Riverfront Times Music Awards '04

So far, so good: Last year's Terroir Bluessurprised plenty of cynics, and now Farrar is releasing Stone, Steel and Bright Lights on June 8 as part of a smattering of recently recorded live material with backup band Canyon. The early returns look promising.

Chris JohnsonChris Johnson would be better known if his voice wasn't such an irascible instrument, if his guitar work wasn't so taut and fraught with the densest blues, if his songs didn't cut so damn deeply. His brand of acoustic folk isn't easy listening, but then neither is the best of Townes Van Zandt or Bob Dylan, the two masters whose lessons he has absorbed. Though he occasionally appears with a barely electrified combo called Pye-Dog, you're more likely to hear the wail and pine of his harmonica and the stomp of his boot heel when he performs solo at coffee shops or Frederick's Music Lounge. And though he's been writing and performing in St. Louis for about a decade, he keeps getting better, as anyone who has heard his recent, heart-crushing song "Down in Lemay" will tell you.

Bob ReuterIn 1984, Bob Reuter gave up the brutal art of drinking and took to the more brutal art of songwriting. He'd be dead now if he hadn't; so too would a fair portion of St. Louis's musical culture. Rowdy, country-inflected groups like Pitchfork, Bad Folk and the Round-ups owe Reuter's seminal, two-years-retired band, Kamikaze Cowboy, more than they realize. And anyone who stands on a St. Louis stage with a guitar and a song has his brusque, uncompromising but generous lyrics to live up to. Reuter's newest band, Palookaville, has managed to reveal ever more about his obsessions: how class is a bitch, how love is as inevitable as sin, how the blues cannot be killed, and how there may yet be transcendence in this struggle with the daily mire we call living.

Best Roots/Americana The Bottle RocketsDon't hold the qualifier "roots" against them: The Bottle Rockets are a rock band, as influential and as misunderstood as any St. Louis band in the past ten years. Outlaw wannabes and Tupelo nostalgists might get off on the revved-up twang of "Lonely Cowboy" or the head-banging riffs of "Radar Gun" -- and who could blame them? But the heart of the Bottle Rockets beats just a little deeper, in the sound and spirit of their stories: the joys and despairs of small-town work and life, the unpretentious beauty revealed by the most sentimental emotions, and the melodies you can hum all day and never exhaust. Add to that the craft of the pop song -- "Gravity Fails" and "Perfect Far Away" for starters -- and you have, quite simply, one of the great American rock bands.

Fred's Variety GroupThe combination of strong songs and strong souls never fails. This year sees FVG's third consecutive nomination for an RFT music award, so you know they rank somewhere near Chuck Berry. On last year's full-length, Bells and Buzzers, singer-songwriters Mark Stephens, Sherman S. Sherman and Sunyatta Marshall show us where the "variety" comes from, but it's the ballads sung by Marshall that steal the show. The strength and accuracy of the 27-year-old prodigy's voice have always been there, but her command of its temperance has grown steadily since those wonder years of belting it out on the Burrito Brothers' patio when the U. City Loop was young. Whether it's a sea shanty or a honky-tonk holler, Fred's Variety Group delivers real life in song with passion and maturity. 7 p.m., Halo Bar

The Highway MatronsYou can stomp your fuzz pedals till your guitar sounds like a kamikaze engine seconds from impact, assault your crummy drum kit -- taking special pleasure in slashing up the cymbals -- till your sticks are splinters and your snare is a crumpled piñata, flog your bass till your subscriptions to Circus and Revolver expire, and scream over it all till heaven itself reconsiders this whole rock & roll thing. You still won't sound like the Highway Matrons, this city's most deliriously, most blasphemously chaotic band. Lurching between exhilarating pop and total breakdown, hooky guitar licks and apoplectic noise, the Matrons manage to cohere on the strength of their songs -- their fusion of twisted humor, cathartic anger and genuinely sweet lyricism. 11 p.m., Halo Bar

Magnolia SummerMagnolia Summer has made a name for itself by not toeing the line, mixing drum machines into Americana songs and using a violin to carry a rock & roll melody. There's a moment in the opening of "Pushing the Needle Too Hard," the opening track on Magnolia Summer's debut, Levers and Pulleys, where some keening, spectral sound -- a sonically modified human voice, or perhaps a soaring guitar note -- leaves the ground and flies away, only to land at the song's end. It's a fitting way to start a record that has so many moments that are at once earthy and transcendental. 7 p.m., Cicero's

PitchforkFormed in 2002 (and named after the farming implement, presumably, not the snooty indie magazine), Pitchfork brings a high-octane country sound with regularity to Frederick's, Dressel's and the Way Out Club. The members of Pitchfork are purveyors of hootenannies, plain and simple. In a world largely bereft of box-socials and short on shindigs, it's good to know hootenannies are still on the market. Any outfit whose singer goes by the stage name of Skeeter carries the mark of authenticity, and proudly.

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