Welcome to the inaugural Indy Music Awards. When we first decided to set up an annual awards program, we had two things in mind: to recognize achievement in music and to celebrate local music with a big party and a bunch of bands.
On Saturday, Oct. 2, we'll be doing just that--hosting a showcase in Carrboro at the ArtsCenter and the Cat's Cradle and handing out little statues to the winning artists in 20 categories.
More than a thousand of our readers have weighed in through the online poll and the official ballot in the paper. What's been nice to see is the interest the awards have generated throughout the music community as fans of rock, jazz, country, hip hop, bluegrass, blues, salsa, gospel and folk have let us know who they think stood out this year.
The feedback we've gotten (most of it well intended and good natured) will help us do an even better job of taking the tally next year, and we appreciate everyone taking the time to tell us what they think. Any system where you have to pick the best is difficult and, of course, pretty subjective, but we think we've gotten pretty darn close.
Inside this section you'll see the bios for the nominees, and on the back is the schedule for an evening of music that's all over the map in style, but indigenous to right here in the Triangle.
Thanks to the volunteers, sponsors and venues that helped make this all happen and thanks especially to the artists who make up a truly great music community.
Long may it wave.
Nominees for the 2004 Indy Music Awards
Best Rock Band
They are to Chapel Hill what REM is to Athens and Fugazi to D.C., which is to say the act that put the city on the musical map. A rambunctious cross between the chugging punk rhythms of the Buzzcocks and the chunky, distortion-fueled roar of Husker Du, the quartet's long-running indie rock success enabled guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance's label, Merge Records, to grow and thrive. Whether opining on our personal skylines, the rules of the road or duplicitous mirrors, McCaughan has a lyrical gift for expressing pain, hope and frustration through the staples of everyday life. Their sheer sonic heft has declined across their eight albums (and three compilations), replaced with greater subtlety and a more measured tone. Their latest, Here's to Shutting Up, came out in 2001, followed by the rarities and b-sides collection Cup of Sand in 2003 and the video collection Crowding Up Your Visual Field early this year.
"It rides beside me
It has no choice
It is my life
It is my voice
It is stupid
It is my noise"
The Rosebuds formed after Ivan Howard turned down an opening slot in Wilmington on behalf of his band only to take the gig as The Rosebuds, a hitherto imaginary arena for new material. He taught then-girlfriend Kelly Crisp the songs in an afternoon, played them that night with her on keyboards and has rarely looked back since that introduction. After relocating to Raleigh, The Rosebuds were signed to indie stalwart Merge Records on the strength of a six-song demo and a stream of exuberant live performances. Their debut LP, Make Out, was released to critical approval in 2004.
"But I believe in rock 'n' roll
Moving fast to save my soul
Slow down, I've been told."
("My Downtown Friends")
Combining the joie de vivre of the best party bands, post-punk's jagged grooves and an enviable live charisma, Durham's Jett Rink brings the carnival. The purr of ancient organs and guitar riffs alongside a pulsing beat leave nom-de-plumed singer Viva Cohen plenty of room to crawl around while howling at the moon. On stage, Viva contorts himself like some seven-foot gargoyle, lurching through the crowd, preaching the decadent Jett Rink gospel until they turn the lights on. They released an EP in 2003, and guitarist Ben Felton was added this year. Don't miss 'em live.
Patty Hurst Shifter
Patty Hurst Shifter began as a simple ploy to snag an opening gig for the new favorite band of bassist/drummer Johny Williams (Glory Fountain) and guitarist Marc Smith (34 Satellite, The Drive-By Truckers). They recruited Chris Smith, a young singer/songwriter who had impressed locals with his country-tinged rock songs, as a frontman. Ex-Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore joined for 2002's Beestinger Lullabies, an emphatic fireball of a guitar-rock album recorded in the now-defunct JAG Studios. Johny Williams played his last gig with the band in May 2004, but Ron Bartholomew joined. PHS is currently recording a follow-up with Greg Elkins.
"How many days did you implore me
To make some room in my life please
I think you want me on my knees
I could think it hasn't broken me down yet
But if you're lonely waiting
Well then I'm certain I'll be as lonely as it gets."
("Goodnight Becomes the Enemy")
Best Rock Record
Fulfilling dual, parallel dreams by recording with Brian Paulson (Wilco, Slint) for an album to be released by Merge Records, The Rosebuds debut affair, Make Out, is big on sharp, bouncy hooks, rattling between a Kinks catch and a New Wave groove. Ivan Howard emerges as a talented, opinionated downtown bard, viewing the drunkard gal with the "toothpaste in her bag" with pity and the big city clubs with all the fervor of an underage kid "trying to get in for free." Perfectly delightful pop with loads of promise.
"You're moving and groovin' all over town for just one kiss,
Gonna bet I get one baby, here's something you missed."
Make Yr Life
On the back cover of Make Yr Life, Butchies Alison Martlew, Melissa York and Kaia Wilson pose while blowing big bubblegum bubbles, and it looks like they're having an awful lot of fun doing it, too. It's a great snapshot glimpse of their current music, alluding to the sugary catchiness of the up-tempo songs, which ride on electric jolts of guitar and concise arrangements. The simplicity of the songs sends you running to hit the repeat button; since there aren't many fussy production techniques and most numbers are fast-paced hard rock burners running in the two to three minute range.
Deeper listening yields The Butchies' slightly-bruised beauty; beneath the punk-pogo dancing fever of the lively cuts like "Send Me You," "Trouble" and the title cut, there's some rough emotions laid bare. The band's brute lyrical honesty about lesbian love, heartbreak and sex makes Make Yr Life compelling.
"come here come here i'm scared but not alone
i'm tripping and i'm falling i'm falling
and back and forth it's ocean and sand
it's fate in a salty water"
("she's so lovely")
The Beautiful World
Regina Hexaphone's The Beautiful World has nary a soft spot, unless you're talking about the place it makes in your heart, and there's a variety of flavors across the album from the light, jazzy skronk of "Cicadas" to the blooming, organ-fueled summer hues of "Hero Wings" to the reflective, folk-tinged charms of the album-opening highlight "The Seahorse and the Sand Dune." It may have taken seven years for them to release this album, but it won't take 10 minutes for listeners to be seduced by this album's sophisticated allure.
"The flag is flying but it's upside down
The tide was high but it's low now
If I could get you alone in a crowd would you
Shoot out the streetlights in this beach town"
("The Seahorse and the Sand Dune")
Best Rock Song
"Kicks in the Schoolyard"
(see bio under Best Rock Band)
"At a record store is where I spend all my time
'There is a light that'll never go out' will never ever die, oh my."
Nathan Asher and the Infantry
"The Last Election"
Nathan Asher and the Infantry formed after Asher found himself with no band but with several songs that served as "a way to express this frustration with pop culture, politics, getting older and watching people around me change." Asher and Phantom FM organist Lawson Bennett set out to find a band to record the work, recruiting the rhythm section of Dan and Nick Abbate and lead guitarist Chris Serino from Nova Cancy, along with Jay Cartwright on keyboards and Turner Brandon wailing on harmonica. The band just released its self-titled debut, an impassioned entree of social pensiveness and coming-of-age conundrums.
"The president is driving Air Force One
His daddy gave him the keys and he's drunk
The Governor with brothers from Texas is next to his Lexus
It runs on tax incentives, oil and misdirection"
"Autumn Got Dark"
The side project of Superchunk's Mac McCaughan has a softer, quieter tone than his band, relying principally on acoustic guitar strumming and bubbling analog synth lines. Delivering the same bittersweet melodies, clever wordplay and moody melancholia one might expect from Superchunk, the difference is largely found in the somber vibe and frequent experimental touches. Since the first lo-fi release in 1994, Portastatic has followed a similar aesthetic, though the transition from a studio act to a live one last year produced a significantly stronger attack, as evidenced on the most recent album, 2003's Autumn Was a Lark.
Now everywhere I look I get depressed
I think I'll wear a dress to disassociate
Myself and then
Oh but then again
How would you know?"
Best New Rock Band
Despite having only produced an EP, this trio of songwriters--Snuzz (Bus Stop, Ben Folds), Robert Sledge (Ben Folds) and Django Haskins--and drummer Jason Faggalonius have established International Orange as one of the best acts in the Triangle. There's a strong pop sensibility at work that ensures sweet, tasty hooks that go down easier than the neighborhood "strawberry," with a surplus of lyrical smarts. The quartet's initial release, Spoon Box, came out this spring and is to be followed by a full-length early next year.
Alternately built on Talking Heads quirk, Pixies force, Velvet Underground swagger and Jesus & Mary Chain grace, the co-ed Fashion Design is the Triangle's animated Interpol, a band that refuses to take its influences off of its collective sleeve, though still having enough flair and zest to be a welcome addition to the scene's indie legion.
The bond between the three pieces of Ticonderoga--Mark Paulson, Wes Phillips and Phil Moore, bandmates and best friends since grade school back in their recently departed hometown of Iowa City--manifests itself in the music, with the individual and intricate layers of chiming four-note keyboards, chunky guitars, lumbering bass and scatter-beat drums connecting, bouncing off and into each other almost spontaneously. The songs and the parts aren't easy or obvious. But with a few nods, these guys drive right through them, accomplishing twisted, sinuous folk songs, like Cub Country or early, plainsong Wilco glimpsed through the brokesong lenses of Ticonderoga's kindred spirits--Sebadoh, Grandaddy, Sparklehorse.
The Raleigh band Utah! formed in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1998 before relocating to North Carolina in late 2001. Prior to the move, the college-town quartet recorded a debut with Bob Weston at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio Studio. The band gained quick notoriety on this local scene thanks in large part to a sold-out split with The Rosebuds on Pidgeon English Records, followed by the stunning sophomore effort, Plays Well with Others, showcasing a three-piece moving in beautiful, serpentine time--clean from math-inflected beats and quaking cello swaths right down to Ed Pellino's slogan-prone growl.
Best Hip Hop Group/Artist
"That's who Little Brother is: Phonte and Pooh on the rhymes, 9th Wonder on the tracks," Triangle emcee Phonte told British magazine Elusive Styles last year. Using that cohesive crew mentality and a love of old-school hip hop from A Tribe Called Quest to Eric & Rakim, Little Brother--whose three members became best friends at North Carolina Central University as freshman there--exploded in 2003 with their ABB Records debut, The Listening. Since then, 9th Wonder has been busy, producing tracks for heavyweights Jay-Z and Murs. The trio is knee-deep in recording The Minstrel Show, its major-label Atlantic Records debut due for release in early 2005.
Born in northern Virginia, Kevin "Kaze" Clarence Thomas attended UNC-CH, where he founded Hip-Hop Nation, devoted to fostering a hip-hop scene on campus. After leaving school, he founded NBC's nationally syndicated Hip-Hop Nation. Kaze moved on to found Soul Dojo, Inc., through which he released his explosive self-produced debut, Spirit of '94, in March 2003. That first outing revealed Kaze as a studied emcee rooted in the old school but with a solid, inventive flow, more concerned with his boys, ladies and philosophy than with his cash. He followed with Enemy of the State in April 2004.
What originally started as a diversion in a Manhattan apartment from the rat race of the city below, Kerbloki's industrious connection with local outlet Bifocal Media began when a set of early demos the band recorded passed into the label's radar. MCs MJ and JB began rapping over the mish-mash beat and samples of producer Mike Westbrook, and the group--who rock the mic as a duo bouncing over pre-recorded material live--soon found themselves opening for Little Brother, Atom & His Package, Prince Paul and the X-Ecutioners. The wacky wit of their rhymes welds perfectly to the production, as evidenced by "You've Got the Kerbloki," a recent number in which the AOL guy is echoed by "K-E-R-B-L-O-K-I, You know our name because we're blowing up sky high!"
Imagine it: a rapping Chapel Hill High School assistant principle dropping his first five-track EP only to find it charting on the Billboard 100 at a relatively rapid pace. Imagine that same administrator landing a slew of keynote opening slots on the hip-hop circuit for Jurassic 5, KRS-One and 50 Cent. Imagine him being the only non-signed talent to be invited to perform at the huge Rock Steady Crew Reunion in New York City. Such is the life of one Mervin Jenkins, aka Spectac, an assistant principle by day and an emerging MC around the clock.
Best Hip Hop Record
"This album is the future of hip hop to many. These 18 tracks include rather reminiscent samples chopped like Wonder Bread--precise and tight, solid lyrics that make sense and tell stories with teeked hooks from classic bangers. Oh, and there are fucking sick harmonies--like WJLR (Justice League Radio) interludes with entertaining appearances by Percy Miracles and Roy Lee. I know you're wondering, 'Who are these cats?' Well, how about a '70s soul singer (watch out for Percy's solo) along with his once road manager who currently owns a record store in Ahoskie, N.C. That'll work."--K8 Irwin
The Apple Juice Kid
"It's real important to me for people to know it's not just me sittin' in my room playin' the guitar, singin' songs by myself," says The Apple Juice Kid of Plus+, the title of his ambitious debut. "It's me plus a lot of people. 'Plus' is supposed to give an explanation of what this record is about." Juice, who says the album began as a "mix tape for myself," wears the producer hat well on the 12 rhythmical tracks that give Plus+ a flipped out, funky-hip-hop-neo-soul-garage-pop type vibe. A spectacular debut from a guy with an explosive future.
On his debut, the New York-born, North Carolina-raised Corey Parker bares his soul, laying it on the line for the ladies in his life by way of simple, annunciated cadences over production that runs the gamut from souled-out smoothness ("I Wanna Know") to A Tribe Called Quest-meets-Spearhead rock/funk work of the socially geared reflections like "Pump Ya Fist," which leans on an Ani Difranco guest spot for its temper and tenacity. Parker's as-of-now more famous father Maceo makes a guest appearance on this star-studded debut as well, spattering hiccups on a make-up song that would make about any pops proud.
Best Hip Hop Song
Half of these rappers
They clothes is disasters
They sound like them grown folks on Charlie Brown."
"The Yo Yo"
"Ya'll know them niggas that I'm talkin bout
The ones that ya'll be seeing at the coffee house
Soon as they get the mic, I start walkin out
And swear that their skill the most talked about."
"Well if you be a bad cacker
All rapping about about gats and crack
Or if you're in it for the pimp
Or to try and see a fat stack
Get the shit off, my nigga
Shine Don't Hold Back
Do it yourself and hold that."
Best Country Group/Artist
Two Dollar Pistols
Ambling through the part of town where heartache lurks around every corner, singer/guitarist John Howie Jr.'s like a star-crossed motorist who manages to hit every pothole along romance's stretching byway. His old school honky-tonk owes an obvious debt to George Jones, and there's no nudge and wink involved in the dusty, downhearted odes leaking enough tears to fill a tavern full of empties. The former drummer has gone through a number of different lineups across four albums (and an EP with Tift Merritt), but always seems to surround himself with crack musicians. His latest release, Hands Up!, arrived early this year.
Like a Flannery O'Connor story, something dark and Gothic resides within the loping alt-country crawl of this Chapel Hill quartet. The most likely culprit is singer/guitarist Melissa Swingle, whose distinctive drawl emanates the weary, jaded tone of a crime scene photographer who's witnessed a lifetime of unhappy endings. Though capable of jauntier tunes, over the course of five albums their light has receded in favor of the approaching night. Their latest release, Hope Is a Thing With Feathers, came out in 2003.
As a Florida-born kid, Thad Cockrell knew he loved country music. His father, a straight-laced Baptist preacher, didn't want his son to hear those white man's secular blues, though, disallowing country from his home and forcing Thad to sneak listens. But Cockrell fell in love with the notion of writing his own songs in North Carolina, dealing with college heartbreak in his own tunes and words. Stacks of Dreams, a demo recorded by Chris Stamey, was released through Miles of Music, followed by the gorgeous, heart-crafted song cycle Warmth & Beauty in 2003. Though he's still around a lot, the songwriter moved to Nashville in late summer.
Following a string of late-'90s gigs with Two Dollar Pistols, Tift Merritt formed The Carbines in 1998 as an outlet for her material. A 7-inch followed, as well as the breathtaking "Lullaby" on a Yep Roc compilation, The Garden State. Merritt recorded a powerful seven-song set of covers and originals with The Pistols, highlighted by a poignant take on "One Paper Kid." A subsequent deal with Sugar Hill Records fell through, but Merritt signed to Lost Highway for her deceptively mature debut, Bramble Rose. Merritt's sophomore effort, Tambourine, was released Aug. 24 on Lost Highway.
Best Country Record
Hope is a Thing with Feathers
When Charlie Daniels sang about the "Legend of the Wooley Swamp," it wasn't a stretch to imagine that the demons and devils he envisioned in that dismal place danced to Hope Is a Thing With Feathers, the fifth album from the sludgy, stoner rockabilly pirates of Trailer Bride. That's how scary this band can sound. Surely they can lilt and waltz in their own time (as heard on "Lightning" or "Mach 1"), but the band shines brightest in the darkness and mesmerizing Medusa-enchantment of Melissa Swingle's voice when she howls: "Well I've heard it in the chillest land and on the strangest sea / Yet never in extremity did it ask a crumb of me."
"And why is a moth attracted to a flame
When it burns its little wings
Oh, ain't it a shame
It's just that evil cocaine."
Warmth & Beauty
When it comes to sad 'n' pretty, country records are rarely as compelling as Thad Cockrell's sophomore release, Warmth & Beauty. Whether he's forecasting misery as Willie whistles from the radio, latching onto a lover who seems to be on her way out, or soaking in sorrow the crushing inadequacies of a fiancee when compared to a past lover, the hurt in Cockrell's voice resonates. Here, he's not a beer-bottle bard, but a man whose lack of luck in love is threatening to destroy him or, at the very least, his sanity. Backed by an ensemble of local all-stars like Zeke Hutchins, John Teer and Greg Readling, Warmth & Beauty emerges as highly refined country hurt without the slick bombast of modern country radio.
"And loneliness is my friend
stops by every now and then
But mostly it's just you and me
You're my favorite memory."
("My Favorite Memory")
Two Dollar Pistols
Hands Up!--the fourth Two Dollar Pistols full-length--finds the deep baritone crooning of John Howie Jr. and his spot-on, rarely-misses-a-lick six-string sidekick Scott McCall paired with the rhythm section of Matt Brown and Mark O'Brien and producer Brian Paulson. Hands Up! is a slight departure for the band, opening the door for these honky-tonk puritans to dye their dungarees with dark Motown licorice at every stitch and even to have occasional fun having constant heartbreak.
"It was gonna be some fun for a week or maybe two
with no intention to make it more than a late-night rendezvous
I could see we had a good thing from the start
Yeah, it's all fun and games 'til someone breaks a heart."
("It's All Fun and Games ('Til Someone Breaks a Heart)")
Best Country Song
Two Dollar Pistols
"There Goes My Baby"
"And it feels just like a nightmare
I turn around and she's right there
Holding his hand underneath the streetlight."
(see bio under Best Folk Artist)
"It's a trade-off, you made off
Without ever counting the costs
Through this rear-view
Mirror, I see you
This is not your dream
Get your hands away from her."
"Don't think it's because of you that I walk around this town
Pitying a big ol' smile on top of this ol' frown
'Cause I'm so sad to see you happy
So sad to see you smile
I thought you'd be back to me."
Best Solo Artist
The other "stable" piece of the Whiskeytown line-up (some would argue the only stable one), Caitlin Cary emerged with her first full-length, While You Weren't Looking, in 2002, one year after the long-recorded Whiskeytown swan song Pneumonia emerged on Lost Highway. Critical praise followed for the debut, as well as for her 2003 sophomore effort, I'm Staying Out, which offered many of the coolest, most thoughtful and most gracefully arranged takes on the format of "adult contemporary" one can imagine. Cary reformed the best folk artist nominees Tres Chicas with Lynn Blakey and Tonya Lamm in late 2003.
The Mountain Goats
In about a decade, John Darnielle--at times, either all or part of the lo-fi songwriter's dream band, The Mountain Goats--has performed over 400 different songs, released nearly 20 full-length albums and toured incessantly. A California nurse in the early '90s, Darnielle began recording his songs on a store-bought boombox and distributing the subsequent cassettes--chock full of immaculate song cycles sung through the nose in front of a manically strummed acoustic guitar and onto a hissing tape deck--through California's Shrimper label. Darnielle's reputation grew, eventually resulting in records with indie stalwarts 4AD, Emperor Jones and Sub-Pop. A prolific poet with an eye for detail duly examined, twisted and exonerated, Darnielle released the gorgeous We Shall All Be Healed following a move to Durham in 2004.
(see bio under Best Country Artist)
Best Solo Record
The Mountain Goats
We Shall All Be Healed
Ditching the boombox that was Mountain Goat John Darnielle's recording studio for so long, he properly recorded his masterpiece, Tallahassee, a song cycle about dysfunctional drunks told largely on acoustic guitar. The follow-up is as urbane as the other was rustic, tracing speed freaks and lost souls through blind alleys and cul-de-sacs accompanied by the richest, supplest arrangements of his career. This depth of the sound is almost a detriment, as it takes longer to find your way through the complex lyrical and musical worlds, but like a Thomas Pynchon novel, the effort is rewarded by the fullness of the characters and the luscious sonic shadows and shadings.
I'm Staying Out
With a team of co-writers that include Thad Cockrell, Chris Stamey, Tonya Lamm and Mike Daly and a backing band that boasts the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Don Dixon, Jon Wurster, Greg Readling and Audley Freed, it seems that the sophomore effort from ex-Whiskeytown fiddler and siren Caitlin Cary would be a surefire smash. But Cary certainly broadcasted fears of a solo sophomore slump, perhaps best expressed in the album's sublime "The Next One," in which she croons "I am so afraid of returning to places that I've been." I'm Staying Out, though, is a gem, a gorgeous collection of songs championing images, not image.
Blues That Defy My Soul
And just when The White Stripes and The Hives had made clanging garage rock safe for the kids, just when you thought it was safe to let the saplings hear the guitar kick into overdrive, Dexter Romweber is back. The glimpses of demonic dissonance in the piano lovesong "I've Lost My Heart to You" are hairs of rebellious flavor in Romweber's reverent rock mane, and his venomous spit-on-the-mic bite is a reminder that--despite some sort of "maturity" age is supposed to lend--Dex is more of a formative way-down-South serpent than a revered Reverent Romweber, even when he pleads, "Oh Lord, why do I have to be so low?"
Best Bluegrass Band
Chatham County Line
Mandolin man and fiddler John Teer claims he can play nearly any instrument with strings, and vocalist Dave Wilson is one of the wittiest, most observant narrative songwriters in memory. Add to that the surefire bass work of multi-instrumentalist Greg Readling and the able banjo playing and harmonizing of Chandler Holt, and Chatham County Line is the stirring result. The band released a brilliant, genre-bending eponymous debut on Bonfire Records in 2003 that owes as much to spirit of The Jayhawks and The Band as to the sound of Bill Monroe and Doc Watson.
Steep Canyon Rangers
After forming in Chapel Hill five years ago, the four pals and one gal of The Steep Canyon Rangers released a debut before signing to Yep Roc's Bonfire Records for a brilliant follow-up, Mr. Taylor's New Home. Fiddler Lizzie Hamilton made a quick exit for family life, but the band pressed on, eventually signing to long-standing Charlottesville bluegrass bastion Rebel Records for a self-titled third. Playing traditionally powered grass tailored with a sense of honest folk narration so profound and aged it belies the just-out-of-college fresh faces penning it, The Rangers are the real thing.
A quintet of mighty fine pickers with a bent for putting their own dexterous touches on classic rock cover tunes and roots standards, The Grasscats formed in 1997 with WQDR 94.7 "Pinecone Bluegrass" host Tim Woodall on the banjo and extra high tenor Greg Miller on the banjo. The band has two full-lengths under its belt and has earned a reputation for playing one of the area's most enthusiastic sets. The Grasscats recently finished compiling a seven-year retrospective capturing their formative days on the stage and in the studio.
Best Folk Group/Artist
Jennyanykind co-founder Michael Holland recorded Bootlegger's Dreams as a wedding present, only later deciding to release it independently as a graceful, spare solo record. Given Jennyanykind's most recent hiatus after 10 years and eight albums, one can only hope for more from the warm, rustic Holland and his weathered guitar.
Rounded on the sweeping vocal harmonies of songwriters Caitlin Cary (Whiskeytown), Lynn Blakey (Glory Fountain, Oh-OK) and Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine), the Chicas draw on the roots-driven sounds of their other bands to forge pretty, heartbreaking songs that crackle with emotion. Though their music often sways to a country twang, underscored by Cary's violin, elements of rock bubble just beneath the surface. Founded in 1998, the demands of their other acts held back the creation and release of their debut, Sweetwater, until this summer.
Red Clay Ramblers
For more than 30 years now, the varied and numerous members of the Red Clay Ramblers have been one of the zaniest, most entertaining and most inclusively eclectic roots acts in America. These days, they have the ability to swing between tunes stemming from Celtic, Scandanavian, Americana and Tin Pan Alley traditions without missing a line or a reel. The group has a Tony under its collective belt, as well as a litany of theatrical productions, film scores and collaborations with Randy Newman, Michelle Shocked and Ralph Stanley. Perennially impressive.
Best Folk Record
Jonathan Byrd & Dromedary
The Sea and The Sky
More than simply a singer/songwriter, Jonathan Byrd is a fine finger-picking folk player whose compositions have a light gossamer grace with touches of Appalachia, bluegrass and country bubbling through. He sings with a strong, clear tenor and works in a bit of wit alongside his frequent ballads. For his third outing, he joined the world music duo Dromedary, who impressively alternate between charango, dulcimer, mandolin, cumbus and flamenco guitar to forge the beautiful accomplishment The Sea and The Sky.
Wrapping tattered edges of roots music like blues and old time around warm, trance-like undulations, the Hollands get to the heart of the matter in simple, but often majestic, ways. The same applies here. This solo release bears out that love of rural music. It's a recording intended as a wedding present in 1999, based on an unnamed poem about a poor bootlegger's trials and tribulations. Bookended on the album by two spare songs of only voice and guitar, the songs often have an otherworldly quality, intended as dreams, especially on the pulsing, ghostly instrumental "Appalachian Meditation." Bootlegger's Dreams just makes one want more.
Sweetwater can best be described as folk rock, making this the point at which, customarily, the music is called lovely or gentle or something fairly synonymous with wimpy, and the harmonies are described as angelic. Okay, that all might be true, but there's much more at work here. The work of Tres Chicas (Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary and Tonya Lamm) is folk rock with teeth and with what often feels like a barely tamed spirit. And while the harmonies do feel heaven-sent, the trio's devilish personalities frequently poke through, no more so than on a cover of Loretta Lynn's feisty "Deep as Your Pocket."
Best Salsa/Reggae/ International Group
Bassist Troy Cole used the Arabic name "forgiveness"--or Jaafar--when he was trekking through Egypt for six months. Now it's the tag for one of Chapel Hill's most unapologetically original bands. Inspired by the likes of 1970s East-meets-West rock band the Mahavishnu Orchestra and improvisational jazz musicians Coltrane and Jonas Hellborg, Jaafar has been blazing a new trail on the world music map. Jamming in large and small ensembles, Jaafar's various members bring everything from flamenco to funk to the musical masala they call "Middle Eastern Jazz Arabic Funk Fusion." Among the instrumentation you might find: anything from the oud to the djembe, with a high likelihood of keyboards, violin, flugelhorn, bass, percussion and guitars.
They call it the "Latin sound made in North Carolina," but Samecumba's roots go underground all the way to Puerto Rico, Colombia, Haiti and the U.S.A. The nine-member Latin dance band is one of the largest in the Triangle, delivering the full complement of salsa dura percussion flavors: timbales, congas, bongos, campana and guiro, as well as the tambora, which is absolutely essential to get a good merengue out of the starting gate. Filling out the big sound are brass, bass, keyboards (Phil Merritt, who also arranges for the band) and the lively Pamela D'Empaire on vocals. Trumpets lift Samecumba's mambo into the stratosphere, right where dancers like it. Their cover set includes Willie Colon, Eddie Palmieri, Johnny Pacheco, Tito Puente and Stevie Wonder--a hearty draught of Nuyorica's finest, and some of the most urbane dance music ever created.
Donovan and the Posse
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, singer Donovan Carless literally grew up with reggae legends. And, though he's lived in Raleigh for over 25 years now, Carless was part of the original big bang that propelled reggae beyond the Caribbean and into world consciousness. As a member of Soul Syndicate in the 1970s, he recorded hits like "Garden Party" and toured the international festival circuit along with the bands of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Settling here in 1978, Carless disappeared from the music scene, reemerging in the '90s as a WSHA DJ. Today he spreads musical awareness by producing a reggae festival in Greenville, touring with various reunion projects, and fronting his critically acclaimed roots reggae band The Posse.
Best R&B/Soul Group
Mosadi Music features the vocal styling of poet Shirlette Ammons, whose sound professes the "get up, get involved notion of '60s soul." Throwing down the grooves are drummer Stephen Levitin (The Apple Juice Kid), Mighty Burners bassist Nic Slaton and guitarist Chris Boerner.
If Who's Bad? wasn't a Michael Jackson tribute band, it would probably be a local jazz supergroup--bound and determined to set the scene on fire with a handful of musicians that met half a decade ago through Chapel Hill's jazz program (Matt McCaughan, Ray McCall, Vamsi Tadepelli) and the acid-wash stylings of Raleigh guitar phenom Chris Boerner. As is, though, Who's Bad? is the ultimate party waiting to happen, taking airtight and allegiant turns at 28 of the highpoints in Jackson's three-decade career, with a special emphasis on the '80s dance magic. Taalib York's vocal posturing is as impeccable as the band's precision. Maybe the closest you'll ever get to The King of Pop live.
For more than 38 years, Durham's Bobby Hinton has entertained audiences all over the world. As a member of the U.S. Army USO Show, he traveled for over 20 years entertaining troops from Vietnam to Europe, where he worked with The O-Jays, Bobby Womack, The Impressions and others.
He took a 10 year hiatus from music after retiring from the military and then returned to the stage in 1991 with a fresh set of tunes.
Best Jazz Group/Artist
Countdown Quartet formed in 1998 and has been laying down their New Orleans inspired horn, drum and keyboard blends in various, but always hot, incarnations since. Led by trombone master Dave Wright and bass player Steve Grothman, the "quartet" still relies on hot horns and funky beats to keep the party moving.
Vocalist Eve Cornelius is doing much more than following in the footsteps of jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Though she's toured Europe, Japan and Cuba and played at festivals like Monterey, Montreaux and Newport, she's made a big contribution back home. Last month she took to the stage in Raleigh at a concert in honor of Brother Yusuf, and she continues to teach jazz vocals at East Carolina University.
Grammy winner, world-renown saxophonist Branford Marsalis is, shall we say, very well-known outside of this area, where he's lived since 2002. But the New Orleans native and member of one of that town's bedrock music families hasn't been a stranger to the Triangle since moving here. He's taught sessions at Duke, played a host of concerts, benefits and free campus shows, and does most of his recording work in the basement of his Durham home.
Nnenna Freelon has been making records since the early '90s, and though at first she was perhaps too often compared to Sarah Vaughan, she's shown that she can stretch out into adventurous spaces--from simple trio pieces to intense orchestration.
Best Gospel Group/Artist
Landy Void started practicing his craft at an early age with older brother Billy, eventually bringing brother Larry and his nephews into the group. Other than a brief venture into rock when he was in the armed service in the '70s ("I did Al Green covers--did a little James Brown thing when J.B. came out with 'Hot Pants,'"), he's always sung gospel. He's been the pastor of the New Shiloh Holiness Church for the past 15 years, one of three careers he juggles. As well as bandleader and pastor, Void is also a zoning enforcement officer for the City of Durham, a position he took after nine years with the Durham Police Department.
Void has a commanding presence in person and onstage. The Pickett-style scream he unleashes has unsettled many an act unlucky enough to have to follow him. But there's nothing secular about Void's joyful noises--he's bound to the roots of old-time gospel. "Traditional gospel has an identity. It identifies you with your life in Christ," the pastor says. "We chose to keep it there."
Capital City Five
At 79, Brother James Thomas is considered the youngest of Raleigh's Capital City Five. He's only been with the group 50 years, he explains, arriving 10 years after the group was founded. For years, Thomas and the Capital City Five were a mainstay of gospel radio in the Triangle.
Though they used to sing with a musical accompaniment, they're now all a capella with a style of performing spirituals similar to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
Skeeter Brandon and Friends
Skeeter is a legend. He is a man of a million songs and will tailor his show to what the situation calls for. Work has been very slow for Skeeter as health issues have prevented him from traveling. He has played some of the most prestigious festivals and clubs in the East as well as several tours of Europe. In short, Skeeter is a cat that should be famous ... but hasn't had the luck to push him over the edge. It's Good To Go can be found online at www.skeeterbrandon.com.
Best Blues Artist
Cool John Ferguson
The son of a Gullah mother, John Ferguson was born off the South Carolina coast in 1953. He was a prolific musician throughout adolescence, appearing on Charleston television in a family gospel group, playing hundreds of church services and forming an integrated late-'60s psychedelic band before finishing high school. He toured with tent revivals across the South for years, followed by session work with Atlanta's LaFace Records. He moved to North Carolina in 1995 to become the MusicMaker Relief Foundation's Director of Creative Development. Taj Mahal has called Cool John "one of the five greatest guitarists I've heard in my career."
John Dee Holeman
John Dee is an excellent storyteller. He entertains not only with his voice but also with his dance. At age 75, Holeman is among the last of Durham's great blues songsters. A veteran of rent parties, liquor houses and backyard barbecues (not to mention international tours, folk and blues festivals and Carnegie Hall performances), John's soulful voice and tasteful guitar have won him both National Endowment for the Arts and North Carolina Heritage awards.
Armand Lencheck has been playing the blues since the late 1970s, working with Skeeter Brandon, Nappy Brown, Five Guys Named Moe, the Alkaphonics and others. He's also been a long-time guitar teacher. His new CD is Too Much Is Just Enough.