Artist/Album of the Year
When trying to describe very large numbers, such as the number of copies of Chingy's Jackpot that have been sold over the past twelve months or so, it's tempting to reach for a visual illustration, such as: If you took every Chingy CD and stacked them all on top of each other, the pile would equal the height of all of the Lakers laid end-to-end (and we wouldn't be surprised). Or, say, the weight of all the copies of Jackpot sold in the United States is equal to the heft of all the liposuctioned fat discarded over the past six years.
Maybe those statistics are true (okay, they aren't), but there's a much easier way to describe the number of Jackpot units shifted: double platinum. That's two million copies of Chingy's debut floating around America, securing the slurring "thurr" as the new "shizznit," shaking eardrums with the Trak Starz' beats and letting the world know there's a hotel party over on Natural Bridge Road.
While Nelly may still be the reigning superstar of the scene (witness his victory over Ching-a-ling in the hip-hop category, which just confirms that giants walk the Lou as far as hip-hop goes), this was Chingy's year. He went from crashing on couches to sleeping on gigantic piles of cash (we imagine) and rolling with Ludacris and Snoop Dogg (and even a tarted-up Rudy Huxtable). The 24-year-old MC has gone from rags to riches, and in doing so has established St. Louis as a popular hip-hop source with few peers. Atlanta may be home to crunk, and New York still has its hits (although if Jay-Z stays retired, the Big Apple may crap out), but by existing outside the dominant St. Lunatics crew and still thriving, Chingy staves off the curse of one-posse-wonder towns such as Cleveland (sorry, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony). He also kept the door open for J-Kwon and whoever it is who's getting ready to pop up next.
And he did it with a playful flow and an ear for choruses that grow in the brain like extremely benign tumors. "Right Thurr," "Holidae In" and (to a lesser extent) "One Call Away" are party hits that keep on giving, and while it's anyone's guess what Chingy will do next year, this year he can stand tall. -- Jordan Harper
Best New Band
The Sex Robots
There are many different names for people who, shall we say, frequently spread their love around. Whore, hooker and bride of the regiment are just a few names for this kind of folk, but usually these monikers apply to those who have sex for money. Whether they turn tricks is unknown, but the Sex Robots certainly do get around. St. Louis' very own musical hos, Robots Mario Viele and Maysam Attaran have their fingers in so many different projects -- including Best Punk nominee the Pubes -- that talk around the office is to just divide the ballot next year into bands Viele and Attaran are involved in and bands they're not. In addition to the approximately 4,372 bands these two play in, they also somehow find the time to run Roadhouse Tunes, a studio/collective designed to meet the needs of themselves and their friends.
A three-piece with Viele on guitar, Attaran on drums and Tracey John Morrissey on bass, the Sex Robots make a sweet sound somewhere in the nexus between the Ramones, the Descendants and '90s power-pop bands like Material Issue. Straightforward and simple without being stupid, the Robots' tunes bounce along, informed by Viele's jazz-trained guitar and Morrissey's liquid bass lines, all held together by Attaran's rhythmic pounding. The Robots' live shows are a bit less chaotic and energetic than some of their other bands' shows -- but the songs are mellower too, so it wouldn't make a lot of sense to have band members running around like madmen, as does Pubes frontman Peat Henry.
So our 2004 Best New Band is the Sex Robots, and whether or not they truly have any sybian ambition is up for debate, but they do play some good, catchy tunes. The only downside for them is that this'll be the only time they're eligible for the award. Next year they'll face stiffer competition in whatever category they end up in, vying against some bands firmly entrenched in long winning streaks. That is, of course, unless the guys in the Robots decide just to start yet another new band. -- Erik Alan Carlson
Soulard Blues Band
Can we go ahead now and officially declare the Soulard Blues Band to be a St. Louis institution? While the career lifespan of pop stars and hot dance clubs is often measured in months, come October the SBB will celebrate 26 years of making music. And if ten consecutive Best Blues wins in the RFT Music Awards are any indication, the band's popularity has only grown over that time. Moreover, those awards have come in a category typically including such beloved local legends as Johnnie Johnson, Bennie Smith and Henry Townsend.
SBB bassist (and founding member) Art Dwyer is, understandably, pleased by the attention. "St. Louis has got a great blues audience, and they've really supported us over the years. We're really grateful for that."
But when asked about the SBB consistently winning the poll category that includes many of the group's musical mentors, Dwyer shows little interest in getting inside voters' heads. Maybe some of the older performers are unknown to younger listeners, he muses, or have been around so long that people take them for granted. "They're the older cats, and so much of the music industry is thought about in terms of what's brand new," he notes.
What Dwyer really wants to talk about is the respect and love that he and his bandmates, past and present, feel for the musicians who have preceded them and their gratitude for being able to spend time with and learn from Johnson, Smith and Townsend as well as now-departed performers such as Doc Terry, Tommy Bankhead and Oliver Sain. "Here are these veterans who are great virtuosos, masters at what they do. There's so much there to be gleaned," says Dwyer. "There's always been a huge amount of respect and 'going to school' on those guys, and people like Henry, Oliver, Tommy and others always had time to talk. I could never tell you how indebted we are to all of them."
Though there have been lineup changes and distinct musical periods in the SBB's long career, Dwyer resists the notion that the band has had a lot of turnover. Then, while naming some of the longer-tenured members, he gets to the tenth musician who spent at least six or seven years working with the group, stops and chuckles: "I guess it is a pretty big school, but some of the guys hung around for quite a few years."
Indeed, on any weekend night, ex-members of the SBB are playing key roles in a half-dozen other bands around town, further testimony to their enduring influence on the local blues scene.
Distinguished as the alumni association may be, the current incarnation of the SBB, featuring guitarists John Mondin and Bob Kamoske and trombonist John Wolf, has developed its own distinct character that both upholds and extends the band's tradition. With a new CD, Trickle Down Blues, out this month and a live follow-up recording planned, the Soulard Blues Band's musical legacy keeps on growing.
"Going around the block with the blues is a lifetime project," says Dwyer. "We're just getting started." -- Dean C. Minderman
Best Club DJ
Steve-O (the knowledgeable DJ, not the moronic daredevil) continues to electrify St. Louis clubgoers year after year. But how does he do it when there are so many local DJs? Does his friendly persona automatically emanate musical wisdom and nocturnal nightclubbiness? To put it bluntly: Yes. What about his record collection -- any good? Nearly infinite and great. So it must be a combination of all these essential elements along with his bad-ass ability to get -- and keep -- asses on the dance floor. Yes, that superhuman combo seems to be what it takes to be chosen king of the club DJs year after year. Hell, he didn't even have to show up at the Music Awards Showcase this year to be crowned -- that's how great he is. And he had some tough competition.
All that competing aside, though, Steve-O's listeners can truly dig the familiarity of the old-school soul he mixes in with his Chicago-style house sets. Laying down some funk definitely helps draw the newbies in, and the tracks' vocals easily hook them. This common ground reassures the neophyte, and that comfortable vibe makes unfamiliar house beats and tracks more palatable. And more fun.
So this is how Steve-O attracts new fans, but how does he keep them? Seasoned clubbers are impressed with a skill and reliability that's never stale. They know that Steve-O has been on the scene since the early '90s -- the Italian St. Louis native knows how to throw a party. And for the past twelve years, he has been manipulating musical celebrations and keeping the groove going with his records. Check him out at Faces on the east side, the Pepper Lounge downtown and the Upstairs Lounge on South Grand -- this club diversity shows his accessibility to all kinds of crowds, everywhere. -- Alison Sieloff
Best Eclectic/ Uncategorizable
The Whole Sick Crew
What H.L. Mencken would have made of the Whole Sick Crew is still open to debate; that he nailed something about them isn't: "There comes a time when every man feels the urge to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and start slitting throats." When the group first appeared in the summer of 2002, the WSC played its Clockwork Orange-tinted punk with the determination of lunatics breaking into the asylum's liquor cabinet. The bandmates found pirates cool and anarchy even cooler. No matter that their most threatening weapon was an accordion. Were they punks picking on folk music? Were they young folkies getting their rocks off? Who cared? No other band in St. Louis sounded quite so bloodthirsty and quite so fun.
The folk music that distinguishes the Crew's version of punk isn't just a matter of acoustic instruments, Irish inflections or quasi-epic song structures. It's about how the band uses tradition to release the full spirit of its weirdness. Over the past year, the WSC's knack for storytelling has sailed far past Treasure Island and found friendly, inspiring ports in the Handsome Family and the Carter Family (whose catalog they once affectionately massacred at a Halloween gig). Lead singer and songwriter Brien Seyle says he's only "skimmed the surface" of traditional music, that he's "never been a serious student of anything," but lyrics like "I'll not relent to wail or repent for the things I've done wrong/The tears of the widows are my bitter wine, their cry is my bitter song" could make Alan Lomax stop spinning in his grave and reach for his microphone.
Since walking away with last year's Best New Artist award, the Crew has lost some members and gained others. The current full-time lineup includes Beth Dill (fiddle, vocals), Jason Matthews (banjo), Luke Deichmann (bass), Robby Laptad (drums), Chris Meister (mandolin) and Brien Seyle (guitar, vocals and second fiddle). Gone is the pennywhistle, washboard and "Commodore 64" -- not the 'puter, but the dude in the vestments beating on a broiler pan at the front of the stage.
The band will likely never outrun the Pogues comparisons -- Seyle has never denied Shane MacGowan's influence -- but the WSC knows a gimmick, even in the goof-loving confines of Frederick's Music Lounge, will only take it so far. Far better to kick off with a speedy little banjo lick, give a collective minor leap and major lean, charge right into the rhythmic squall, let fiddle and mandolin rip, and still come out with songs worthy of the antic energy you put into them. -- Roy Kasten
If, during this election year, you should hear the phrase "grassroots campaign" invoked and you should perchance wonder what it means, think of CORE Project and their omnipresent stickers. We've all seen them on telephone poles or cars and wondered if they weren't referring to some zesty new soft drink. But a tireless grassroots campaign can only be worthwhile if it draws attention to a worthwhile candidate, and CORE Project, a seven-piece hip-hop ensemble with distinct roots in funk and jazz, has done all the right things to build street cred, and without any gratuitous gangsta cachet to boot.
The band has had quite a year, having seen the exit of one vocalist and the addition of Matt "Mathias" Fornia, who moved back into the comfortable arms of the Lou after fleeing the harsh climes of LA We'll have to see whether they're engaging in any California dreamin' once they get out of the studio, in which they've sworn to escape the humidity this summer.
CORE Project continues to rule this strange thing we call groove. It doesn't hurt that name recognition, whether positive or negative or plastered on a bathroom wall, can be a bitch for the opposition when things come down to a vote. -- Taylor Upchurch
There will probably be a lot of people angry about Nelly's latest win for in the Best Hip-Hop category. There were other rappers with bigger hits or more street cred this year. But even though it's been a fairly laid-back year for Nelly, he is again the winner, and there has to be a reason he was chosen once again over his more active brethren.
Nelly's win last year followed the release of the mind-bogglingly successful Nellyville and its lead single, "Hot in Herre," which also won a Grammy -- though Nelly, loving the Lou as he does, was probably just as happy for his local win as his national one (well, maybe not). Some of that success has carried over to this year, with the album continuing to sell and "Hot in Herre" still urging ladies to take off all their clothes in many of the east side's finest establishments. But all of that still doesn't explain why, in a year without a new album and with some young Turks hot on his pop-rap trail, Nelly was once again this year's winner.
Could it be that even though Chingy and J-Kwon have followed in his footsteps, Nelly is still the guy with footsteps to follow in? Like it or not, Nelly is the face of St. Louis hip-hop for many in this city and around the globe. And not only is he the biggest music star St. Louis has produced in a long time in any genre, he's also one of the proudest St. Louis natives ever -- has there been a Nelly hit without at least one shout-out to his hometown?
Though his profile has been lower this year, it's not as if Nelly hasn't been up to anything. He's released a record of B-sides and remixes entitled Da Derrty Versions, sold some of his trademark Pimp Juice, collaborated with fellow St. Lunatic Murphy Lee and the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy on one of last summer's most ubiquitous singles -- the undeniably catchy "Shake Ya Tailfeather" -- and searched for the perfect "Apple Bottom" to represent his latest venture, a line of blue jeans for young ladies with back. He's also worked hard on his nonprofit organization, Jes Us 4 Jackie, a group whose goal is to raise awareness in the African-American community about the importance of bone-marrow donation, proving that while Chingy and J-Kwon may have had this year's big hits, the voters have chosen the guy with the biggest heart. -- Travis Petersen
Best Hip-Hop DJ
He's back. After a one-year concession to the deserving DJ Needles, Charlie Chan is once again at the top of the heap. And he did it despite Q95.5's decision to drop many of its mix DJs, including Chan. Such a setback would topple a lesser soul, but Chan's maintained his rep as one of St. Louis' biggest tastemakers through hard work (you last saw him spinning at every damn club you've been inside) and a golden ear (up-and-coming hip-hoppers invite him to CD release parties in the hope that he'll give them a nod and a spin).
Chan doesn't follow trends, he sets them, and he's earned his street cred through decades of keeping his ear to the ground. He's helped countless artists yet isn't afraid to reach into the back of his crate for golden oldies that will get the crowd pumped. He might not engage in some of the jaw-dropping turntable antics of some of his peers, but hell, you can't dance to that stuff anyway, and Chan makes sure your ass is moving no matter what. Chan can still mix it up with the best of them; he just never loses sight of the beat.
Whether you're at Nelly's birthday party or Beat Fest, if it's a must-do event, then Chan is the must-DJ. He may have had some knocks this year, but hey, it's a hard-knock life, and there's little doubt that Chan will be rocking St. Louis for as long as his hands can grasp vinyl. -- Jordan Harper
If you haven't yet done so, take a date to dinner at Mangia Italiano on a Friday night at 8:30 or so (and be careful when ordering red wine). It's still a restaurant at this point in the evening, so chat with your companion about sophisticated things while you can. By 9:30, pierced, tattooed denizens of the south side will begin to take the chairs on the patio and guzzle buck-fifty Falstaffs, the house beer for quantity-over-quality imbibing. Many of the other diners have left; they can smell one of those mythical south-side Friday nights brewing (literally). Ignore their timid logic and stay put. By the time your server brings the tiramisu and espresso to your table, you'll start to see a few swankier folk mixing in with the gritty and, hey, it's not getting rowdy after all. In fact, it's starting to feel kinda sexy in there, maybe almost as sophisticated as your conversation over appetizers. Sheesh, some of the freaks are actually drinking wine! When ten o' clock rolls around, three musicians approach the instruments crowded into the nook at the rear of the restaurant and, before you know it, they're three bars into a Coltrane number. Saxophone, drum and bass pour honeyed improvisations into the air and every ear in the house leans to suck them in. Now it's perfectly clear why you were supposed to stay put: This is the Dave Stone Trio, and they're playing the best jazz in St. Louis.
From 2000 to 2002, Dave Stone thrice took the gold in this category, an unprecedented turkey of a streak for a jazz saxophonist of his age in a town with so many jazz legends and luminaries. After last year's upset by the venerable Willie Akins, Stone is back on the throne. It's not just the consistency of Stone's swing, the fluidity of his comping and the esteemed company he keeps onstage (would he have earned this award four times without longtime partner-in-crime, bassist Eric Markowitz?). Variety also characterizes Stone's pioneering work in jazz. When he's not working the standards or post-bop tip at Mangia, you can hear him blowing corn through his horn in various free-jazz and experimental projects from time to time. Dave Stone will someday have a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and someone will write a biography of the quiet man with more melodies than words. For now, though, you can still catch him bringing the swing to Mangia every Friday. -- John Goddard
Javier Mendoza is a winner. He's won an award four out of the last five times he's been nominated in our horse race. The guy's so diverse he's been nominated in three different categories during that time and taken two of them (Best World Music in 2000 and 2001, Best Pop Band in 2003 and 2004). Next year, we're just going to concede that he's going to win something and have a Best Javier Mendoza Band category to give some of his competition a chance.
So why is our little one-man Latin explosion (and his band) so popular? Well, for one, he's dead sexy, at least according to his rabid, screaming fan base of mostly women, who regularly pack the house at all of his gigs. Seriously, one could imagine that whole neighborhoods in west county are missing all their ladies because they are at a club somewhere watching Mendoza shake his bon-bon. He doesn't just get by on his good looks, though; he's got music to back it up. His music is tuneful, vaguely familiar yet incorporating enough various elements of Spanish and world music to make it feel a cut above most other bands of that ilk and, while no one would ever confuse Mendoza for Motörhead, he rocks just enough to tie it all together. To top it all off, he's a hell of nice guy, the kind you really hope gets to do whatever he wants.
With the latest CD, Matter of Time, Mendoza and his band are once again laying themselves on the line. Recorded in bassist David Karns' studio, the band didn't have to worry about paying for studio time, so they were able to make sure that everything sounded just right, just the way they wanted it. This is what they think is their best record yet, and their audience agrees. Mendoza has a relentless touring schedule to promote the album, sometimes playing with the full band, sometimes doing solo acoustic shows, always out there trying to reach his fans and make new ones. Whether or not this record and tour make him the superstar his fans think he's destined to be is anyone's guess, but one thing is certain: It's just a matter of time before he wins another one of these awards. -- Erik Alan Carlson
The Dead Celebrities
The first thing one might think about these perennial Best Punk winners as they take the stage could be that they sure don't look like a punk band. Made up of four average Joes who wouldn't seem out of place on a beer-league softball field, the Dead Celebrities have taken the crown for the third year in a row, edging out those in the category who might look a little more the part. What's important is sounding the part, though, and the Dead Celebrities do, to a T.
Made up of the infamous Sid Sinatra on vocals, guitarist Elvis Kennedy, bassist Kurt Capone and drummer John Paul Nixon, the Celebrities can be caught around town as frequently as any other local band, bringing their overgrown adolescent pop-punk sound to the masses as they headline shows and open for premier touring acts such as the Gaza Strippers and Tsunami Bomb. As soon as the music starts, the four guys transform, with Sinatra pogoing at the front of the stage like a giddy little kid as he rants out lyrics about girls and, what else, dead celebrities. Kennedy is one of the best showmen on guitar around these parts, bounding and jump-kicking without missing a single Ramones-like chord. The songs are quick, catchy singalongs equally appropriate for driving around, skateboarding, instigating a bar fight or just jumping up and down while listening in the comforts of one's home.
Since their last win, the Celebrities have followed up the success of their 2002 album Cleanup on Aisle 3 by releasing a live split CD with the Trip Daddys that combines three of the best things about St. Louis' local music scene: the best punk band, the best rockabilly band and the best place to see either one, the sweaty confines of the Way Out Club. If you haven't seen the Dead Celebrities, put this one in the player, chase a Jäger shot with a cheap beer, and you'll get the idea. -- Travis Petersen
The nominees in the Best R&B category of the 2004 RFT Music Awards represented something of a dichotomy -- call it "old school" and "new school," or "youth" and "maturity," if you prefer. Youth was embodied in last year's category-winner Coultrain and the group Soul Tyde, while the old school was well represented by soulful divas Renee Smith, Kim Massie and Fontella Bass. Collectively, there was enough vocal power among the nominees to move mountains, providing a welcome affirmation that St. Louis' great tradition of gospel-influenced soul singing is alive and thriving.
One would hope that none of the other nominees would feel too bad about Ms. Bass' victory in this year's poll, given her distinguished history, worldwide reputation and instantly recognizable hit record, "Rescue Me." A St. Louis native and daughter of gospel great Martha Bass, she was immersed in gospel music at home and in church while growing up and learned the blues in her late teens as a pianist with Little Milton and Oliver Sain. Bass lived in Chicago during her hit-making days of the '60s, later moving to Europe with her husband, the late jazz-trumpeter Lester Bowie (another St. Louisan and a member of the famed avant-jazz group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago). Eventually she returned to St. Louis to raise her children, retiring from the music scene for a spell. Bass began performing and recording again during the late '80s, at first sticking to gospel -- the Grammy-nominated 1995 release No Ways Tired is a fine example -- and later adding jazz, soul and other forms of secular music back into the mix, as on 2001's Travellin' (also nominated for a Grammy).
Bass' current project, the Voices of St. Louis, is something of a family affair, as it includes brother David Peaston on vocals, son-in-law Tracy Mitchell on guitar and son Bonhamous Bowie on keyboards, as well as several other first-rate musicians from the Gateway City. It's an ambitious ensemble that aims to showcase Bass' vision of many diverse styles -- including soul, jazz, blues and gospel -- in one versatile group. Though her St. Louis concert appearances have been infrequent, Bass and the Voices have found plenty of interest and touring work in France, Italy, Turkey and other exotic locales.
"Even if I could retire, I don't think I ever would," Bass told the Riverfront Times in an interview last year. "Music keeps me going."
Let's hope she keeps going for a good while yet. Judging from this year's poll results, there are lots of St. Louis music fans who are looking forward to hearing much more from Fontella Bass. -- Dean C. Minderman
Best Rock & Roll
So it wasn't a fair fight. Putting Chuck Berry on the RFT Music Awards ballot was like nominating Thomas Jefferson for comptroller, auditioning Maria Callas for American Idol or sneaking Barry Bonds into the clean-up spot on your softball team. Yes, Charles Edward Anderson Berry cleaned up this year, even though the dude needs another affirmation of his talent like God needs a gift basket on Christmas. But send a little thank-you note to God anyway, because He or She gave us Chuck, and Chuck gave us rock & roll.
And not just the sound and the shape of it. Like Elvis, Berry wanted everything -- the money, the cars, the women, the fame, the power, the freedom -- and he established the conditions that made such boundless desires possible. He was urban, hip and smart as hell, a black man who disarmed a young, white audience with his wit and imagination. They made him a millionaire and he gave them a reason to live like they had never lived before.
How did he do it? By rocking. In the early '50s, honky-tonkers and upstart rockabillies had been cashing in on the riffs and the words of the blues, so Chuck repossessed the whole bank. His guitar still sounded country, but eagerly over-amped and welded to a sped-up rhythm & blues beat; his riffs had to be agile, quick and singular. Check the guitar on "School Days" or "Johnny B. Goode." The quick, sweet-toned chord bursts, then that rare bend, then back to the same bursting -- any competent guitarist, you'd think, could play it. Still, no one had before Berry (and, lest we forget, Johnnie Johnson, who certainly co-sired many of those riffs). No one had even imagined a guitar style so irresistible, so tingling, so fun. Berry dared you to deny the pure pleasure of the sound. In response you could only echo the command he gave you: "Go! Go! Go!"
As a lyricist Berry defined just how flexible and fecund a sub-three-minute song could be. He gave us absurd signifying ("Too Much Monkey Business" and "Nadine"), history-rich allegories ("Promised Land" and "Going Back to Memphis") and narrative epics ("Maybellene" and "Johnny B. Goode"). Songs such as "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" predicted "Respect" and "Dancing in the Streets," the double-edged freedom songs of civil rights-era soul music. And his crazy flow is the very essence of rap: "They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale/The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale."
The RFT Music Awards are supposed to be about community, right? If such a community has a meaning beyond a couple dozen bands that share gigs and swap gear, it's because Chuck Berry tore up racial, class and geographic divisions at a time when doing so was all but unthinkable. It's true that Berry has long outlived his glory, that he hasn't put out a record of new material in 25 years, that his monthly live shows can be sluggish and disheartening. Yes, the man has outlived his glory days and may never write another song, but his musical glory still sustains us and still rocks us -- any old way you choose it. -- Roy Kasten
Best Rockabilly/surf/ instrumental
Fads come and go. Crunk, veal cheeks and low-rise pants may be all the rage right now, but someday they'll end up on VH-1's I Love the '00s! being mocked by the future's semi-wits. Other things, however are here to stay: cheeseburgers, white T-shirts and the Trip Daddys. How many times have they been labeled our fair city's best rockabilly (or surf or instrumental) band? Five? Six? Eleventy-eight? Who cares? The point is that they must be on to something good here to inspire so much continued love. The Daddys offer more than just traditional comfort food: sure, they're never going to release a double concept album on the Zodiac signs, but that doesn't mean they're just treading water. Rockabilly may be old-fashioned music, but it's not for the geezers who'd rather hear "Crimson and Clover" on oldies radio. It's still a young man's game.
One man breathing new life into the Daddys sound is drummer Joe Meyer, who joined the band this year after making his bones in the underrated punk band ResistAll. His energetic rhythms are a great backdrop for the interplay of guitarist Craig Straubinger and bass player Jamey Almond, as anyone who caught their set at the RFT Music Showcase can attest. Meyer got added to the mix in the midst of some serious downtime for the band after Almond was thrown from a horse (hey, that cowboy hat ain't just for show). So in some sense we're celebrating a whole new band here. But in most ways, we're just welcoming back an old favorite. -- Jordan Harper
Best Hard Rock/Metal
It's fitting that the winner of the Hard Rock/Metal category is a group that prides itself on being St. Louis' loudest band. After four years of blown PAs and audience eardrums, Shame Club has finally won the award it was destined to win, coasting to victory on a swirl of distortion and feedback.
The band's first album, Bad Idea Realised, released last year, showcased Shame Club's ability to craft riffs and songs. Made from chunks of down-tuned stoner-rock chords and Thin Lizzy-esque twin-guitar harmonies, and laid upon a foundation of manic Keith Moon drumming, the eight tunes on that release took from classic rock's past while pointing ahead to the future.
But the guys in this club aren't lazy. Only a year after their debut, they've completed their second album, Volume, which will soon be available. At their showcase performance this year, the set was made up nearly exclusively of songs from that album, showing the band moving in a newer, more melodic direction. They're still loud and proud of it, but the newer songs are more intricate, based around swelling, anthemic choruses and vocals with a hint of Van Morrison's melancholy. The Who influence has moved beyond just the drum kit as well, with both of the band's guitarists powering Townshend-like through larger-than-life chords. Fitting, then, that Shame Club closed with a note-perfect cover of "Won't Get Fooled Again," leaving audience members pumping their fists and sweating while recklessly singing along.
Shame Club isn't punk rock or stoner rock or mod rock or grunge -- it's just a rock band, crafting songs that sound like they might fit on a classic-rock station. This isn't because the songs are needlessly retro or the band is doing things that have been done before, but because even after one listen, the songs sound familiar -- and when experienced live, they create the sensation of rock & roll being new and important again.
And let's not forget that they're really, really loud. -- Travis Petersen
Best Garage Rock
The Gentleman Callers
Founded by the former members of punk band El Gordo's Revenge, the Gentleman Callers added ex-Shame Club member Mike Young as a guitarist/organist in 2001 and proceeded to put out white-boy garage soul, '60s-style. The Callers encountered the same problem that most garage bands do, in that it's hard to sound new when, well, you don't sound new. While the music was certainly well played, Callers sets just kind of blended into one long grind of Farfisa, rhythm and skronk.
But a funny thing happened somewhere along the line. The Gentleman Callers grew tighter and started to include a wider variety of sounds and influences. What was once a copy became a meaty, rocking mélange of Nuggets-era garage psych, organ-driven rave-ups and melodic pop songs falling somewhere between the Kinks and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, all put together the Callers' way. This new sound and material is highlighted by the fine instrumentation of the four Callers, with guitarist Mike Virag and Young laying down bits of melody and harmony, and bassist/ singer Kevin Schneider and drummer Matt Picker holding down the pulsing beat. Particularly effective are the drums and organ, so deep and sleazy that they sound like Young and Picker are channeling every night spent in illicit ways into forming a heartbeat pumping with liquor and beautiful half-naked women.
There is no Most Improved Band award, but if there were, the Gentleman Callers would certainly be in contention for it. They are, however, the Best Garage Band in St. Louis. The Callers had some fierce competition from the other nominees, including the Electric and the Phonocaptors, and though they came out on top, they will have to improve even more over the next year if the want to keep a leg up on the other guys. The one advantage they have is that both of the aforementioned bands have just recently released their manifesto records, and the Callers are still working on theirs (yet they have no record label -- can't somebody give the Best Garage Band in the STL a record deal?), so maybe this time next year they'll be ready with a masterpiece. -- Erik Alan Carlson
The Bottle Rockets
If you hung around Cicero's basement bar in the late '80s, perhaps you remember Chicken Truck, maybe you even got off on its slop-twang versions of John Anderson and Lynyrd Skynyrd, on the original county-rock mash-ups with titles like "Wave That Flag" or "Waiting on a Train." Hell, you might have even whooped it up when Chicken Truck busted out a barely in-tune Paula Abdul cover as an encore. You might have guessed this band wouldn't last, but you wouldn't have guessed such a rabble would become one of the best rock bands on the planet.
In 1993 three of the four Chicken Truckers -- Brian Henneman, Mark Ortmann and Tom Parr -- released their first record as the Bottle Rockets. They had added a monster of a bass player in Tom Ray and they'd started to find songs, especially "Kerosene" and "Got What I Wanted," that made no distinction between country and rock but had the classic feel -- the instantly singable melodies, the vivid imagery -- of what they loved about both genres. That deeper commitment to songwriting exploded on the Bottle Rockets' two best albums, The Brooklyn Side and 24 Hours a Day. Over the years, every band member has written songs, and they've been aided by important, honorary members Bob Parr (who played bass in Chicken Truck) and Festus high school teacher Scott Taylor. The breadth and success of their songs owe in part to that democratic mix of multiple voices, a rare thing on today's rock scene.
Over the past seven years, the Bottle Rockets' initial momentum has given way to fairly constant tumult. After losing both bass player Ray and their first major-label deal in 1997, the band's first record for a new joint, Doolittle, should have provided the fresh start hinted at in the title. But 1999's Brand New Year presaged only further confusion and frustration: Henneman's parents died late that year, the band soon fled Doolittle and, for the next three years, the Bottle Rockets gigged sporadically. The band's 2002 tribute to Doug Sahm seemed to herald a full-bore comeback; instead, a month after Songs of Sahm hit the streets, guitarist Tom Parr left after a notorious fight at the South by Southwest festival in Austin.
Blue Sky, the record that followed that chaos, is far more focused, resilient and hopeful than we had any right to expect. Even in the record's bluest moments, "Mom & Dad" (about losing one's parents) and "Baggage Claim" (about losing romantic innocence after 9/11), a sense of resolve and confidence runs through the melodies and through Henneman's voice. In its own way, that voice is as authoritative as Woody Guthrie's or even Chuck D's. He makes every word count, no matter if the subject is as trashy as "Gas Girl" or as stinging as "Smokin' 100's Alone." That's how the best rock & roll, from its roots to its wildest branchings, has always been sung and played. The Bottle Rockets have been making every song count for some twelve years. Here's to twelve more. -- Roy Kasten
"Caught between, between two worlds -- don't want to be, don't want to be fenced in." It's easy to believe Jay Farrar when he sings these, the opening lyrics of "Voodoo Candle." The song, nested in Farrar's 2002 solo debut Sebastopol, weights the album's middle like a fat crow on a wire. But the callused sound of truth is typical coming from Farrar. Friends, fans and casual listeners have long come to expect storytelling from Farrar, to hear from the strings of his guitar a tale of nonfiction concerning the best -- and worst -- of our sepia Midwest. Farrar pens a poetry that can be as lonely as it is full of life. Somehow, for more than a decade, he has managed to distill in song a people, an air and an ethic, to preserve in audible amber a sense of modern reminiscence, as if he possesses a Petri dish containing culture samples from both sides of the Mississippi.
Jay Farrar's canon of work is as evocative as it is sparse: a snapshot of squinting eyes deeply set in a head turned, sun glinting off the small hairs of a hand raised against the glare, a shadow cast over a freckled face. This is the sound of home, the sound of a place that is caught between two worlds, caught between the legacy of its history and the obvious necessity of an unflinching move forward. While the two worlds Farrar is caught between could be his natal Midwest versus the stylized daguerreotype of his songwriting, they could just as easily be his sense of self and art versus the soap-operatic schism of his former band, Uncle Tupelo, which birthed Wilco, Son Volt and a little thing called alt-country.
A strain of pride resides in Jay Farrar's voice, the voice of a second son claiming his own, stamping a path through twine and chicken wire, through plots of corn and soybean that maze through rural Illinois and Missouri. His songs also mark the literal path from band to band to solo career to founding his own label. Perhaps the two worlds resident in Farrar's songs are a small past and a big present, two plates with shifting tectonics strong and loud enough to reach beyond the experience of one man and speak for a people and a way of life, for a stretch of land that looks to St. Louis as its Big City. Perhaps his pride is not only understandable but laudable, a way for everyone who hears a Jay Farrar song to relate. Though we may build fences to distinguish our world and our place in it, none of us want to be fenced in. And at times it takes someone like Farrar, with words and music enough to overturn all of our wood, wire and brick, to remind us. -- Jess Minnen
Best Reggae/World Music
Murder City Players
The Murder City Players have been plying their trade for 21 years now. Oh, musicians have come and gone, though some, such as keyboardist Jeff Schneider and singer Mark Condellire, have been in for the entire run. Still, children have been born and legally purchased alcohol since the day the Murder City Players began bringing reggae grooves to local bars and clubs on a regular basis.
The history? Back in the early 1980s, there weren't very many American reggae bands anywhere. Every once in a while, you'd hear a punk or new-wave rock band try its hand at the Jamaican rhythms for a song or two, but these were few and far between -- until one such St. Louis band, the Felons, started playing more and more covers from singer Mark Condellire's extensive collection of reggae. Eventually the band split in two, with Condellire, Schneider and bassist Pete Sikich deciding to abandon the frantic rock approach entirely and cool down with deeper beats. They chose their ironic name after a newspaper headline declared St. Louis the murder capitol of the country the year before.
The Murder City Players were the right band in the right place, as Jamaican music started to become something more and more people wanted to hear. And they were -- and are -- damn good at playing it. They worked up a repertoire of obscure rarities from the island, plus originals that sounded as if they should have been on records for years. For a while there, the Murder City Players were one of the most popular working outfits in the area.
Trends come and go, but the Murder City Players just keep on keeping on. They've added back in a ska influence that had been left behind with the Felons, but other than that, they've stayed true to their reason for being all this time. Who feels it knows it and, as Bob Marley said, "One good thing about music/When it hits, you feel no pain." The Murder City Players don't allow no suffering in their presence. -- Steve Pick