2003 Music Awards

The readers spoke, and the RFT music staff listened. Find out who's large and in charge on the St. Louis music scene.

Though based out of Pocahontas, songwriter and driving force Ben Hanna continues to work with a variety of musicians, including Bill Emerson (who has been with Hanna since the beginning), Chris Dee, Mark Robke, Pat Kennett, Tobi Parks and Eric Hall. More recently Jason Hutto and Scooter Hermes of the Phonocaptors will help Hanna flesh out some of the more straight-ahead rock songs he has in his head.

"Grandpa's Ghost is this nebulous thing," Hanna says. "I'm not always sure what it is or what it means. I toured solo in April, which got me back in touch with the core aspect of my tunes. I write everything on the acoustic guitar and then bring it to the band based on ideas and what I think the players can bring. Playing acoustically has gotten me back to the voice of what the songs mean."

Hanna and the Ghost are nothing if not prolific. Over the last three years, they've released two double albums -- the last, The Tumble/Love Version (Upland), included astonishing revisions of songs by John Denver, Neil Young and D.O.A. -- exploring psychic and musical bipolarity, or maybe just erasing the acoustic/noise duality altogether. Grandpa Ghost's last appearance in St. Louis (at the Pageant) found Hanna and Emerson, who played a mad-scientist rig of lap steel, pedals and tone generators, drifting in and out of acoustic murmurs and muted whirs and buzzes. For Grandpa's Ghost, acoustic and electric are two sides of the same page of the same dream journal. Recently, Hanna and company have been working with a young Chicago-based filmmaker named Jim Fotopoulos. Some of that work includes Hanna's abstract musical take on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." The recordings will be released in the fall, and a tentative multi-media performance, with Fotopoulos, is scheduled for mid-September in St. Louis.

"From the very beginning I recognized we weren't going to be some mainstream band," Hanna says without a trace of irony. "I've had to work within the framework of the various musicians and their availability. My goal is to continually do more but still keep the focus on the integrity of the creative aspects. I'm 36. I recognize that it's not easy. I don't have a romantic idea that I'm going to make money at it. There's not much you can control other than what you're doing from a creative angle." -- Roy Kasten

Best R&B
Although he considers himself more a soul singer than an R&B artist, Coultrain's thrilled that RFT Music Awards voters decreed him the victor in the Best R&B category -- the very first time he was nominated. The label that really makes Coultrain bristle is "neosoul": "That's a term I feel is so disrespectful," he says, with a quiet forcefulness. "The word 'neo' means 'new,' right? But nothing about the music is new at all. 'Neosoul' makes it seem like what we're doing is something totally different from Marvin or Otis or Stevie, and we're not."

The 25-year-old Coultrain [né Aaron Frison] grew up listening to his father's favorite singers: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson and, a bit later, Stevie Wonder. He knows that the music he writes and performs -- as a solo artist and as a member of the groups Soul Tyde (nominated in the Best Underground/Alternative Hip-Hop category) and Solomon Nickels -- isn't strictly identical to the classic '60s soul that inspired him as a youth, but he still bridles at the "neosoul" tag: "Hip-hop is a big influence in all types of music now; our revolutionary sound is hip-hop. So the soul influence is already in hip-hop -- that's how we define hip-hop, as an infusion of everything. I realize people have to label music all the time, so I try not to pay too much attention. I just say I do music. I don't try to label it too much; I let other people do that."

Whatever you want to call it, St. Louisans certainly seem to be feeling it. "Love and Hate" -- Coultrain's first single from the fantastic new Soul Tyde record, Hip-Hop and Soulful...ish -- is in rotation at Q95.5 and Magic 105 (104.9 FM), and, during his RFT Music Awards showcase performance at a stuffed-to-capacity Delmar Lounge, he had an ecstatic crowd lapping up every gorgeous note. Endowed with a buttery baritone, supple phrasing and a gift for writing catchy and compelling songs, the young singer isn't likely to fade into obscurity anytime soon. With production and recording assistance from his Soul Tyde collaborator Black Spade, Coultrain's been working on his début CD (tentatively titled Echoes of Autumn) for quite a while now, writing and recording nearly every day. His work ethic is rivaled only by his patience: "I have a lot of stuff in my catalog," he says, "but my first album out, I want to make an impact. We're putting a lot of work into it before we actually release it." Something tells us it'll be worth the wait. -- René Spencer Saller

Best Reggae/World
Murder City Players
Jamaican proverbs consistently counsel patience and calm endurance in all things, as in the colorful Jamdung patois "Time longer than rope" and "One coco fill up a basket." For 20 years, the Murder City Players have taken it slow and steady, filling up their basket one coco at a time. With a discography totaling but three full-length releases (all have received critical acclaim from roots aficionados worldwide), it's apparent that the MCP are enjoying the trip to the market, unhurriedly honing their reggae-riddim stylings to ever higher plateaus of unflinching impeccability. The fruits of their forbearance should be apparent in the Players' relatively infrequent live appearances, but if a packed house of sweaty bodies skanking and grinding isn't testament enough, just ask Jamaican legends the Itals, U-Roy and the Ethiopian, all of whom have enlisted MCP as a backing band. A fairly recent revision in the group's lineup hasn't swayed them from their course of continued experimentation in the genre, either. According to founding keyboardist and manager Jeff Schneider, quite the opposite is true. "The current lineup has enabled us to cultivate a new, fresh and energetic sound," he explains. "The addition of a third horn and a second guitarist has provided us with the components necessary to achieve a depth and quality found in earlier styles of Jamaican music. A lot of our newer material, both original as well as covers, comes from the ska and rock-steady eras."

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