2002 Riverfront Times Music Award Winners

Your verdict is in: Check out St. Louisí favorite local musicians.

 St. Lunatics
Best Rap, Recording of the Year

It's been a very good year for the St. Lunatics, individually and collectively. In the twelve months since their crewmate Nelly swept the 2001 Riverfront Times Music Awards, bringing home three of what were then known as Slammies, the 'Tics have released a platinum CD of their own, Free City. Ali, the group's founder and unofficial leader, dropped his solo debut, Heavy Starch, last month; it's still too soon to tell whether it will move millions of units, but it's a smart, solid record, one that amply demonstrates Ali's lyrical skills and his ability to transcend his crew's party-centric reputation. Murphy Lee, the babyfaced clown of the collective, represents da Lou on the monster-hit remix of Jermaine Dupri's "Welcome to Atlanta" and is laying down tracks for his solo debut, to be released later this year on Universal.

Nelly, of course, is unstoppable. For more than two years, his Country Grammar has lingered stubbornly on the Billboard Top 200 chart, and his collaboration with 'N Sync on their "Girlfriend" remix, produced by hip-hop wunderkinds the Neptunes, expands his dominion still further. His widely anticipated sophomore full-length, Nellyville, hits the streets in June. Already the first single, "Hot in Herre," shows every sign of becoming a gigantic summer smash, a certain staple of the airwaves and the strip clubs alike. What makes us so sure? Well, the Neptunes produced it, for one thing. But even in the unlikely event that he never makes another hit record, Nelly has Made It. He'll always be a superstar the likes of which St. Louis hasn't seen since Chuck Berry in his salad days.

Given their myriad achievements, it's no surprise that the Lunatics are taking home two of this year's RFTMA awards. In addition to their unprecedented commercial success, their commitment to community service -- particularly their innovative campaign to improve attendance and test scores among at-risk area high-school students -- has won them the respect of people who aren't generally fans of hip-hop. Although they can never quite escape controversy -- snooty purists call them bubblegum lightweights; opportunistic politicians call them incorrigible thugs -- the Lunatics keep doing their thing: cranking out the party anthems, touring the nation's stadiums, playing basketball with inner-city teens and organizing charitable foundations to curb gang violence. Say what you will about the Lunatics: They've put St. Louis on the pop-music map again, and no local celebrities in recent memory have worked harder to do right by their hometown. They won their two awards by a landslide, so evidently St. Louisans are giving back the love. (RSS)

St. Lunatics & Highway Matrons
St. Lunatics & Highway Matrons
Steve O & Bottle Rockets Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann (Robert Kearns not pictured)
Steve O & Bottle Rockets Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann (Robert Kearns not pictured)
Toya & Dave Stone
Toya & Dave Stone
Grandpa's Ghost & Dead Celebrities
Grandpa's Ghost & Dead Celebrities
Charlie Chan & Just Add Water
Charlie Chan & Just Add Water
Jay Farrar & Tripstar
Jay Farrar & Tripstar
Tomorrow's Caveman & Sullen
Tomorrow's Caveman & Sullen
Fantasy Four & Murder City Players
Fantasy Four & Murder City Players
Trip Daddys & Soulard Blues Band
Trip Daddys & Soulard Blues Band
Cobalt Blue
Cobalt Blue

Highway Matrons
Best Rock Band

Countless scores of people in town can and will tell you about the greatness of the Matrons, about the fantastic shows, the heart-rending live performance of their favorite song, the drunken blowouts that end in a riot of whoops and hollers and a silvery, staccato flash of spoons. But the truth is, the Highway Matrons were not even present at their greatest performance.

Early one Sunday morning, in the hallowed racks of Vintage Vinyl, just moments after the store opened, the Matrons' long-awaited album Nothing Is Better lurched and reeled through the store's sound system. As the dedicated music hounds flipped through the CDs, trying to find their one thing before the weekenders flooded the store and ruined everything, they were serenaded by the Highway Matrons' tales of love and loneliness and love again. The sound of the Matrons, that dulcet, raw, hard-edged but not hard-hearted, grainy black-and-white newspaper photograph of the human soul sound that Mark Stephens makes when he's sure it will never be all right ever again -- that sound cut through the click of jewel boxes and the sleepy chatter of the clerks and the very thoughts of everyone present, and soon the only sound in the store was the Highway Matrons. For that one moment, a roomful of strangers had something, everything in common: the Highway Matrons. Everything else just fell away, and the pale, prerecorded reflected image of the Matrons shimmered and shone like the face of Jesus in a dinged spoon.

This is a victory not just for Matrons Stephens, Fred Friction and Mark Sheridan but for rock & roll itself. Finally the Highway Matrons have shed all hyphens, all comparisons, all the bullshit that goes along with being St. Louis' perpetual "next big thing" and are being recognized for what they are: the best damn rock band in town. Rock & roll is immediately healthier, sexier and more fun by association. (PF)

Steve-O
Best Club DJ

House music leaped from Lake Michigan less than 20 years ago and hit the Chicago dance floors with an inherent momentum. Think about that the next time you hear the boom-boom behind a Bug commercial -- four-and-a-half hours north of here, a global phenomenon was hatched, and from there it leaped the Atlantic and hit, in full stride, London, where the Brits, all hopped up on E and joy, seized it, snuggled it and transformed the bass boom into a love bomb. Eventually it took a redeye flight back over the pond and landed in all parts of the U.S., and a worldwide revolution was born.

In St. Louis, DJ Steve-O helped nudge the revolution when he started throwing warehouse parties in the early '90s -- "the good ones," says Boomer, who, along with Steve-O and Mike D, hosts the biweekly Deeper Pitch sessions at the Upstairs Lounge. "He started DJ-ing a little bit after that," he continues. "His style of music has stayed pretty much the same -- heavily influenced by Chicago house but also by the older soul and disco genres." You can hear the essence of all three subgenres during a Steve-O set: the four-four thump, the heavy-duty arrangements, the soulful, emotional vibe.

Steve-O looks like some sort of superhero DJ when he arrives at a club on his motorcycle, record case bungeed to his rack, helmet hiding his face. It's as though the dancers shined a mirror ball into the sky and within moments the DJ was racing to the decks. His pleasant demeanor and perpetual smile are a welcome antidote to the scowling hot-shit DJs who present themselves as way way cooler than the dancers. Steve's attitude is a perfect reflection of the music he spins: This music is for celebration, and how can you celebrate if you can't feel that same emotion in your heart?

You wanna hear the best club DJ in town? Steve-O's in residence at Rue 13 every Saturday, where he spins house until 3 a.m. Twice a month, Deeper Pitch takes over the Upstairs Lounge on South Grand Boulevard, where Boomer and Mike D mix some techno in with their house but Steve-O sticks with his beloved house. ("He's always been a house-head," says Boomer. "Even back in the day, he never really got into the techno side of things.") They do it this Friday, May 17, as well as May 31. And for a more relaxed atmosphere, Steve-O occasionally spins subtler house at the Chocolate Bar in Lafayette Square. (RR)

Bottle Rockets
Best Roots/Americana

Of the alt-country class of the '90s, the Bottle Rockets are virtually the only major band left standing. The Jayhawks are no longer the Jayhawks, Son Volt has become Jay Farrar, Wilco is becoming Radiohead and Blue Mountain is no more. These evolutions and dissolutions aren't necessarily to be lamented, nor are they all that surprising. Given the current commercial climate, few bands in any genre stand a chance for more than a few years of artistic relevancy. Still, the Bottle Rockets keep trucking, keep making rock & roll with country soul -- that's really the only reasonable description for the indefinable genre -- even when they had every reason but one to cash it in.

That one reason? Take Songs of Sahm, their tribute to the late Texas roots guru Doug Sahm, for a spin, and the answer couldn't be more clear. The music -- every raunchy and tender guitar solo, every effortless rhythmic stroll, every blues-breaking thunderclap, every fearless phrase from Brian Henneman's roaring maw -- is still a kick, and they still rock as if the whole world is on the line.

The Bottle Rockets weathered their first lineup change when bassist Tom Ray split the band in 1999; Robert Kearns took over, adding some surprisingly supple harmonies and more than fitting into the band's anything-goes country/rock ethos. Now founding member Tom Parr, who has been Henneman's closest musical ally since the late '70s, has left, and still the Bottle Rockets plan to push on.

"Tom's out for good," Henneman says by e-mail. "We are not looking to replace him at this time. (But I did really love our D.C. show, where Patty Loveless' steel player sat in with us for the whole show. Steel players are cool but usually in demand, and expensive, but hell, it don't hurt to dream!) If that slot ever gets filled, I have a feeling it won't be with a 'regular' guitar player. Right now, we're kinda diggin' the 'Low-Power' Trio vibe! Might stick with it!"

The band will continue to tour behind Songs of Sahm -- a St. Louis or Columbia stop is not on the horizon -- and a new record, only half of which has taken shape, won't be out till next year. Whatever the band does will continue to matter, and not for any reason having anything to do with alternative country. The roots in their rock have always extended beyond country or blues trappings, and their songs -- most of which are as sharply crafted as any of their peers' -- have told stories of people, places and emotions that refuse to give up, refuse to stop believing. For the Bottle Rockets, rock & roll is still the most exciting reason to be alive. (RK)

Toya
Best R&B

Much has been made of the connection between Toya and Nelly, but, truth be told, they aren't really that similar. Sure, they're both from the Lou, both have sold a shitload of records and both seem to favor baseball caps. But that's about it, kids -- unless, of course, you count their shared ability to blend R&B, hip-hop and pop into an infectious, hit-ready concoction.

Toya's self-titled debut may never match the sales figures of Country Grammar -- what could? -- but you had to have been buried under a rock or sharing cave space with the Taliban in Tora Bora to have missed the constant presence of her kick-off single, "I Do!!", on the airwaves during the past year. You probably even sang along. Surely some of you even danced to it. The album's second single, "No Matter What (Party All Night)," upped the pop quotient significantly, to nice effect. Maybe this was the song her record company had in mind when they developed that inane "softer side of St. Louis" tagline. No word on a third single, but there's no shortage of catchy, radio-friendly tracks on the album from which to choose.

Arista Records seems happy to throw some marketing muscle behind Toya, and fans, both locally and beyond, are responding in a big way. "I Do!!" climbed well into the pop Top 10 thanks in large part to heavy MTV rotation. Constant appearances and gigging -- including a tour last year with Jessica Simpson -- added even greater national exposure. But local fans needn't fear. Toya hasn't forgotten her hometown fanbase. Like Nelly and the St. Lunatics, she seems determined to promote her St. Louis roots, and that goes a long way toward endearing Toya to her fans here. Of course, those model good looks and pop smarts probably don't hurt, either.

In an industry where trends tend to shift overnight, it's anyone's guess where Toya goes from here, but at only 19, she has the potential for a long musical career. Although success in the R&B world can sometimes be brutally short, St. Louisans have made clear their intention to support the "First Lady of St. Louis" with a resounding "I Do!!" (JK)

Dave Stone
Best Jazz

It's a three-peat! In 2000, 2001 and now in 2002, Dave Stone has come out on top in the jazz category of the RFT Music Awards. That result may not be a rarity in certain other categories (see Blues and the incredible streak of the Soulard Blues Band), but it's definitely an eye-opener when it comes to the Best Jazz category.

The quality of competition year after year in this category is clearly a tribute to the high level of musicianship found on the St. Louis-area jazz scene. As a result, the voting always seems to come down to the wire -- and this year was no exception. In 2002, voters had to choose from a list of deserving nominees that included sax stalwart John Norment, the up-and-coming Jeff Lash Trio and past winners Stone, sax player Willie Akins and pianist Ptah Williams.

Given the tough competition, just what is it about Stone that's inspired so many jazz fans to faithfully cast ballots for him over the past three years? Start with the word "consistency," and focus first on consistently excellent musicianship. Saxophonist Stone and his regular bass player, Eric Markowitz, have musical roots that go back more than a decade. They both studied in the fine jazz program at Webster University, where they developed solid technique and skills -- and discovered a deep rapport in exploring the post-bop music of the legendary John Coltrane.

That interest has led to a consistently exciting approach to improvisation by Stone and Markowitz. At the smaller, more rockist clubs such as Mangia and the Way Out, the musicians always seem to opt for an edgy, unpredictable approach to a performance. What's more, Stone consistently varies the sound of the group by bringing a variety of top-notch musicians into the mix. For example, the drum chair could feature Kyle Honeycutt, Jim Orso or Jeff Anderson on any given night, and you never know when someone like Syd Rodway may sit in or when a jazz musician stopping by will end up onstage for the late set.

We can only hope that the recognition gained through three straight wins in the RFT Music Awards will inspire Stone to expand his performance schedule -- and impel local club owners to find room on their schedules for his uniquely beautiful sound. (TP)

Grandpa's Ghost
Best Eclectic/Uncategorizable

Make room in the trophy case, boys: For the second year in a row, Grandpa's Ghost grabs the brass ring on the most topsy-turvy carousel in this musical carnival, "Eclectic/Uncategorizable." Lumping such disparate bands in one category handicaps them all, because the bands that take the most chances end up competing. Perversely, this competition levels the field for the contenders: The inherent weirdness of each band is canceled out and the bands must be considered on their merits, not their eccentricities. See? Uncategorizable. And yet you, the voter, are asked to categorize one of these bands as the best, and twice now you've thrown that appellation on the spectral, risky, magnetically resonant drone-roar produced by Grandpa's Ghost. Well played, anonymous mass of voters; well played indeed.

Trying to characterize Grandpa's Ghost is a clumsy business. In the past year, guitarist/vocalist Ben Hanna has collaborated with electro-acoustic sound generator Eric Hall and wild-man producer Chris Deckard; Grandpa's Ghost played for the performance-art experience Person One; and even as you were casting your ballot for them, they were touring with blue-collar icon Mike Watt. That's a wide jump from avant to performance art to econo, but Grandpa's Ghost's amorphous nature adapts to any setting.

Their double album Stardust & Smog/Early Autumn Waltz drifts and wanders through the back country, seeking out those hidden or forgotten places where beauty sleeps. Folk and country and rock and pop and soul and noise and sound manifest like shadowy figures on your peripheral vision, flickering out if you look straight at them. But close your eyes and everything sloughs together as the Ghost slips through a landscape both real and imagined, trailing ragged clouds of dusty, distorted, divine melancholy and glory in its wake. It's a journey the vast majority of voters were eager to take, which is no surprise, because the scenery is breathtaking. (PF)

Dead Celebrities
Best Punk

The diversity among this year's nominees in the Best Punk category serves as a reminder of how broad a notion this thing called "punk" has become. The angular poetics of the Star Death seemingly have little in common with the Ramonesy Ded Bugs, and the mod politics of the Red Squares would seem to be the antithesis of the hedonistic garage-slop of the Spiders. The five nominees might easily have been winners of five different punk-subgenre categories had the RFT chosen to tax voters' patience even more.

From the confusing mess, however, St. Louis punk-rockers were able to choose a favorite, and they chose the Dead Celebrities. If asked to categorize the Dead Celebrities in the vast range of punk, we'd have to put them in the "Southern California-style surfer-skater-party-punk" subgenre. Although the band members look a bit old to still be doing much skating, and they're a thousand-or-so miles from decent surf, they can still kick out the kind of straight-ahead hip-shaking punk rock that's tailor-made to be playing from some kid's boombox while he's on his way to vandalize the high school. Like the Descendents if Milo had never gone to college or Black Flag if Greg Ginn had quit instead of Keith Morris, the Dead Celebrities make it sound as if everything's gonna be OK as long as they don't run out of beer and there are some girls around. No mock angst or bothersome forced political consciousness for them -- and, let's face it: Isn't there way too much of that already? Live, the band is a lesson in Punk Rock 101, with the almost choreographed leaping abilities of guitarist Elvis Kennedy (Punk-rock pseudonyms? Check!) and the nonstop between-song banter of motormouth lead singer Sid Sinatra. Never giving the audience, much less themselves, a chance to rest, the Dead Celebritites can tear through a set with the energy and conviction that proves that, yes, they really mean this and no, punk's not dead, but thanks for asking. (MH)

Charlie Chan
Best Hip-Hop DJ

What a difference a year makes. Yes, Charlie Chan won this prize last year. And yes, he deserved to be sitting on top of the perch. In the past year, though, he's secured his standing by conquering another peak; in 2002, Chan's not only king of the clubs, he's one of hip-hop radio's hottest commodities.

Last year, after more than a decade of slamming the dance floor, Chan (who's added a second surname, Soprano, to his moniker) began the second phase of his career: as on-air DJ at the upstart hip-hop station Q95.5. A wise move on Q's part, but little did station management know how prescient this choice would be. In 2002, the Q has overtaken powerhouse The Beat (103.3 FM) in the ratings, and, in the most hotly contested, vibrantly competitive mano a mano on the dial, the two are wrestling for the ratings points.

And one of the main reasons Q's got a nose on The Beat is Mr. Chan Soprano. He brings a vibrancy to the airwaves, a flat-out improv style so tight and clean that those unschooled in the ways of the Chan will swear that the scratching and cutting and wickwickwacks coming out of their subwoofers are Memorex. You know, cheating -- computer cuts, computer edits -- commercial chickenshit DJ-ing.

But Chan Soprano does his Fat Mix at Five stunts without a net, and he never drops a goddamn beat.

Given enough time and practice, any wannabe can learn the skills to juggle and levitate a beat. Chan Soprano's got that certain something -- call it knowledge, call it magic, call it freaky intuition. Whatever it is, the result is a mix show filled with surprises, an inherent hip-hop logic and enough juice to sustain a mix that runs every weekday from 4-7 p.m. Yeah, he maybe kicks too much bling-bling and the glossed-up thuggy shit (you're not gonna hear him drop Cannibal Ox or the Anti-Pop Consortium anytime soon), but when you're working for the ratings, you gotta give the people what they think they want.

And his banter's not bad, either. One of the joys of the Q is the way the afternoon hosts -- Craig Blac, Mic Fox and the others -- trade jabs, dis, poke, prod, argue, entertain, all of it seemingly unscripted and absolutely genuine. They sound like a bunch of chums shooting the shit in a living room. Chan's always in the middle of the ruckus, taking it as he dishes it out, never shying away and never backing down. And he's like that on the ones and twos as well: Never shying away. Never backing down. (RR)

Just Add Water
Best Modern Rock

The little girls understand. And the bigger girls. And the women. And the men that want to meet the women. They all understand the importance of catchy sing-along choruses, of just the right mix of ironic distance and come-hither sincerity, of powerhouse energy tempered with sweetly sung interludes. They understand Just Add Water.

The Modern Rock category is a nebulous field, with a sound that nobody can pinpoint but everyone seems to know. If a band could get played on The Point, they can be considered Modern Rock. Just Add Water not only could get played on The Point, they've won the hotly contested Cage Match nine times. For two-and-a-half years, singer Steve Waller, lead guitarist Brian Nicoloff, rhythm guitarist Mike Steimel, bassist Dan Martin and drummer Peter Lang have been fixtures on the local rock scene, trudging their way through the clubs, winning over fans. At the Riverfront Times Music Award Showcase last Sunday, girls not yet old enough to catch them in bars swooned to the pop melodies. Sex appeal is clearly a portion of the Just Add Water game.

That's not to say, however, that these guys are afraid to be a little dorkish. At least two songs on their debut album, The Other Side of You, make fun of loving obsessions with a pornographic image ("My Own Little World") and a cardboard cut-out (the mysteriously untitled ninth track). It's almost as though they're singing these jokey songs to make themselves more lovable, more worthy of being saved by a real live woman. And then they crank out plenty of songs about actual relationships, all showing off their sensitive side.

None of this would matter if the band didn't have such a knack for radio-ready hooks. All the songs on the album (not to mention the four tracks on their more recent EP) stick to the ears like Velcro. They bounce across a blend of power pop/ska/power ballad rhythmic styles, with hooks the order of every day. If you can't hum the thing after a couple of listens, Just Add Water is most likely gonna throw a new song out on its can.

Having aroused the interest of several major labels, the hard-working quintet seems poised for a shot at the big time. They've got the material, the appeal and the sound. Now it's time for a little luck, and Just Add Water could be as big as anybody in the Modern Rock scene. (SP)

Jay Farrar
Best Singer/Songwriter

Unlike several of the other winners in the 2002 RFTMAs, Jay Farrar is a first-timer. Even though his old band Uncle Tupelo spearheaded a movement (a tiny one, to be sure, but one whose influence continues to be felt), the Belleville-based trio never won a single Slammy, amazingly enough. After UT split up, Farrar's childhood friend and longtime bandmate Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco with the remaining members; Farrar reunited with original UT drummer Mike Heidorn, and Son Volt was born. Their debut, Trace, was widely held to be a masterpiece and even made it onto Elvis Costello's list of his all-time favorite CDs a few years back. Subsequent albums weren't as well received, unfortunately, even though the third (and, perhaps, final) Son Volt effort, Wide Swing Tremolo, is, to our ears, every bit as strong as Trace and infinitely more ambitious.

Last year, Farrar went solo, releasing Sebastopol under his own name. A beautiful and uncompromising album, it easily ranks among his best work, drawing on the sonic experimentalism of the last Son Volt albums but taking it in a more focused direction. A bevy of all-star backing musicians -- Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Kelly Joe Phelps, Steve Drozd of the Flaming Lips, Matt Pence of Centro-matic, Jon Wurster of Superchunk -- freed Farrar to tinker around with unexpected arrangements, alternate tunings, the occasional drum loop and even a lone saxophone, distorted beyond recognition. "I primarily worked with one musician at a time," Farrar told us in an interview late last year, "so it allowed the songs to evolve at a slower pace, with more time to think about what instrumention to put where, whereas with Son Volt we were mostly trying to capture the essence of what we'd been doing on the road."

Despite its more calculated approach, Sebastopol wasn't so much a departure for Farrar as a logical progression. He didn't alienate his longtime fans with self-conscious forays into microhouse or free-jazz skronk; he didn't reinvent himself for the rock-is-dead era. He still sounds like himself -- the same mournful baritone, the same melancholy phrasing, the same cryptic lyrical tendencies -- but doesn't sound as if he's repeating himself. Since his early twenties, Farrar has had a unique style, one that's often imitated but never equaled -- he doesn't need to fuck with everyone's expectations to evolve as an artist.

In the end, one suspects, Farrar's music will live on long after the current crop of critics' pets have faded into obscurity. It's only fitting that his first RFT Music Award honors his abilities as a singer/songwriter. It's his songs -- oblique, surreal, abstract and yet still somehow deeply personal -- that make up his true legacy. Leave the radical self-reinvention to the wannabes and poseurs: St. Louisans are loyal to Farrar because he's remained true to himself. (RSS)

Tripstar
Best Pop

So strange, the nomenclature of popular music. "Rockabilly" once described an unpredictable synthesis of hillbilly country and rhythm & blues; now the term refers to virtually any band with a stand-up bass and leather jackets. "Jam" once referred to what musicians did before they called themselves a band; now it's the raison d'être of a whole youth movement. "Folk" music used to be made by and for folks; now the surburban bourgeoisie sticks "contemporary" in front of it and shells out $17.50 a ticket at Generations.

What's happened to pop is, perhaps, strangest of all. Pop was once the opposite of rock & roll: Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Barbra Streisand were all pop artists. Now pop means pretty much any young band that recognizes the existence of the Beatles, seems oblivious to punk, shows their navels on MTV or adds la-la-la to a chorus. To be fair to the members of Tripstar, winning Best Pop Band wasn't their idea. They play crunchy, anthemic guitar rock, and they play it about as well as any band yet to break out of the local scene. Their debut album, At the Instar Motel, is full of sweeping time changes, spacey harmonies and the sunshiney nonsense of a dozen Donovan albums. They're not afraid of puppy love's ickier sentiments -- the lines "I'd like to hold you close, dancing nose to nose/I'd like to feel your smile/It touches me for miles and miles" are representative -- nor are they afraid to erect sugarcoated cathedrals around Bryan Hoskins' quasar-high vocals.

The origins of Tripstar date from 1998, when Donny Besancenez and Hoskins first started working on songs in an acoustic vein. They formed the Salvation Army Band, a name they were soon advised was owned by the Salvation Army. The new name, Instar, fared no better (a Boston band claimed it), and they settled on the free and clear (for now) Tripstar. With its evocations of pychedelia, glam/pop, and Alex Chilton's old band, the name suits their sound. "We wanted to make it really songwriting-oriented," Besancenez says, "somewhat pop, somewhat artsy, and not get pigeonholed too much."

Since their debut album, they've added a new rhythm section, comprising Derek Bayer and Phil Wheeler, and have begun plotting a follow-up record. Here's hoping Tripstar keeps looking for inventive ways out of any and all pigeonholes, pop or otherwise. (RK)

Tomorrow's Caveman
Best Garage

After Beatlemania and before Altamont, thousands of snotty kids all across America bought cheap guitars, sneaked a couple beers past the old man and tried to score with chicks by playing testoterone-fueled Rolling Stones knockoffs at the local pizza joint. These were kids who knew in their hearts that they were never gonna write a song as good as the Beatles' but, just maybe, they could get as much girlie action as Mick Jagger.

It's this mixture of innocence and impudence that's kept music fans fascinated with this period of rock's history, as dozens of CDs of garage-band unknowns (most notably Rhino's massive four-CD Nuggets set and Crypt Records' amazing Teenage Shutdown series) will attest. Seemingly having leaped from one of these collections and onto a stage near you, Tomorrow's Caveman recalls the days of these original garage-band punks in all their recklessly fab (fabulously reckless?) glory. Formed a couple of years ago after the breakup of the equally garage-a-rific Geargrinders, Tomorrow's Caveman's pedigree is impeccable, with members having also served time in psychedelic weirdos Fruitcake and legendary St. Louis dirge-punks Drunks With Guns. Their recently released debut CD, Tomorrow's Caveman Today, finds the band touching on all aspects of good '60s rock, with hints of surf, psychedelia, frathouse soul, Kinks-inspired rawness and Sonics-style snarl. Fortunately, rather than just being a mishmash of influences, the band melds all these ideas into a single sound -- decidedly retro, of course, but not slavishly imitative of any one band.

Most important, Tomorrow's Caveman can convincingly rave things up live. Lead singer Ray James is pelvis-thrustingly perfect, and guitarist Mike DeLeon (who also hosts the fantastic psych/rock/bizarro Mindfield program on KDHX-FM on Tuesday nights) lets loose waves of wah-pedal-fueled weirdness. Guitarist Tim Lohmann, bassist Steve Marquee and hard-pounding drummer Hank Ver Plank complete the lineup. The group occasionally dons caveman-style fur vests and bone necklaces in concert, making them look as if they're getting ready to star as the "rock band" in an episode of Bewitched. For St Louis' best garage band, there could be no higher compliment. (MH)

Sullen
Best Hard Rock

Honestly, has hard rock ever been more boring than it is right now? Hundreds of pounds of tattooed, face-pierced and dookie-braided thug-lites who hate their parents and star in million-dollar videos whine about their lives while driving lowriders and riding strippers -- except for the members of Creed, who worry about Jesus and steadfastly beat to death metaphors that would get laughed out of a high-school poetry magazine. Is this the best the grunge revolution could inspire? Creed? Nickleback? Layne Staley didn't OD -- he was bored to death by his bastard offspring.

Just when you're ready to write off the whole ugly business and start an alt-country/klezmer combo, along comes Sullen. Even better, along comes Sullen and they win in the Best Hard Rock category! So the people really do know more than the critics and the music biz give them credit for. Sullen understands the idea of big guitars (and by big guitars, we're talking Pacific Northwest-sized guitars, which is two sizes up from "grande"), but even better, the group understands and embraces the concept of melody. Their recent ten-song CD Demos is littered with well-crafted, intelligent, catchy songs that rock balls-out (no offense, Shanna). Sullen is not caught up in ironic grad-student rock poses; not tongue-in-cheek or full of smug disdain for its predecessors. Guitarist/vocalists Justin Slazinik and Shanna Kiel have a genuine, honest love for stomping on a fuzz pedal and burying the needle in the red, but they know you'd better have a plenty sharp hook to hold all that howl down, and more often than not they deliver. Their dual, slightly off-kilter vocal style and "now we're quiet/now we're loud" guitar clusters beg for the sort of sweaty pogo-ing and shout/sing-along that can only be satisfied by an outdoor festival crowd. They take their rock plenty seriously, but not so seriously that they won't blast out an affectionate drive-by cover of "God Only Knows" or challenge each other to wrestle for band supremacy during a show. And how can you not love a band that argues about whether they're recording with the same eight-track used by the Beach Boys or the Rolling Stones, then include the argument on their CD?

They may not be dark or brooding, but that doesn't mean Sullen don't bring the rock in large portions: Rock & roll should be fun, and Sullen is definitely putting the rock back in fun. Or vice versa. Either way, we all win. (PF)

Fantasy Four
Best New Band

For just over a year, the Fantasy Four has been wowing local-music fans with its intoxicating mix of fuzzy garage-punk and melodic, harmony-heavy pop. Its songs are short, sweet and impossibly sticky, the kind of tunes that lodge in your brainpan and quickly worm their way down into your heart. Whether playing original hits (well, they should be) such as "Hometown Rock Star" and "Your Mirrors Must Be Mad" or unexpected covers such as Pink Floyd's "Bike," the Fantasy Four never ceases to enchant. With influences that range from Robyn Hitchcock to the Beatles to the great girl-groups of yore, the trio whips up a delectable sonic soufflé, one that's light and fluffy but also substantial, moored by simple but rock-solid riffs, interesting counterpoint and witty wordplay.

The ace in the Fantasy Four's pocket, however, may well be the formidable songwriting chops of its two singers, guitarist Marcia Pandolfi and bassist Karen Stephens. For several years before they joined forces, the two women honed their skills individually, Stephens with the proto-twee outfit Bunnygrunt and the more experimental International House of Karen, Pandolfi with the Tics and Shiny Tim. Their styles are subtly different -- Pandolfi's sensibilities are a bit more pop, Stephens' a bit more punk -- but they complement each other perfectly, creating a sound as unique as it is indelibly catchy.

The band's lineup has evolved over the past several months, with the Phonocaptors' Scooter Hermes replacing original drummer Jeff Hess and local rock god Jason Hutto making sporadic guest appearances on lead guitar, but the essential core of Pandolfi and Stephens remains. They've upped the decibel content, and overall they're decidedly more rocking than they were at their inception, but they've done so without compromising their bubble-icious genius, their steadfast devotion to classic pop hooks and radiant melodies. Steady gigging and a recent cross-country tour with their friends Julia Sets suggest that these newcomers could, in a year or two, turn the world on with their smiles. For now, they're our very own hometown rock stars. Long may they shine. (RSS)

Murder City Players
Best Reggae/World

That the Murder City Players are still together after nearly 20 years is impressive. That they're still at the top of their game is damn near astounding. Given the band's long history and its stellar reputation as a live act, it comes as little surprise that the MC Players have been voted Best Reggae Band by RFT readers this year.

Of course, St. Louisans aren't the only ones to have taken notice of the band's skills. All Music Guide describes the Murder City Players as among the top three reggae bands in the nation. Beat magazine regularly heaps praise on them. Even a cursory listen reveals why: The band lays down a dense, brass- and percussion-heavy style of roots reggae but manages to retain some serious pop smarts. It's a fine line, and most reggae bands have a hard time balancing it. Much of the Players' success in doing so stems from the yin-and-yang of its dual leadership -- vocalists Phillip McKenzie of Montego Bay, Jamaica and Mark Condellire of St. Louis. McKenzie's grooves tend to be slower and more menacing, whereas Condellire often favors the lighter, more loping rhythms of rock steady. The combination can be thrilling, both on record and in concert.

The Murder City Players don't play as many gigs as they once did, but they remain an active and fluid consortium. In recent months they've gained a new bass player and added another guitarist. Those changes may lead to some subtle changes in the band's overall sound, but they aren't likely to lead to any seismic sonic shifts. The Players are nothing if not consistent. Although they were recorded fourteen years apart, their two currently available CDs -- Power Struggle from 1985 and Speak No Evil from 1999 -- sound as though they might have been recorded concurrently, and that's a good thing.

When the Murder City Players formed in 1983, roots reggae looked to be on a serious ascent. Sure, Bob Marley was dead, but the music had a bigger audience than ever thanks to acts such as Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, Burning Spear and others. These days, the landscape has changed. Reggae of the non-Shaggy variety doesn't get much in the way of mainstream media attention. But that doesn't mean that the classic roots-reggae acts have all disappeared. In the Murder City Players, St. Louis boasts one of the very best. (JK)

Trip Daddys
Best Rockabilly/Surf/Instrumental

Once again -- surprise, surprise -- the Trip Daddys have scored the Best Rockabilly/Surf/Instrumental award. Their most recent triumph is no shocker, given the band's rabid fanbase and admirable work ethic, but the fact remains: If any band deserves the honor more, we haven't heard of it. The high-octane psychobilly trio -- which consists of singer/guitar virtuoso Craig Straubinger, bassist Jamey Almond (no, not Jamie Allman, the media dude) and drummer Dave Easley -- has been working its collective tail off since 1996. They've scored prestigious out-of-town gigs -- opening for their idol Brian Setzer at the House of Blues club in Chicago -- and even sat in with local blues legend Oliver Sain. They've earned favorable notices for both their searing live shows and their third CD, 2001's Hot Chicks and Fast Kicks. As long as the Best Rockabilly/Surf/Instrumental category exists, the Trip Daddys pretty much own it.

Rest assured, the Daddys aren't going to score any hipster bonus points for innovation. They're about as likely to incorporate a turntable or a sampler or even a keyboard into their defiantly dated sound as they are to grow gills or launch into Esperanto. For these true believers, rock & roll is a sacred, ancient formula, one whose Dionysian properties are not to be fucked with. Their devotion to the hot-rod-tinkering, Bettie Page-worshiping, biker-jacket-wearing set is absolute: The beer's always ice-cold, the car's always in fourth gear and the women are always red-hot mamas in seamed stockings or teenage carwashing girls in cutoffs.

That's not to say, however, that the Trip Daddys are Brylcreemed clichés. Straubinger's guitar work is nothing short of astonishing, a quicksilver flurry of perfectly chosen notes that do more than fill the spaces left between the pounding, primitive rhythm section. Yeah, maybe he's a tad show-offy on occasion -- sometimes he plays his solos with his guitar held behind his head -- but hey, if you could pull off such gasp-inducing feats without humiliating yourself, you probably would, too. What distinguishes Straubinger's fretboard wizardry from Yngwieish wankery is passion and soul. You can't fake the rock & roll spirit, no matter how fancy the licks or how greasy the hair, and Straubinger and his able sidemen don't need to pose. They're the real deal, Daddy-o. (RSS)

Soulard Blues Band
Best Blues

If there's one thing proven by the Soulard Blues Band's string of consecutive wins as Best Blues act in the RFT Music Poll, it's this: Never underestimate the power of a brand name. For their ninth straight win in the category, the SBB has triumphed over a field that includes legends such as Johnnie Johnson, Oliver Sain, Henry Townsend and Bennie Smith, all musicians whose reputations extend beyond St. Louis to the nation and the world. That the SBB reigns again as RFT poll winners in 2002 is a testament not only to the group's musicianship but to its tenacity, longevity, work ethic and, well, to having established a name that's familiar to even the casual blues listener.

Anchored by bassist/raconteur/bon vivant Art Dwyer, the SBB has persevered on the local scene for close to a quarter-century now, weathering good times and bad and enduring many personnel changes along the way. (Among the band's more famous alumni are singer and character actor Jim Byrnes, a regular on the TV series Wiseguy and Highlander, and Larry Thurston, who's done several tours as vocalist for the Blues Brothers Band.) They've established a solid following for their regular gigs at the Broadway Oyster Bar, the Great Grizzly Bear and other clubs around town and have taken their act on the road throughout Missouri, Illinois and the wider world, even recording one of their albums live in Stuttgart, Germany.

As the SBB's style has evolved over the years beyond straight-up blues to include R&B and soul, as well as touches of jazz, zydeco and funk, they've remained a constant presence on the local scene. It may be true that in some circumstances familiarity breeds contempt, but for SBB and St. Louis blues fans, familiarity would seem to breed contentment.

Now, a recent reshuffling of personnel signals yet another new chapter for SBB. Only Dwyer and guitarist/vocalist John Mondin remain from the previous edition of the band; they're joined by drummer Leroy Wilson, guitarist Bob Kamoske and, perhaps most intriguing, trombonist John Wolf, a versatile musician whose résumé includes gigs ranging from straight-ahead jazz to free improvisation to vintage-style jump blues with the nationally known recording act Roomful of Blues. As the newly reconfigured ensemble refines its own version of the SBB sound, you can bet that local blues fans will be there listening with wide-open ears. (DCM)

Cobalt Blue
Best Groove

In a day when the word "groove" has been elevated to a kind of catch-all signifier of musical adulation and bands often sacrifice all memorable melody, lyrical care and vocal dexterity to a doodled-over Möbius strip of rhythmic invariance, it's worth stepping back a bit, if only to say, "What the hell?"

The members of Cobalt Blue definitely have groove to spare, but you wouldn't mistake them for a jam band or improvisational rock outfit. The band boasts two of St. Louis's most underrated and melodically intriguing guitar players in Sean Garcia and Tim Redmond, an open-ended, smartly layered approach to percussive arrangements and a sensual healer of a lead singer and image-focused songwriter in Rebecca Ryan. Growing up in St. Louis, Ryan attended a magnet school for visual and performing arts and made up songs about cars passing by her childhood apartment.

"I was a late-life baby, and so I grew up on a lot of big band and jazz," Ryan says. "I tend to gravitate towards singers who use their voices as instruments rather than your frontperson-singer types." After high school, she studied music in Santa Fe and formed her first band, O'Ryan Island, in 1991. After some seven years, that group dissolved, and Ryan -- who also sings with Languid -- met jazz-trained guitarist Tim Redmond, with whom she began playing as a duo. "We both liked the spontaneous conception," Ryan says. "Tim would go on with a few chords, going as long as half-an-hour, and stuff would come out. Sure, it was the good, the bad, and the ugly, but if it was something we were both grooving on, we'd stick with it."

That spontaneity translates into pensive images that flash up out of softly glowing moods -- "I don't even notice what the sun is setting for," Ryan sings on "Big Screen" -- and an appealing, supple approach to song-shaping. Since their debut album, Work Song, Cobalt Blue has lost its rhythm section, but for now the band plans to continue as a three-piece, exploring the trance-inducing textures of their graceful, guileless sound. (RK)

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