About a year ago, Julia Roberts was a guest on Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio. Near the end of the show, craggy host James Lipton put her through his standard 20 Questions routine, profound stuff like, "What's your favorite curse word?" When Lipton asked Roberts what she eventually hoped to hear upon approaching the gates of Saint Peter, she hesitated for a moment. Then she smiled that famous, million-dollar ray of toothiness. Her response was one word: "Welcome."
Welcome. It's one of the most comforting words in the English language and a notion that perennially creeps into pop culture, in alternately inviting and threatening ways. Welcome to the dollhouse. Welcome to my nightmare. Welcome to the terrordome. Welcome to my world. Welcome to the machine. Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.
Everyone, even the most resolute misanthrope, wants to feel welcomed somewhere. In fact, it's one of the strange quirks of the human ego that even if you don't want to attend a party, once you're not invited, you suddenly feel that your life will be incomplete if you don't go. It's easy to see that frats and all such exclusive clubs were just human inventions designed to make some people feel special by making others feel unworthy.
The inevitable downside of a big shebang like the New Times Music Awards Showcase--now in its third year, and still growing--is that by including many musicians, it excludes others; that by welcoming a host of worthy bands, it unwittingly may leave many other worthy bands feeling unwelcome. It's a gripe often heard about South by Southwest and all the other like-minded music gatherings. For that matter, it's an issue that award shows like the Grammys and Oscars get ripped for every year.
It's particularly problematic for something like the Music Awards Showcase, though, because something that's meant to celebrate the best of local music should never feel like some kind of exclusive gathering. For those bands not part of this year's showcase, it's important to remember that the process of putting together a lineup is bound to be a flawed, subjective one, limited by structure and circumstance.
For one thing, there's the need to cover all the genre bases. Of course, at any given time, one genre or another will be top-heavy with talent. For instance, if there are a dozen great metal bands playing in local clubs right now, some will get screwed just because there aren't enough slots for that particular category. Besides, no list of 52 acts could ever hope to present a complete picture of the Valley's music.
For another, a few outstanding bands always end up having to bow out of the showcase because of some major scheduling conflicts. Since early spring is a hot time for jazz festivals, that genre tends to get hit hardest.
Lastly, the showcase tries, as much as possible, to focus on artists not yet signed to national labels. Of course, necessity demands a few exceptions, and occasionally a band will get signed between selection time and the actual day of the showcase. On purely artistic terms, the showcase would benefit from the inclusion of such "ringers" as Jimmy Eat World, Trunk Federation or Phunk Junkeez. But we think the showcase best fulfills its intent when the scope remains smaller. And besides, there are more than enough unsigned bands from which to build an excellent lineup.
Ultimately, it's best to look at the Music Awards Showcase as an excuse to have a great time, to use your $5 wristband as a ticket to ride across a wildly diverse cross section of the Valley's finest music. For local music aficionados, it's a chance to catch some of your favorites in heady and eclectic company; for the neophytes, it's a Cliff's Notes to the local scene, a pleasurable crash course on who's making noise in the clubs. You can argue with friends about which band should get the nod at the ballot box, but hopefully you'll also notice that for an area rarely lauded in national circles as a center of activity, the Valley is teeming with good music.
One development that will be increasingly clear at this year's showcase is that much of the area's most intriguing music is cross-pollinating musical styles to the point where genre categories become futile. Consider the genre-bending of a band like Bldg 5: It leaps from deep funk to roof-raising metal, all over the course of a single song!
Similarly, groups like Bionic Jive and Cousins of the Wize could easily trade categories, and no one would be the ill for it. And Left of Center, true to its name, filters so many influences through its system that it landed in the reggae category through an imperfect process of elimination. Even the bold, jazzy improvisation of Lookout for Hope strays pretty far from common perceptions of jazz, and is grouped in that category for the sake of pure convenience: Where else ya gonna put 'em? One of the Valley's up-and-coming bands goes so far as to incorporate such jumbled, postmodern aesthetics into its very name: Dislocated Styles.
Perhaps in this era of media overload and easy-access sampling--where a Beck can keep one foot in the folk camp while dabbling with hip-hop beats and jargon--musical styles are simply being blurred into complex hybrids.
Futurists will be gratified by the continuing DJ presence at the showcase. Even if so-called "electronica" has been ill-served by the hyperactive bandwagon-jumping of a music media scouring the planet for something new under the sun, dance music has become an unavoidable fact of life in the late '90s. Techno is unlikely ever to take over pop music in the way that some predicted in the dizzying early months of last year, but--like hip-hop--it is changing, and will continue to change, both the way we move and the way our ears process sonic information. There's simply no going back. As a wise man once said, you can't unring a bell.
For the traditionalists out there who are a little leery of this rave new world, the showcase will be long on time-honored pleasures. If you dig both kinds of music--country and western--you can catch everything from the dark narratives of The Revenants to the punchy honky-tonk of The Cartwheels, or get your twang with an Irish accent from the Keltic Cowboys. Likewise, the Modern Rock category features a diverse lot, from solid power-pop veterans like The Jennys to campy young hotshots like Les Payne Product.
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In the end, diversity really is the glory of this underrated music scene. Though some outsiders may cling to their image of the Valley as the home of jangly guitar popsters created in the mold of the Gin Blossoms, that depiction is about as narrow and out-of-date as branding Seattle a den of grunge, or Austin the bastion of outlaw country. The Valley's extreme eclecticism may stand in its way when it comes to national recognition, but it's a much better indicator of long-term vitality than a tiny movement that shines brightly, induces a backlash, and flames out in a couple of years.
So, catch your favorite bands at the showcase, but roll the dice a bit, too. If the Valley's music can only be fully appreciated as a diverse whole, then this is a rare chance to get the full monty. So have a good time. And, oh, yeah, welcome.
--Gilbert Garcia, New Times music editor