned how to play within the changes as creatively as he plays outside them.

Writing about one of his past Music Award wins, at least one former RFT writer predicted massively great things for Stone, even implying that history will rank him alongside Miles Davis as one of the greatest jazzmen St. Louis has ever produced. Then and now, that seemed hyperbolic. But while it may be premature to compare Stone with the all-time greats, there's no doubt he's already made a lasting impression on RFT readers, and with any luck he'll continue to impress listeners for many years to come. -- Dean C. Minderman

Best Live Dance/Electronic

Femme Fatality

Sometimes the worst thing one can say about a band is that they get by on attitude. In the case of this year's best Live Dance/Electronic winners, Femme Fatality, it might be the best thing to say about them. What else but attitude can make a band start twenty minutes late at their showcase, leaving the audience to stare at a blank projection screen and suffer through Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" -- then make that same audience love them just by walking onstage to dis the venue where they've been assigned to play? What else but attitude can lead two young upstarts to air a very public beef with St. Louis scene stalwarts Riddle of Steel (see either group's page for the very funny back-and-forth) and come out more popular than before?

Much like the Faint, Femme Fatality play retro synth-dance punk with a heavy visual element to their live show -- handheld red lights, film clips, etc. But unlike the Faint, Monanani Palermo and Octavia Leito know it's better not to act like they're playing all the instruments when it's obvious they're not, instead working the crowd into a frothy, rabid, dancing mess by flirting, threatening and goading.

Femme Fatality's critics could say the whole dance-punk thing is so over, could make fun of their Hives-like matching outfits or their perfectly styled hair. But to do so would miss the point. It's fun to dance, and Femme Fatality can instantly turn a crowd of shoe-gazing hipsters into an enthusiastic club crowd. It's hard to intellectualize why you might not like a band when you're moving your feet. -- Travis Petersen

Best New Band

The Vultures

Call the Vultures "garage" or "primitive." Just don't call them late for the B-movie film festival or the beach-blanket barbecue headlined by the B-52s, whose jerky rhythms, geeked-out call-and-response and cornball psycho-spoof tunes they echo more than rockabilly or surf (though they've got those 45s in their teenage record collections too. Playing together for a year, and shaving only a few years longer, the trio makes silly, dorky, bouncy rock & roll, somewhere between the Yardbirds and the Shags -- but closer to the latter. It's the sound you wanted to make when you discovered rock & roll (real rock & roll, you know, with a back beat, one stinging guitar and a singer who sounded like a murderer), but you didn't because you didn't have the guts or the talent.

The Vultures have a lot of guts and something like talent, though it's more like channeled inspiration. They've been championed by notorious early rock & roll freaks such as Bob Reuter, who knows potential when he hears it. The rhythm section won't make anyone forget the Funk Brothers, but their stiff, martial bang-bop-bang takes a skewed stand against Ryan Koenig's remarkably fresh, almost Robbie Robertson-like bursts of angular melodies and makes lyrics like "Here's a new wave baby, rollin' into town/Comin' outta the sewers from deep underground" or "Now those dead gonna come alive/And I want you for my zombie bride" sound as charming as they are shamelessly campy. When that rhythm section finally masters a groove as nasty and fun as their concept, they'll be a threat to the Cramps' throne. -- Roy Kasten

Best Noise/Experimental

The Pat Sajak Assassins

Everybody likes the "cool part" of a song. You know, the cool part -- the part where three people listening to a record in a room turn to each other and begin nodding their heads in unison. It's usually an instrumental break or bridge about two-thirds of the way through -- and if you can't recognize a cool part when you hear one, the guy sitting in the room who's stoned will be more than happy to point it out for you.

The Pat Sajak Assassins, this year's victors in the Noise/Experimental category, definitely like the cool part of a song -- their "experiment," as it were, seems to be to craft lengthy instrumental pop songs entirely out of "cool parts." Mixing rock & roll's phallic forward thrust to free-jazz skronk, the Assassins' music is endearingly schizophrenic and perfectly crafted for today's short attention span. Whenever something in a song seems like it's getting old, why not try something new? That part that sounds a bit like a sax-only rendition of Frank Zappa's "Peaches in Regalia" maneuvers easily into straight-ahead cock rock and ends up in found-sound sampled noise. Cool parts abound.

All of this would probably be more annoying than cool if the band didn't have the chops to back it up. So here's a PSA regarding the PSAs: You don't have to be the stoned guy to know that with the Assassins, you are always hearing the cool part of the song. -- Travis Petersen

Best Punk

The Sex Robots

Mario Viele and Maysam Attaran of the Sex Robots must have been looking over their shoulders at Mario Viele and Maysam Attaran of the Pubes. The competition between themselves dominated the battle for best punk rock band in St. Louis this year.

By the narrowest of margins, Viele and Attaran's Sex Robots defeated their Pubes. The winners undoubtedly consoled the losers by pointing out that two of them are the same guys, anyway. And besides, there's no shame in running neck-and-neck for first place. St. Louisans agree they like their punk rock provided by Viele and Attaran, thank you.

What makes these guys so special? Viele is a guitarist who knows how to play just about anything yet chooses to grind out the punk-rock chords at a high rate of speed. There he is, standing onstage, leaning his neck into the microphone, his right arm flailing at the strings and his voice croon-shouting its way through catchy, downright poppy melodies. Viele is the lead singer of the Sex Robots, though he takes the background role of simply being the guitarist in the Pubes.

Then there's Attaran, a human dynamo of rhythmic energy and precision behind the drum kit. Smiling between songs, he counts off with his sticks at a tremendously fast clip, then starts hitting things as hard as he can. The determination on his face is obvious, and he drives his body forward and backward as he pushes his bands on to punk-rock perfection.

To be fair, there is one member of the Sex Robots who is not in the Pubes (while there are two Pubes not in the Sex Robots). That is bassist Tracey John Morrissey, who seems to improve on his instrument with every performance. Together these three form a unit of uncommon cohesion, melodic sweetness and undeniable, unstoppable madcap energy. -- Steve Pick

Best Roots/Americana

The Whole Sick Crew

The Whole Sick Crew will go out with a bang. After a Music Showcase set that's supposedly their second-to-last show ever -- the last will be at the Hi-Pointe on July 15 with their pals the Pubes -- the Crew wins the best Roots/Americana award. Don't be mistaken: This isn't a case of a hard-won, last-breath victory before a quiet, dignified death -- no, this crew has won before. Two years ago they took the New Artist prize, and last year they became the face of the now-deceased Eclectic/Uncategorizable category. It seems no matter where you stick these guys, they always come out on top, spitting on the losers as well as the people who write about the winners.

The Crew began singing pirate ditties in a sea-shanty style that has progressed into a more streamlined brand of punkified Irish folk. They don't quite match their obvious idols in the Pogues -- who could? -- but they sure as hell kick the asses right off the other imitators more well-known on a national level. The band's rolling march drums underpin tight rhythms so that the more exotic instruments -- mandolin, banjo and one, sometimes two fiddles -- can go off, exploring the battlefields carved out of distant seas. And remember, these guys were singing about pirates long before anyone had heard of the Decemberists, and in a way that's far from cute.

Will the Crew survive another year to win in yet another category? Their previous "final show" was about nine months ago, so no one can be sure that this upcoming final show will be their last final show. Perhaps they'll stick around to be part of next year's showcase and win another award in yet another category. Maybe we've found the only way to topple the Soulard Blues Band's century-long reign over the Blues category: Put the Whole Sick Crew in it. -- Travis Petersen

Best Singer-Songwriter/Folk

Dave Black

A musician who clearly doesn't fit the most ill-fitting category ever has won it this year. The award defies common sense. Consider, however, the cosmic sense. Dave Black doesn't write songs, and he doesn't sing. And you wouldn't want to hear him sing, either, though you want to hear him play guitar, as he's one of the deepest, most free-spirited musicians this city has ever known (and we've known quite a few). His pedigree is jazz, but when he plays a solo gig he'll cover "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" (as an instrumental) and knows more than a few Leo Kottke numbers. When he takes a contemporary folk tune, you won't recognize it at first. His musical imagination is hermetic but somehow wide-open, free of the piety and earnestness that continues to plague so much acoustic music. One of his great role models, Django Reinhardt, approached jazz guitar the same way: taking gypsy inclinations and pushing them into a space far beyond their folk origins.

Black has been playing guitar in St. Louis for more than twenty years and has frequently gigged beside folkies or folk-influenced players like Monica Casey, Tom Hall, John Higgins and Sandy Weltman, and he's recently been sitting in with Blueground Undergrass, an amped-up bluegrass jam band. Whether plugged in or not, Black's the ideal accompanist for the more elemental acoustic sounds, understated but in total control of every possible combination of every note on the fretboard. His touch is light and quick and takes a melody -- be it from blues or country or rock or jazz -- as far as two hands ever could. It's jazz, but then so are Vassar Clements, David Grisman and Béla Fleck, though some jazzbos would call them folk, and folkie purists don't even bother. "Jazz is open to anything, all accepting, and anything is fair game." That's Dave Black's vision. Folk music has always needed it. -- Roy Kasten

Best Reggae/Ska


Cynics will note that including a Reggae/Ska category in these awards seems either charmingly anachronistic or irritatingly clueless. These naysayers forget this city's long-standing (if not widespread) allegiance to the rock-steady beat. If ska's first wave began in Jamaican dancehalls and its second wave can be traced to middle-class English estates in the late '70s, the fabled third wave may have formed some dozen years later in high school band classes all over the Midwest. At least that's where 2005 RFTMA winners MU330 began the transformation from band geeks to leaders of a regional (and eventually national) ska scene.

Since the early '90s, MU330 have remained true to the joyously kinetic style they began with, using frantic tempos and shredded guitar alongside melodic, forceful horn lines. The band has settled into a five-piece after several personnel changes, the most notable being guitarist Dan Potthast's move to lead singer. In the past couple of years, band members have begun to branch out of the ska vein with well-received side projects: Potthast's solo work recalls Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, while drummer Ted Moll and his wife Heather front the science-fiction-loving combo Bagheera. Such diversions have done little to dull MU330's psycho-ska edge; with the double-trombone assault of Rob Bell and Gerry Lundquist (including the latter's Hulk Hogan-inspired onstage behavior), the band remains one of St. Louis' most reliable high-energy groups.

Such longevity, coupled with their chosen milieu, makes them easy to take for granted. Keenly aware of this, earlier this year the band embarked on the cheekily named "Ska Is Dead" tour with fellow third-wavers Voodoo Glow Skulls. Now they're big in Japan, and they just finished a tour of England. It would seem that the reports of ska's demise have been greatly exaggerated. -- Christian Schaeffer

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