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.

The result is an authoritative amalgam of the subtle hues that constitute the musical legacy of the West Indies. The MCP unfailingly deliver skankworthy grooves replete with thickly reticulated horn textures and the double-barreled toast and flow of founding lead vocalists Mark Condellire (a.k.a. Tony Rome) and 'Prince Phillip' McKenzie. With recent recruits Jimmy London on guitar, Mike Powers on saxophone, Mike Cracchiolo on bass (these three were previously in local ska favorites, the Kickbacks) and Wallace Pryor on guitar, the Murder City Players have enough fresh blood to keep them pumping for years to come. Reportedly, a fourth full-length release is in the works, but there's no reason to rush the Murder City Players. As they say in Jamaica, "De child mus' creep before him walk." -- John Goddard

Best Jazz
Willie Akins
In a culture that reveres youth and flash and celebrates shiny surfaces while ignoring the substance beneath, it's reassuring just to have Willie Akins around. He's been a mainstay on the local jazz scene for more than 30 years, performing on tenor and soprano sax at a consistently high level and serving as teacher and mentor to a host of younger musicians. A soft-spoken, reserved man, Akins has almost always let his horn do the talking, eschewing self-promotion and hype to concentrate on the music.

Raised in Webster Groves, Akins set out for New York immediately after graduating from high school in 1957. It was a time when rock music was beginning to take hold of the popular consciousness, but the city was still teeming with small record labels and jazz clubs featuring musicians who would ultimately become part of the jazz pantheon, from established veterans such as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster to younger stars such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley and Cannonball Adderly. Undaunted by the competition, Akins stayed in New York for more than a decade, paying voluminous dues, woodshedding and trying to break into the hyper-competitive jazz scene that was slowly but surely being commercially marginalized by the rise of rock. After years of scuffling, he was finally on the verge of a breakthrough when his father became gravely ill. A dutiful son, Akins returned home to attend to family matters, and New York's loss became St. Louis' gain.

In the years that followed, Akins matured into a truly exceptional player, revered by local listeners and musicians yet still obscure to the larger world. By day, he painted houses to keep the bills paid; by night, he stood placidly on a series of stages, telling stories with his horn that mixed intellect and emotion, joy and pain, exuberance and contemplation.

Though his pace has been slowed by the open-heart surgery he underwent a couple of years ago, Akins has returned to his regular Saturday matinée gig at Spruill's in Midtown, where he continues to offer an intoxicating brew of hard bop, ballads and blues to attentive and appreciative crowds. This year's RFT Music Awards nominees in the jazz category are all fine musicians worthy of greater recognition, but it's impossible to think of a more deserving winner than Willie Akins, a local legend with world-class talent. -- Dean C. Minderman

Best Blues
Soulard Blues Band
On the surface, it might seem tempting to dismiss the Soulard Blues Band -- a group populated by middle-aged white guys with set lists long on familiar and sometimes over-familiar blues chestnuts and possessed of a clean, polished sound (virtually anathema to some blues fans). But blues music in general has never been well served by superficial assessments, and the Soulard Blues Band is no exception. To many people, the blues is a sad music performed by backward, broken men. It's a damnable lie, of course, and the Soulard Blues Band has reveled in disproving it since 1978. Although it's certainly true that blues music has often been the province of solo performers with a preference for songs of loss and frustration, there's also a rich tradition of good-time blues bands celebrating the days of plenty. The Soulard Blues Band falls into the latter category, and, as their popularity proves, St. Louisans like their blues with a smile.

SBB's sound is an amalgam of electrified Chicago blues, New Orleans R&B and 1950s jump blues, mixed together with St. Louis' own slick and slinky blues vibe. The band's lineup changes periodically, but its members have managed to maintain a distinctive sound and feel over the years. If their song selection at times seems a bit clichéd, it's an issue quickly resolved by inspired arrangements and spirited performances. Sure, we're all a little sick of "Sweet Home Chicago," but like Halloween candy on November 1, we can't help coming back for another helping. Besides, the Soulard Blues Band isn't about rescuing rare blues from obscurity. It's about making converts of unbelievers and making full-fledged dancers out of toe-tappers.

Bringing their music to the masses is a mission the band takes seriously. Their June performance schedule alone includes club dates, festivals, wineries and weddings. And if you can't catch them live, you can easily enjoy them in the comfort of your home. Their three latest CDs are perhaps more readily available in local record stores than any St. Louis artist this side of Nelly. In a city increasingly detached from its rich blues heritage, the Soulard Blues Band is a key element in keeping the tradition alive. So come on, baby don't you wanna go? -- J. Konkel

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