By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
Artist of the Year -- Nelly
Recording of the Year -- Country Grammar
Best Rap Artist -- Nelly
We abased ourselves to publicists, left tearful voice-mail messages for his manager, burned incense and prayed to various deities -- but had no luck landing an interview with Cornell Haynes Jr., better known as Nelly, who's clearly got bigger fish to fry than the humble catfish served up by the Riverfront Times (in the form of three Slammies Awards: Best Rap Artist, Best Recording and Artist of the Year). Between appearances on the Tonight Show and Politically Incorrect (where Nelly hugged Dick Clark and uttered the unforgettable line "Everybody love Dick!"), between Vibe photo sessions and expensive video shoots, the St. Louie clown from U. Town is a busy, busy man. We can't resist the urge, petty as it may be, to remind readers of the obvious: Given the short attention span of his audience, it'll probably be quite easy to get an interview with Nelly two or three years down the line, after his fickle fans have moved on to the next flavor of the month. Right now, he's gigantic -- having sold more than 6 million copies of his debut CD, Country Grammar, which remains in the Billboard Top 40 after 44 weeks, an amazing statistic in itself -- so we forgive him for blowing us off. We'd blow ourselves off, too, had we film scripts to peruse, models to fuck and millions of dollars to spend.
This time last year, Nelly didn't win a single Slammy. His first single from Country Grammar, "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)," had just been released on Universal, the biggest record label in the world, and although it had generated a buzz among the hip-hop cognoscenti, it hadn't registered yet with the greater public. This year, Nelly ran away with every Slammy for which he was nominated. (Had he been nominated in the Best Roots/Americana or Punk categories, chances are he would have won there, too.) In one year, Nelly has gone from relative unknown to the biggest star St. Louis has ever produced. Already he's sold more records than Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Ike & Tina and Fontella Bass. Even if he retires tomorrow -- or, more likely, the capricious hip-hop audience tosses him aside in favor of next week's pretty boy -- he's achieved more in a year than most St. Louis musicians will in a lifetime, at least from a commercial standpoint.
Although it seems strange to commend an artist for his longevity when he's been famous for less than a year, Nelly's success seems to have legs, at least in the context of the hip-hop industry. Porn stars and pro athletes usually have longer careers than rappers. The fate of the average hip-hop artist is more or less the same as that of a fuzzy chick sold at Easter to amuse an enthusiastic toddler; both will surely be fondled, adored and soon thereafter crushed to death or left to starve. Where are the rappers of yesteryear -- the Coolios, the M.C. Hammers, the Big Daddy Kanes, the Naughty by Natures? The lucky ones, such as Run-DMC, wind up playing cheesy radio festivals and appearing in commercials for eyeglass frames or landing a role on a TV show, like Ice-T. The fact that Nelly's CD has stubbornly lingered on the charts for the better part of a year bodes well for his career; if the debut by his group, the St. Lunatics (scheduled for release the first week of June), and his second solo record do half as well, he'll be a bona fide legend.
Yeah, yeah: So Miles Davis will be revered long after Nelly has faded from our collective consciousness. Who cares? The beauty of hip-hop, of pop music in general, resides in its ephemerality, its throw-away glamour, the way it occupies a particular moment in time. There's a reason the adjective "fresh" enjoys such currency in the mirror worlds of rap music and the fashion industry: Both push goods that are made to be devoured, digested and replaced, the brutal trajectory of capitalism. It's no coincidence that rap lyrics contain so many references to brand names, designer labels: Chanel, Polo, Nike, Gucci, Fendi, Donna Karan -- all are mentioned in Nelly songs. With a few notable exceptions, hip-hop is obsessively consumerist: both devourer and devoured, both worshiper and sacrificial victim at the gaping maw of commerce. Most rap is a celebration -- and, in a perverse way, an indictment -- of what writer Daniel Harris calls "the magnificent vulgarity of capitalism." It might be crass, faddish and disposable, but it's exactly what we want.
Doubters need only listen to the first few minutes of Country Grammar: the sticky-sweet hooks, half-sung and half-rapped with a casual, feral grace; the seductive samples; the loping, laid-back flow of the rhymes, which move from street-sweepers to fly bitches to filial devotion, from St. Louis malls to Vanna White to the pleasures and perils of recreational drug use. On one end of the spectrum, critics condemn him for being too gangsta, too ghetto, too negative; on the other end, detractors complain that he's too bubblegum, too soft, too smooth. As evidenced by Nelly's phenomenal sales, the vast majority of the listening public thinks he's exactly right: right in the middle of the country, right in the middle of the market. According to Charlie Chan, this year's Slammy winner in the Rap/Hip-Hop DJ category (he also gets a shout-out on "St. Louie," the first song on Country Grammar), Nelly's success has been great for the St. Louis hip-hop scene, sour grapes notwithstanding.
"Well, now labels know we actually have some talent here," Chan observes. "A lot of the artists don't like it that Nelly got the break first 'cause they don't feel he represents the hip-hop community as a whole. They're jealous. Nelly has nice rhymes, but he's not considered a lyricist to a lot of the purists who are really into hip-hop. They're happy he got it -- I'm happy he got it, because I think he deserves it, putting in time and work -- it's just that when it comes down to this hip-hop thing, a lot of cats who're really serious about it, they'd rather see somebody who was a little grittier -- for instance, the Gatekeepers, Cujo. Those kind of guys, rhyme-wise, they real gritty, they hardcore, they would be like our equivalent of like what Biggie and 'Pac was. A lot of people here would have liked someone like that to have gotten it, because it would have made us look a little rougher. But that's just St. Louis, you know? No matter what you do, there's always going to be something."
But even the most disgruntled rival would concede that Nelly has transformed the face of the local hip-hop scene. "People now realize that we can actually do it," Chan remarks. "I mean, people wanted to see Nelly do it, they wanted to see the Lunatics get theirs, but it was, like, 'I don't know if they gonna be that good at it'-type thing. 'I don't know how the rest of the world gonna accept us,' and then, 6 million albums later, you know, it's like, 'Whoa, damn -- he did it, we can do it,' and I think it motivated a lot of people, 'cause we must have at least 60 local record labels here. People are now starting to know we can actually get somewhere; Abyss is talking to Def Jam, my man Julé has been dealing with Def Jam, Bad Boy, Ruff Ryder. The labels are looking here for acts to see if there's someone else."
Already they've zoned in on Toya, the teenage cutie from Webster Groves who's poised to dominate the R&B charts with her fantastic single "I Do," on Arista. Like Nelly, Toya poses in Cardinals gear, proudly representing the Lou. "She's a singer, not a rapper, but the track that they're playing ["I Do"] sounds like something Nelly's producer Jay E. [Epperson] would have done," Chan notes. "It kind of mimics it a little bit. They've got the same management now, too; they didn't at first.
"There's a lot of talent in the Midwest," Chan continues. "The problem is, a lot of Midwest cats, they get signed, and even when they may rep their city, they still get the stigma of who they sign with. Like, Bone [Thugs-N-Harmony] was from Cleveland, but they worked with Eazy, and even though they were saying Cleveland in their songs, people were just like, 'Bone, they from LA.' Da Brat was from Chicago -- she said Chicago, but they don't associate Da Brat with Chicago; most time they say, 'Aw, she from Atlanta,' because of Jermaine Dupri. Common Sense was from Chicago, but his style of music was so East Coast, they just said 'East Coast.' Everybody knows Nelly is St. Louis. They don't associate Nelly with no other city but St. Louis."
Say what you will, uptight critics and embittered hatas. Nelly has put St. Louis on the map, and no one can take that away from him, from us. For this he deserves -- if not the keys to the city -- a few measly Slammies.The Spiders may be a great punk-rock band, but the notion of punk rock is so vague these days as to be almost meaningless, applied to everything from chugga-chugga metal to pop music to atonal noise to guys-with-acoustic-guitars-singing-songs-about-girls. Better just to say the Spiders are a great band and, because they've been playing out since only last July, Slammies voters went ahead and took it that next step, proclaiming them St. Louis' best new act.
The Spiders are still very much a new band -- in all the right ways. No jaded cynicism is to be had from Sleazus Christ, Combustible Jaxon, Bucket Head or the Athletic Spider; they still seem excited about shows, whether they're playing the Way Out Club or the late, lamented Centro Sociale or some guy's basement. They still seem excited to be in a band, fliering aggressively and befriending other groups. They still seem excited about rock & roll in general, and that excitement is contagious. A live performance by the Spiders reminds one of the transcendence of great rock & roll. As the band tears through "Cocaine Cowboy" and "Faders Up," Jaxon shakes like Iggy Pop, drops to his knees like James Brown and wields his microphone stand like Freddie Mercury, all the while belting out the hits in his soulful yelp. The rest of the band doesn't slack, either, getting tighter with every show without losing their sense of danger, as if the songs could go flying off in any direction at any moment.
-- René Spencer Saller
Best New Artist -- The Spiders
Capturing that excitement in the studio should be the Spiders' next goal. The sole Spiders release is an enjoyable but decidedly lo-fi CD-R demo, four songs recorded quick and cheap, giving just a hint of what the band can deliver live. With any luck, they'll record again soon, releasing a proper full-length CD and hitting the road, spreading their chaotic gospel across the great punk underground. They've got the heart, they've got the momentum, they've got the enthusiasm and now they've got the Best New Band Slammy award. All that and $2 will get you a cup of coffee at any Starbucks in America, so it'll be interesting to see where the Spiders go from here.
-- Matt Harnish
Best Rock Band -- Sexicolor
"We're expecting the inevitable Nelly backlash to work in our favor," declares Rodney DiLema, ersatz manager of Sexicolor, on the St. Louis supergroup's Web site, with regard to the quartet's nomination for Artist of the Year.
Alas, the anti-rock conspirators won that round, for the "rapper" took home that title. But fans of ginormous guitar-driven megarock took heart in the fact that Sexicolor trounced the competition in the Best Rock Band Category, avenging last year's surprise defeat. Industry experts predict it's only a matter of time before Spitzie, Jason, Joe and Scott deafen Americans from coast to coast.
"Sexicolor are rock & roll -- not modern rock or alternative rock or rap-rock or any other bullshit term," declares Homer Fong, local rocker and survivor of several Sexicolor shows. "They're rock & roll the way nature intended, just some guitars, a bass, drums and an assload of amps."
Fong's assessment of the band is supported by several other drunken longhairs staggering out of the Hi-Pointe after Sexicolor's million-watt assault. Most of their comments are unprintable because of the copious vomiting and "devil-horning" that took precedence over actual words, but the general consensus is "Sexicolor are the fucking shit, man!"
Indeed, Sexicolor's charms hold sway over a wider audience than just Camaro-driving alcoholics. Their debut album, The Look and Feel of Sexicolor, garnered them precious column inches in this paper's own techno/electronic/house/dance haven, Radar Station, and even earned the band a retraction of Radar Station's prior "Rock is dead" stance. No small feat for an album that contains no samplers, sequencers or Frenchmen.
That's not enough for loyal fans such as Fong: "Nelly sucks. Yeah, yeah, he sold an assload of records last year, but so what? Michael Bolton sold, like, 9 million records in one year, and you don't see anyone making him Artist of the Year. He'll be gone like Coolio in another year, but Sexicolor will still be kicking ass! Rock & rollllllll!"
That might be the outlandish claims of another hepped-up dropout, but stranger things have happened. Last year's also-rans are this year's winners. Maybe next year the trend will continue, and rock & roll will regain its supremacy. Power chords to the people!
-- Paul Friswold
Best Jazz Artist -- Dave Stone Trio
In a year of repeat winners in various Slammies categories, the first-place finish in Best Jazz by the Dave Stone Trio just may be the most impressive. First, look at the incredible talent that the group had to beat to win again: the energetic, always exciting pianist Ptah Williams; two of the finest sax players in the area, Willie Akins and John Norment; polished vocalist Jeanne Trevor; and up-and-coming singer Erika Johnson. The closeness of the voting results reflects the high level of musicianship common to all the contenders.
Given the fact that the Dave Stone Trio's victory in this category in 2000 was their first, a follow-up win this year suggests that last year's triumph was no flash in the pan. Saxophonist Stone, bassist Eric Markowitz and drummer Kyle Honeycutt have proved their staying power through dedication and commitment to the basic element of jazz, improvisation. If you've ever been in the audience at Mangia Italiano for an appearance by Stone, Markowitz and Honeycutt, you know these guys don't set any barriers or limits on the musical turf they choose to explore.
But what's most impressive are the depth of knowledge and instrumental skill that the three players bring to the stage. Stone and Markowitz have been playing together for years, first in the Webster University jazz-studies program, then with some of the area's top-notch musicians. They are both avid students in the John Coltrane school and have developed a deep rapport that gives their musical explorations depth and cohesiveness. And in Honeycutt, they've found a kindred spirit.
All three guys expand their musical experiences beyond the trio setting. Stone brings together some of the area's most talented avant-garde jazz musicians (with Markowitz usually along for the ride) in his Free Jazz Unit. Musicians such as Jim Orso and Syd Rodway frequently sit in with the trio, bringing their own personalities to the musical explorations. As a result, hearing the Dave Stone Trio perform live is always an adventure -- and always a unique experience. With a second consecutive Slammy win in the Best Jazz category, the Dave Stone Trio solidifies its reputation as one of the most interesting and influential groups in the St. Louis region.
-- Terry Perkins
Best Singer/Songwriter -- Blueberry
Although the phrase "singer/songwriter" refers to anybody who sings mostly songs that he or she has composed, it's come to be chiefly associated with people who sing such songs in a gentle, sensitive and straightforward manner, usually accompanied by the fragile strumming of guitar strings or the peaceful plunking of piano keys. Typical singer/songwriters are far from the avant-garde.
Blueberry Morningsnow McGregor is not your stereotypical singer/songwriter. She can sing quietly, but her voice is almost always urgent, and she often screams to punctuate certain meaningful lyrics. She plays acoustic guitar, but she attacks that guitar, forcing it to drive home themes and ideas. Her guitar playing follows her songs, not the other way around. Her songs are not simple little tales of self-absorption, nor are they obvious feel-good anthems about political issues. Blueberry is concerned with large questions, such as what happens between living and dying, the relationship between the universe and our experience here in these bodies, the way dreams fight with nightmares. Blueberry's songs are not easily digested, not likely to inspire sing-alongs, not something to be ignored.
Sometimes Blueberry plays electric guitar, spitting out aggressive, high-energy punk/funk in her rock band, the Star Death. Sometimes she plays acoustic guitar, meandering her way through long explorations of these questions, digging through the nooks and crannies of words and sounds and singing and speaking and urgency and peace. A rhythmic performer, she relies on the tension between her vocal rhythms, which can be intense, and her guitar rhythms, which slide through a variety of styles.
What Blueberry does is in the tradition of oral poetry. Her songs read well on the printed page: "And when we run out of highways/We'll certainly fall off the edge of the world/All the stars will point and say look! A falling human/And they'll wish upon our lives as we fall/And they will think we are beautiful/'Cuz we are beautiful." That's a powerful image and a wonderful contemplation on humanity's place in existence; moreover, it's only one little part of a complex meditation on love found and lost, the attempt to hold onto one single moment, the dichotomy between knowledge and experience, the overwhelming emotion of loss and a scientific explanation of how beauty is created and observed. All that and more is contained in the song "Little Sparks" on her most recent solo album, Journal of the Galaxies and Stars From St. Louis.
Blueberry writes songs, and she sings them, and she mixes up feeling and thinking and experiencing and knowing. She has made a profound impact on the St. Louis music scene in the last year.
-- Steve Pick
Best Punk Band -- Ded Bugs
St. Louis' punk-rockers love to put themselves down. The prevailing opinion is that St. Louis is a second-rate city when it comes to venues and bands. Hogwash! The Creepy Crawl, the Hi-Pointe, the Way Out Club and the Galaxy -- as well as house parties galore -- bring in punk shows on a regular basis, and, as far as bands are concerned, let's just put it this way: There were so many good punk bands in St. Louis this past year that there wasn't room for them all on the Slammies ballot.
Aside from the fine selection of bands nominated in the Best Punk Band category, Keyop and Children's Audio got stuck on the Best New Artist list, the Conformists got lumped in with the nominees for Best Eclectic/ Uncategorizable and Ultraman inexplicably got nominated for Best Club DJ (oh wait, that last part didn't happen).
With all this punk rock to choose from, though, one band stood out as the best in the eyes of St. Louis' punk voters: the pride of DeSoto, Mo., the Ded Bugs. The four members of the Ded Bugs (Matt Bug, Jeff Devulheyd, D.A.V.E. and Menace the Dennis) keep things suitably young, loud and snotty, wearing their Ramones influences as proudly as their leather jackets. The songs on their latest CD, Songs for the Possessed and Insane, are full of pop-punk hooks, slightly metallic riffs and immaturity galore. The band has its act together, garnering reviews in all the major punk-rock zines and sharing stages with plenty of big-name punk bands. Not content to rest on their laurels, the Ded Bugs are always working on new projects, both within and outside the band. Matt Bug recently completed STL 2000, a filmed documentary of the St. Louis punk scene, which will be out this summer if all goes according to plan. The Bugs have booked time at famed punk-rock studio Sonic Iguana in which to record their fourth full-length and plan to release a 10-inch vinyl EP of cover tunes as well. If the St. Louis punk scene is dead, somebody sure forgot to tell the Ded Bugs.
Best Rap/Hip-Hop DJ -- Charlie Chan
When Q95 FM came into the St. Louis market last year, they had some work to do. Not only was there an established commercial hip-hop station in town, The Beat (100.3 FM), but that station was owned by Clear Channel, the largest radio conglomerate in the country, with deep pockets and a devoted listenership. The Beat was, despite its corporate ownership, the hometown team, and Q was considered the outsider underdog. Q needed to build some credibility, pronto, to send a message to its potential base that the budding station was for real, that it understood what this city needed. Q's management figured out how to do it pretty quickly: by hiring DJ Charlie Chan as their mix-show coordinator.
It was a genius move. No longer was the station the outsider; it was now the new station with Charlie Chan, the man with the fastest fingers in town, the DJ who can seamlessly drop Whodini next to BDP next to Kraftwerk next to Master P and make it sound smooth and totally logical. Charlie Chan, who's been spinning in St. Louis since the late '80s, the man who seems to know not only everyone in the thriving St. Louis hip-hop scene but everyone who's ever been in the scene. Charlie Chan, who was able to help create a mix team to compete head-on with The Beat's incredible talent.
Charlie Chan's a busy guy. Not only does he throw down every weekday on the Q, he's out spinning five nights a week; in these sets, he's dropping the old and the new back to back; he builds bridges between beats that, on paper, don't seem to work together. Because of his incredible knowledge of hip-hop, he can play a new cut and follow it with an old cut that the new one ripped off, follow that with one with the same breakbeat and then throw in something that bridges the gap. He's all over the place but makes it seem simple.
"People do get tired of listening to the redundancy of radio," he says of the challenges of mixing over the airwaves. "There's a lot of listeners who like that [redundancy], because that's the way radio has always been. But there's a lot of people who don't. So the thing is to try and keep it fresh, so when you check out the mix that hour, you can hear some songs that you probably haven't heard in a while that you used to love, you hear stuff that's out now that you love and you can hear something new that you potentially will love, or might love when you hear it. The thing with the radio is, I have the freedom. They allow me to do this. If you want somebody that's going to play from a playlist, you hire somebody else, because I'm not the person -- not that I can't meet the demands, but too much music comes out, and there's a lot of good songs. I told them I could hold the attention of the listener, and I've proved it, because everybody's listening."
-- Randall Roberts
Best Club DJ -- Steve-O
Steve Franks stands perched above the crowd at Z, where he's the resident DJ, as though he's the king of England, addressing the masses from the castle balcony; when the house music's rolling and he's peering down on his people, there's nearly always a smile on his face, a twinkle of satisfaction that seems to say: "I'm in charge here, and it feels good." And at this point, after spinning house music for the better part of the '90s and beyond, Steve should feel as if he's in charge. Controlling a crowd is second nature to him; watching him judge it, gently nudge it with a quicker beat, slow it down when the time's right, then pop it wide open with a burst of bass, you can witness the way a veteran DJ is able to manipulate a feeling and a mass of people.
He moves the Z crowd two, sometimes three times a week; on Saturday nights, after he's finished at Z, he heads east to Oz, where he pounds out beats until 6 a.m. Add to this his heavenly work as part of the Deeper Pitch crew, which holds court twice a month at the Upstairs Lounge, and that occasional slot at Velvet, and you've got a pretty good idea of Steve-O's passion for house music.
It makes sense that Steve-O would win the DJ category, because St. Louis is a house town -- not techno, like Detroit -- and we like our house music deep and percussive. The big clubs rely on house to move the crowds, seldom straying into techno or jungle territory. The music Steve-O is playing these days fills the bill: rich, velvety house, deep with rhythms and thick with texture. As with the best spinners, he constructs his set track by track -- brick by brick -- building on an accumulated feeling while gradually increasing the momentum and sense of danger. When he's at the very peak of a set, it's almost as though you're on the ledge of a skyscraper, peering down; your heart races at the possibilities: Maybe I could fly. Don't be silly; you can't. But on good nights, Steve-O makes you feel as if it's at least possible.
Best Hard-/Modern-Rock Band -- Colony
Colony writes radio hits. They're hard, clever, totally catchy and built the way a hit is supposed to be: The hook is nearly always surprising -- though, in hindsight, inevitable -- and the sentiment seldom panders but hits close to home without being clichéd. The overall feel of Colony's best songs makes them seem perfect for a summer-day cruise with the windows rolled down. And when singer/guitarist Ted Bruner describes the sound the band worked toward on their forthcoming album, Who I Wanted to Be, you can almost hear a hit in the making.
"We started evolving with these producers, who were young up-and-coming guys, and they just opened our minds and weren't really restrictive like other producers we've worked with. And we're really looking forward to future albums. We love the British stuff. Coldplay came out, and that really opened our eyes. And I was listening to a lot of the Cars, and I was trying to fuse British stuff with the Cars, and I think we got close to that idea on some of the stuff."
They did. The new tracks are alive with pleasure -- at least on the surface -- filled with the kind of hard guitar pop that's both in step with the times and part of a pop/rock continuum that stretches back to the Beatles. But instead of stumbling through pop idioms and writing only celebratory anthems, Colony produces lyrical output that's more complicated. The new album's title track is an earnest, introspective, existential examination. Bruner sings of the dream of being in a band, of the touring and the performing, and how this dream threatens to turn on him: "I'm becoming exactly the opposite of who I wanted to be," he sings as glorious harmonies and hard guitars envelop him. It's a wonderful song built on a frightening sentiment.
Bruner says the mounds of debt he's accrued trying to make it in the music business has been a songwriting blessing in disguise: "It kind of helps. It puts you in some darker places when you've got that debt hanging over you. When I had my old girlfriend, and she was real conservative and nice and we were doing all right, that's what the songs were about: 'Doin' all right. It's a nice day' -- that kind of stuff. So it's kind of nice to be in a confusing space, like when I was younger."
Colony's Who I Wanted to Be is to be released nationwide in August on the Beyond Music imprint.
Best Eclectic/Uncategorizable Band -- Grandpa's Ghost
They grow 'em weird down there in Southern Illinois, and none is weirder than Pocahontas, Ill., band Grandpa's Ghost. The group has been around in various incarnations for a half-dozen-or-so years, releasing a couple of CDs, playing some shows, getting weirder and weirder. The band's early works were a somewhat skewed but hardly mind-bending version of alt-country. Grandpa's Ghost leader Ben Hanna may have had more tolerance for feedback and dissonance than most other twang-rockers, but the band wasn't too far removed from the "Neil Young meets Dinosaur Jr" comparisons lobbed at bands such as Uncle Tupelo. The band's most recent CD, Il Bacio -- released by Upland Records, a relatively new label founded by former SST associate Joe Carducci -- is where things changed.
The somewhat lengthy period between the album's completion and its release marked a nice turning point for Grandpa's Ghost. They seemingly stopped caring about how their music might be categorized. They also seemingly stopped caring about things such as standard song structure. There's not a solid drumbeat until something like 15 minutes into the album, when the magnificent "Skin" locks into a Neil Young-meets-Sonic Youth-meets-Can trance riff and wrestles with it for 10 minutes. Elsewhere, there are moments of quiet melodic beauty, sludgy overdriven fuzz and odd found sounds. Taken as a whole, Il Bacio was one of the most challenging and rewarding albums released last year by anyone anywhere, let alone by a peripherally St. Louis-based band.
Live, the band is just as likely to perform weird freeform improv, ragged feedback-laced rock songs or hourlong single-riff endurance tests. Hanna says Grandpa's Ghost "cleared the room" at a South By Southwest showcase, and as long as out-of-town promoters insist on booking them with alt-country bands, that trend will likely continue. The band has transcended the narrow confines of that genre -- and any other, for that matter -- and is just now, at long last, getting some recognition in St. Louis. Call Grandpa's Ghost experimental/rock/country/noise/beauty or, better yet, do what Slammies voters did and call the group the Best Eclectic/Uncategorizable Band in St. Louis.
Best Roots/Americana Band -- Bottle Rockets
If all you'd heard from the Bottle Rockets was their latest album, Brand New Year, you'd never know they were part of the great alt-country scare of the '90s, and you'd never bet on them to take the Roots/Americana Slammy -- unless you consider Led Zeppelin blues, Cheap Trick country and Def Leppard roots. The Bottle Rockets have never rocked harder, though they've never sounded as if they had less reason to. They've stepped back from their country roots, and more than the twang has been lost. A new song such as "Gotta Get Up" may be an archetypal proletarian anthem -- the words "Gotta get up, gotta go to work, then I come home and I gotta go to bed" are repeated in a nightmare of alienation -- but it's a painfully dull listen, even if that was the point. The band has churned out such drunken larks as "Love Like a Truck" and "White Boy Blues" since they were Chicken Truck, but, with the exception of the ill-conceived Leftovers, outtake dregs from the ill-fated but brilliant 24 Hours a Day, they wouldn't have released them.
But 20, 30 years from now, we will still be listening to the Bottle Rockets. Why? Because the band captures the heart and soul of rock & roll -- its working-class realism, its bitter social critique, its romantic joy -- as well as any band has in the last 10 years. "Quit school when she was 17, senator on TV calls her welfare queen." So begins their first great album, Brooklyn Side, but these songs aren't sentimental portraits of the always-with-us poor. The young men from Festus know what they're singing about. They tell the stories of white-trash folks -- the only subculture it's still perfectly acceptable to stereotype and ridicule -- in their own language: The guitars howled and twanged, the rhythm section pissed off the neighbors and Brian Henneman sang with furious hope and unrepentant class conviction.
In the last three years, the Bottle Rockets have lost a great bass player, been burned by labels big and small, and seen their records slip in and out of print -- yet they've survived. In Chicago this past March, Henneman previewed new songs for a forthcoming album and assured the audience that the band had not broken up. "We're not like Son Volt," he joked. No, the Bottle Rockets, even back when they played a more deeply rooted rock, have never been quite like any band in greater St. Louis or anywhere else.
-- Roy Kasten
Best Blues Band -- Soulard Blues Band
Maybe it's time to retire this award and create a special category for the Soulard Blues Band -- and another one for everyone else playing the blues in St. Louis. After all, eight straight wins in the Best Blues category is real domination -- especially considering the number of excellent blues musicians in the area.
What's just as impressive as the eight straight wins is the fact that the Soulard Blues Band has been together for almost a quarter-century. Formed in 1978 by Art Dwyer, who was soon joined by Jim "Ribtips" McClaren, SBB evolved naturally from late-night/early-morning jam sessions that mixed these young musicians with veteran talents such as Henry Townsend, Doc Terry, Tommy Bankhead and harmonica player Big Al.
That connection to the essence of the St. Louis blues tradition has been a vital element in SBB's longevity. Despite a number of personnel changes along the way (at one point, the group even expanded to include a horn section and backing vocalists), SBB has remained true to its roots.
Both bassist Dwyer and harmonica player McClaren remain from the first days of the group and were vital contributors to such early recordings as 1978's Live at Burkhardt's and 1986's Nothing to Lose. The '90s ushered in the talents of trumpet/trombone player and vocalist Brian Casserly, drummer Benet Schaeffer and guitarist/vocalist John Mondin. More recent recordings, such as In the Soulyard, Live at the Grizzly Bear and Live in Stuttgart, showcase their contributions to the SBB sound.
Today's SBB lineup has the experience and talent to handle a wide array of musical genres -- not just the blues. The musicians can jazz things up, thanks to Casserly's versatility on horns and his swinging vocal style, and the rhythm section moves from funky R&B to down-home Delta blues to slinky Louisiana second line in the course of a single set.
Blues may be in its name, but the Soulard Blues Band brings a distinctive touch to just about any musical style around. As Duke Ellington used to say, there are really only two kinds of music -- good and bad. Evidently SBB has found the secret to producing the good kind -- year after year after year.
Best Reggae/World-Music Artist -- Javier Mendoza
Although the name of this category has changed slightly (from Best Latin/World Music in 2000 to Best Reggae/World Music this year), the winner remains the same: Javier Mendoza, who took the award last year in his first appearance on the ballot.
Mendoza certainly had a jumpstart on musical influences from a variety of countries: His father is from Mexico, his mother from Spain. Born in Virginia, he spent most of his youth in Spain before coming to St. Louis University on a soccer scholarship in the early '90s. Although family members taught him how to play the guitar and sing, soccer was his first love. When an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament ended Mendoza's soccer career, he turned to music.
When he started writing songs in Spanish as well as in English, the music really began to flow, and Mendoza signed on as a songwriter for a major music-publishing firm in 1996. But even though major Latin recording artists snatched up Mendoza's songs, he preferred to focus on performing his own music, not just writing songs for others. By 1998, Mendoza was in the studio, recording Tinta y Papel, which was released in 1999. In 2000, after forming the Javier Mendoza Band, Step Into My Place was issued.
Some personnel changes have taken place in the group -- which now consists of David Karns on bass, Jim Peters on guitar, keyboard player Daniel Backman and drummer Moises Padilla -- but Mendoza continues to make music that balances the romantic drama of Latin pop with tastes of various world-beat rhythms, as well as contemporary rock influences. He calls it "transnational rhythmic pop-rock" and eschews the tag of "world music" for "pop" -- but whatever the label, his music certainly has a strong appeal for St. Louis audiences.
Now Mendoza and his band are beginning to expand their musical sphere of influence, opening for national acts in Denver and Chicago. Earlier this year, Mendoza toured Spain. Whether he's singing in Spanish or English, Javier Mendoza seems to possess the rare ability to connect immediately with an audience. If his popularity continues to increase at the same rate, we just might someday see Mendoza appearing in -- and perhaps winning -- Slammies in other categories.
Best R&B Band -- Jive Turkey
The members of Jive Turkey need to change their name. It suggests that they're making music with a certain amount of cheese factored into it -- as though they're not taking this music thing very seriously.
In reality, Jive Turkey makes music that's remarkably focused, despite the wide range of influences that reveal themselves over the course of a set. Although the name suggests retro funk à la Dr. Zhivegas, the band draws from all over -- dub and reggae, hip-hop, jazz, R&B, funk. The posters adorning the walls of bassist Dr. Samson Q. Sneed's apartment tell the whole story: On one wall hangs visual shout-outs to funky jam band Galactic, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, a reggae band (it was all the way across the room, and we didn't want to give ourselves away), house DJ Mark Farina. Combined, the posters tell the story of a music that both honors the past while keeping up with the present; it reveals a band that's drawn to the classics and the cutting-edge, in tune with the now and merging it with the then. The result? Part Medeski, Martin & Wood, part Roots, part Galactic, part P-Funk, all rhythm and rhyme.
The first time we saw them play, they sucked. It was at Deep Cool on Washington Avenue (formerly Excape) in 1998, and they were just starting out. They were a mess, a bunch of young kids with more ideas than chops, more slop than cosmic. So we wrote them off and ignored them for the next few years. Then, last year at the Galaxy, in front of half-a-dozen people, they revealed what they'd been doing in those interim years: working their collective ass off, practicing and figuring out the funk. They were tight, they were sturdy as hell and they had learned how to play their instruments. What was best was that each musician seemed to have learned how to play not only individually but as part of Jive Turkey, so they understood each other's musical accents, where each might be headed and how they might end up there. The result: hard funk -- without the cheese -- mixed with hip-hop, grooves galore and an overall steady rhythm that works hard for its money. You can hear it in the songs from their forthcoming debut CD: They're on a roll and are already harnessing the momentum to record a follow-up.
Best Pop Artist -- Robynn Ragland
Talk about determination: Robynn Ragland has suffered more adversity at the hands of the music business than most. She's had bands split up. She's signed a record contract, only to have her label try to mess with her music. Then the label went out of business just as it was to release her debut album. She's fought tooth and nail with said label because it wanted to own her music -- even though it admitted that it couldn't release her record. You'd think she'd just give up.
On the other hand, Ragland has just been voted the Best Pop Artist in St. Louis. Her career started in San Luis Obispo, Calif., with a band called Rhythm Akimbo. They released three independent CDs, then split up. Ragland relocated to St. Louis to attend law school at Washington University, but, as is the case with so many musicians, the itch got to her, and she soon joined local band Five of These, which gigged around St. Louis throughout the mid-'90s. Unfortunately, that band couldn't survive the pressures of major-label interest and called it quits.
Back to the drawing board went Ragland, who first formed a new band, Elizabeth Einstein, then decided to perform under her equally melodious given name. Her engaging performances and catchy songs were hits with audiences whenever she played, and soon more attention from labels led to her signing a deal with Red Ant. She recorded Modern American Female Gut with talented producer Adam Schmitt and began to get radio airplay for the song "People You Know." The song was a Midwestern hit, and Ragland seemed poised to break into the mainstream.
But just when everything was in motion for her record to be released, the label went out of business, and Ragland had to argue fine details of law to get permission to put the album out herself. She won that right and topped St. Louis sales charts at both Amazon.com and Vintage Vinyl. Earlier this year, Ragland released an EP, Paragraph 13, which included "People You Know" and several previously unavailable songs; this sold well, too. She's set to open shows for Oasis and the Black Crowes in Chicago and Indianapolis, on May 20 and June 1, respectively. And now her fans have spoken, voting her the Best Pop Artist in St. Louis. Some people may have given up more than once, but Robynn Ragland seems to possess a perfect combination of talent and determination. Rewards will continue to come her way.
Best Rockabilly/Surf/Instrumental Band -- Trip Daddys
Here's to a band that gives the audience more than it expects.
The Trip Daddys could just cruise along on autopilot and still be popular with the rockabilly crowd. They've got the moves down cold, from their perfect hair and pegged trousers to their almost instinctive understanding of primitive rock & roll. They look and sound like something out of High School Confidential, and for most rockabilly fans that would be enough.
But they don't just go through the motions. The grease-slicked dragstrip comes to life in any club brave enough to host the Daddys. When these cats growl like dogs, all the rockabilly clichés suddenly mean something again. Wild? Scorching? Hellbent? You got it, Dad, and you better set it down before it singes you.
The secret is Craig Straubinger's guitar, which isn't much of a secret if you've ever seen him play. He's not shy about making a little noise with that thing, and he rocks in the right amounts in the right places. Most of the time, his solos are fast and furious, his left hand zooming over the fretboard like a souped-up T-Bird. But Straubinger can also handle the mid-tempo country stuff, a stylistic region where lesser rockabilly bands often stumble. And all his solos are interesting and expressive -- again, in sharp contrast to the rock-by-numbers of the rockabilly pretenders.
The rhythm section never falters, keeping things quick and snappy while staying out of Straubinger's way. As for vocals, mostly by Straubinger but occasionally by bassist Jamey Almond, there's enough backwoods grunt here to convince anybody of the Daddys' sleazy, greasy, lowdown credentials.
And just when you think you've got a handle on 'em, they take it even further. Their Slammies Showcase set was already pretty hot when they stunned the Duck Room audience with an extended meltdown that rocked way too hard to be called a jam. While the low-end guys chugged along, Straubinger played a ridiculously cool-sounding solo -- or, rather, several solos all at once, throwing his body around in gyrations that echoed the soaring trash he was playing. He swung from whacked-out chords way up on the neck to catchy little lead phrases and wound up on his back in the middle of the beer-soaked cement floor. It didn't recall the Blue Caps as much as the MC5, and it even verged on some weird kind of avant-garde hillbilly rock.
That's why, of all the rockabilly bands in town, the Trip Daddys get the most attention from people outside the rockabilly scene. They rock for the pompadoured kids first and foremost, make no mistake, but they do it well enough for music lovers of any kind to enjoy the fun.
-- Jason Toon