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SF Weekly Music Awards 2003

Americana DJ/Selector/Turntablist Electronic/Electro Hard Rock/

Metal Hip Hop/Rap Jazz Latin/

International Lifestyle Music New Genre/Beyond Pop Punk Rock/Indie Rock Soul/Funk/ R&B 

If music be the brandy of the damned, then we're drunk off our asses

Comments
Ten years ago, when I was first asked to help out with SF Weekly's local music awards, I thought there had been some kind of mistake. I was the hung-over girl with ringing ears who answered phones, dodged skateboards, and proofed club ads in the paper's lobby, hardly an assistant producer for an awards ceremony. But the SF Weekly Music Awards, then called the Wammies, already had a history of sturdy irreverence and hangdog foolishness. Conceived by Jeff Diamond, Ann Powers, and Brian Raffi to be the antithesis of the slick and shiny Bay Area Music Awards, which honored the same handful of big-label artists year after year, the SF Weekly Music Awards set out to reflect the local music scene as it really sounded. In 1994, the same year Chris Isaak was honored with three Bammies and Carlos Santana with one of a career 10, our ceremony was hosted by Cory McAbee of the Billy Nayer Show; our presenters got drunk, dropped the microphone, and nearly lost their tits; and Tarnation, Tribe 8, and the Charlie Hunter Trio walked away winners. It was exciting and sweet and silly.

Some things have changed since then: The Bammies grew up and became the California Music Awards, SF Weekly was sold to New Times, and New Times said I could write instead of answer phones. But, through it all, I've continued to work on the SF Weekly Music Awards. I haven't always known why -- I must admit, without the Bammies as an adversary, SFWMA feels more and more like a contest between working musicians rather than an argument for them -- but I have always relished the opportunity to throw a big party for the people who make my life feel like one. And truth be told, over the last few years, I've realized something else I like about the ceremony: Having all those musicians, from all those disparate musical worlds, in one room together is sexy as hell.

Speaking of hell, that's our theme for this year, not because we're all going there in a handbasket, but because you know Satan has one hell of a house band, and the Land of Dis is the most natural destination for all devoted hedonists and lovers of loud music and live stage shows. This year also marks the last I will be involved -- without provocation or invitation, I have decided to set off for less lovely but more compelling climes -- so a warm, fiery farewell seemed fitting. Thank you for letting me be a part of your lives. I love you madly.

As George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "Music is the brandy of the damned." Let's get wasted. -- Silke Tudor

Award Show Nominees

Americana

Jesse DeNatale

Mixing soulful vocals with drifting acoustic arrangements, telling tales of everyday life and yesterday's love, soft-spoken bard Jesse DeNatale follows some of the same backwoods musical lanes that Van Morrison traveled in his years in Marin County. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell also hover nearby as patron saints, but DeNatale's music remains personal and distinctive, his raspy, weathered voice revealing a life lived hard, while his allusive, nostalgia-drenched lyrics convey the value he places on embracing life with all its quirky ups and downs.

DeNatale's debut album, Shangri-La West, released on the local independent Jackpine Social Club label, boasts rich, deep production, with hypnotic, droning riffs that transport listeners to the quieter side of the Americana landscape. Live, DeNatale tends to play solo and exhibits the same sort of entrancing emotion that is showcased on Shangri-La West, and that has gained him praise from roots music luminaries such as Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Tom Waits. Gigging constantly and finishing a follow-up album, DeNatale compares the joy and challenges of recording to having children: "It's just like having kids," he said in an interview given earlier this year. "You give [it] all this stuff, and make sure it's got this and that, a coat and everything, so that when you send it out there, it can survive. You want it to be strong, because once it's out the door, you're not going to have any control over it. ... But you also hope it can make you proud." With a nomination for an SF Weekly Music Award arriving right on its heels, you could say that Shangri-La West is DeNatale's perfect little musical honor student.

Mark Growden

California native Mark Growden takes the Bay Area's cultural ethos of inclusion and eclecticism to pleasant extremes. With a background in performance art and film, Growden moved into music with a loosely formed agenda that merges acoustic roots music with art rock and avant-garde experimentalism. As comfortable with the rambling explorations of Sun Ra and Meredith Monk as the rootsy traditionalism of the modern Americana scene, Growden brings to mind a sinister blend of Richard Thompson and Tom Waits; his live shows feature him wailing in an indefinable Mediterranean/Balkan/klezmer style one moment, then brooding in the corner, literally tearing apart paper the next. Performing on modified accordions, saxophones, banjos, and homemade novelties such as the canjo and the amplified cactus (as well as everyday objects that happen to fall into his grasp), Growden shows a relentless, searching intelligence, which perhaps explains his efforts to push roots music to its boundaries: He wants to see what happens when the walls start to bend. His performances, particularly with his genre-imploding Electric Piñata ensemble, reveal an attraction to improvisational noise as well as incandescent, beautiful ballads. His independently owned, Berkeley-based label, Wiggle Biscuit Records, is also home to local avantniks such as Scott Amendola and Myles Boisen, along with various other musical cohorts. Evocative, dark, and challenging, Growden's approach to music and performance indicates that there's still plenty of life left in the Bay Area's new-music scene.

Jolie Holland

Multi-instrumentalist and enigmatic lyricist Jolie Holland mixes blues, folk, soul, gospel, and world music with soul-searching poetry, giving her live shows and her self-produced album, Catalpa, a mysterious, almost impenetrable aura. In an era when radio listeners are expected to subsist on bland, easy-to-swallow pop, Holland offers dense, complex music that definitely takes some time to chew on and digest. The Texas-born songsmith plays fiddle, accordion, ukulele, guitar, and whatever else comes in handy, while singing in a spooky, atmospheric style that draws on a wide range of influences, yet defies easy categorization. Holland's eclectic touch may be familiar to fans of her old band, the now-famous Be Good Tanyas, which she helped found while living in Vancouver in the '90s. The Tanyas opted for a relatively accessible pop-Americana style, but Holland's work has a darker hue, and draws not only on her own experiences, but also on literary sources such as Zora Neale Hurston and poet W.B. Yeats. While continuing to work on new records, Holland prefers to steer listeners to her live shows (including her work with the amorphous, improvisational ensemble Little Boris & the Shoes), which capture her full emotional power and theatrical range. In both incarnations, live and on disc, Holland has left a distinctive stamp on the local acoustic music scene.

DJ/Selector/Turntablist

DJ Vinnie Esparza

In a town that's packed with nimble-fingered scratch masters, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that deep crates and good taste can get you just as far as circus-sideshow vinyl manipulation. DJ Vinnie Esparza may not be laying down the "wikki-wikki" with his left ass cheek anytime soon, but his preposterously varied collection of wax and impeccable gift for selection rarely fail to rock the party.

A 10-year turntable veteran, Esparza got his start spinning on the radio in Santa Cruz before making the move to the Bay Area and hitting the clubs. Where many DJs find a niche genre and stick to it exclusively, Esparza's expertise covers a broad band of the global sound spectrum. Over the course of a typical set, you'll find b-boys body-rocking to obscure hip hop, salseros swinging hard to Latin boogaloo, spliffed-out reggae fans nodding to echo-laden dub, and party people drunkenly throwing down to crowd-pleasing funk nuggets. In addition to regularly tag-teaming on sound systems at the Hush Hush ("Loose Booty" and "New Conception"), the Elbo Room (a monthly residency at "Dub Mission"), and Milk ("Hella Tight") with such luminaries as Soulsalaam and Asti Spumanti, Esparza has turned his keen ear toward spreading sonic wealth to the masses as one of the principals behind Dis-Joint/Re-Joint Records. Founded with Groove Merchant proprietor "Cool Chris" Veltri in 2000, the label recently issued its first compilation of dusty gems and newly minted dance-floor fillers titled Dis-Jointed: 10 Heavy Duty Sure Shot Selections.

DJ Mark Farina

Few DJs personify San Francisco's house music scene like Mark Farina. Raised in Chicago, where the genre first took shape, Farina lived and bonded over house, Detroit techno, and new wave with fellow music fanatic DJ Derrick Carter. As Carter got busy reviving the Chi-town house club scene after its late-'80s slump, Farina injected the music's relentless thump with his broad-minded mix aesthetic, which encompassed jazz, funk, and uptempo hip hop. A visit to San Francisco with Carter convinced Farina that the West Coast was the best place to develop his style, which he had refined in both his popular Mushroom Jazz mix-tape series and later as an even more popular CD series by the same name for local label Om Records. Starting in 1992, Farina solidified his S.F. following with his weekly "Mushroom Jazz" club night, which fed off the acid-jazz mood of the city and drew packed crowds for most of its three-year run. Since then, he has been consistently touring the globe and releasing mix-CDs on Om, like San Francisco Sessions Vol. 1 and Connect, the latter of which balances the deep and sunny S.F. vibe with the funky club sound of his hometown. Air Farina, his debut artist album, which hits the streets this month, reflects Farina's hip hop and Chicago-friendly take on S.F. house, and features guests like local house producer Kaskade and old-school hip-hoppers People Under the Stairs.

DJ Sep

In the Bay Area, there aren't too many DJs who have the scope, ambition, and drive of Sep Ghadishah, otherwise known as DJ Sep. As an artist, label owner, and club promoter as well as radio and club DJ, Ghadishah has transfigured the traditional DJ role of simply playing records with her brand of diverse musical activism. Local reggae fans wizened enough to remember what Sunday nights in San Francisco were like before Labor Day 1996 give thanks and praise to Ghadishah for starting the club night "Dub Mission" at the Elbo Room. Over the past seven years, Ghadishah, along with her crew of DJs (including award winners like Vinnie Esparza and J-Boogie), has transformed a virtually barren evening at the venue into a dub-lover's weekend delight. She's hosted neo-dub figures like Tino Corp, Ben Wa, and Dr. Israel, as well as dub forefathers Mad Professor and Adrian Sherwood. As co-producer of the compilation Babylon Is Ours: The USA in Dub (on Germany's Select Cuts label), she exposed the bounty of American dub talent to the world. Ghadishah's involvement in the city's world-music scene is no less impressive, with residencies and guest spots on nights like "Noor" with DJ Cheb i Sabbah and the South Asian night "Dhamaal," along with programming and promotions duties for the S.F. World Music Festival. On top of all that, Ghadishah's been the opening spinner of choice for everyone from Zap Mama to Kill the Robots, a range that speaks volumes about her diverse turntable repertoire.

Electronic/Electro

Gravy Train!!!!

Although the pop world has learned to love 2 Live Crew's stupid sexuality, J.J. Fad's dumb cuteness, and the early B-52's synth silliness, most listeners are simply not ready for the poly-perverse love child of all three, otherwise known as Gravy Train!!!! If you haven't heard of this filthy-minded foursome, well, it's most likely because you value good taste. Made up of pudgy MC Chunx, Casio beat-maker Funx, and vocalists/dancers Drunx and Hunx (the group's sole male, er, member), Gravy Train!!!! has made a name for itself as the city's only mega-lo-fi novelty band that addresses every sexual subject you thought was wrong to even think about. Its four-song Menz EP from 2001 and debut album, Hello Doctor (released this year on the vaunted Kill Rock Stars label), comprise a portrait of four people who've achieved the impossible: making unrepentant songs about cruising Catholic schools and giving birth to hamburgers actually sound cute. Of the band's live repertoire, the tune that usually gets GT!!!! audiences howling is "You Made Me Gay," which explicitly chronicles the apparently true story of Chunx's conversion of the formerly straight Hunx. But more ribald than the narrative itself is the near-nightmarish visual of a tall, lanky man in pink hot pants and a fuzzy-bear hat spitting rhymes over plinking keyboard beats as he is virtually sodomized by his bandmate's microphone. It's shtick like this that keeps Gravy Train!!!! in that must-see-to-believe category of San Francisco's music scene.

I Am Spoonbender

Dustin Donaldson, Cup, Kevin Farkas, and Marc Kate make up the otherworldly avant-pop quartet I Am Spoonbender, a band that, since 1997, has challenged mainstream music's status quo (as well as the paradigms of natural order and the occult) with thought- provoking electronic experiments. The group's do-it-yourself approach covers everything from releasing its own records to creating all the electric sounds in its tunes (as opposed to using widespread, ready-made patches), an ethic that has been influential on other electronic musicians in the Bay Area in recent years.

Named after the telekinetic powers of Uri Geller, the band shares a common thread with the great literary minds of magical realism. Above all, the group strives to draw attention to and point out the possible beauty of the small details in life that are often taken for granted, as well as those overarching issues that concern us all. In I Am Spoonbender's universe, this goal comes alive in multiple dimensions, with and without words, and indelibly tied to technology. Vocals, bass, and drums meet with the band's primary instrumental palette, synthesizers (each member plays one in some manner or another), yet I Am Spoonbender is far from being some kind of new-wave revival band, the likes of which are all too common in today's musical landscape. In fact, as explained on its Web site, one of the band's strongest stances is "to NOT capitalize on the younger generation's lack of access to the music that's come before." A high-minded experimental pop band with a conscience? Yup.

Realistic Orchestra

So, how does a band that features a horn section, a vibraphone, clarinets, and various other instruments you haven't seen since high school band days wind up in the Electronic/Electro category? Well, for one thing, it helps that one of the Bay Area's hottest young turntablists, DJ Aspect, is a regular member. It also helps that the bandleader -- in this case, one Adam Theis -- spends just as much time noodling with his electronic loop thingy as he does raising a trombone to his lips. Actually, every prominent member of Realistic Orchestra -- from vibraphonist Michael Emenau to drummer Eric Garland to saxophonist Joe Cohen -- also doubles on an electronic loop thingy. While the band flashes more brass than Bed, Bath & Beyond, it also includes enough laptops to stock a struggling dot-com. It's a strange confluence of sounds and styles, and in lesser hands than those of the earnest and enthusiastic Theis, it would all go down in a crash of hard drives and ugly chords. But through sheer energy and emotion, Realistic Orchestra somehow pulls it off. Live shows at Bruno's (where the band is a weekly fixture) even find the group blending in rappers and beatbox artists, guest guitarists, and dancing bears. All right, we made up the part about the dancing bears, but it wouldn't surprise us at all if Theis seamlessly worked in a refugee from a Russian circus. This is a band with firm roots in the kind of boogie-woogie swing your mama (or even grandmama) got down to, as Realistic pays tribute to past masters like Ellington, Mingus, and Miles. That it does so while constantly pushing the groove to just this side of a manic, free-form rave makes the band uniquely at home in the electronic category.

Hard Rock/Metal

Hammers of Misfortune

Is the weather too sunny for you? Are you looking for something to combat the bright cheer your friends have been exuding lately? Well, search no further. A bubbling cauldron full of dark imagery, brooding acoustic balladry, and raucous guitar drama, Hammers of Misfortune updates the spooky, riff-rock legacy previously upheld by Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.

This month, Cruz Del Sur Music released the band's epic sophomore effort, The August Engine, an animated and passionate traversing of metal and rock and a clever follow-up to the group's 2001 debut full-length, The Bastard. That album, which is now sadly out of print, told the tale of a bastard prince raised in the wilderness and reared by a dragon to slay the cruel king who left him for dead. Miserably, the boy-king learns all too late the true nature of his birth, and the prophecy is fulfilled to the doom of humankind. Patricide, regicide, genocide, talking tree armies, legions of trolls, singing axes, and the Prince of Lies. Dante should have been so lucky.

Ludicra

Featuring members of Hammers of Misfortune, Fölcainö, Impaled, Ominum, and Slough Feg, Ludicra will inebriate you with the strongest of rock concoctions. Launched over huge walls of heavy sonic brick, the vocals of Laurie Sue Shanaman and Christy Cather are pure evil -- we're talking the-cast-of-The Exorcist-battle-royal kind of evil. As heard on the band's debut for the label Life Is Abuse, 2002's Hollow Psalms, the two singers scream, shout, and spew their tales of sinning, fleecing, bleeding, graves, and dirt without ever surfacing for air. That's all fine, you might think, but screaming alone does not make the metal, right? Right indeed. Cather plays an evil guitar as well. She and guitarist John Cobbett crunch, chunk, and shred for miles, only occasionally slowing down for creepy tangents that evoke eerie walks through devil-infested woods. Add that to the mix of driving bass lines from the aptly named Ross Sewage and spastic skin-beating compliments of drummer Aesop, and you've got yourself some of the heaviest black metal this side of Tolkien. The group's very own list of influences -- names like Mudvayne, Rob Zombie, Lollipop Lust Kill, Jack Off Jill, and Cephalic Carnage -- should give you an idea of what you're dealing with.

Thunderbleed A.K.A. Blind Vengeance

On the Web site for Thunderbleed A.K.A. Blind Vengeance -- www.geocities.com/thunderbleed/ -- guitarist Gary Galileo lists his favorite new music as "Betty by Helmet and anything by Tool, but most everything else sucks, especially techno." That's the exegesis of the 'bleed right there: Totally stuck in the past (Betty came out in 1994) and unrepentantly rockin' your face. This East Bay powerhouse formed in 1998, making the most of unfortunate circumstances. Before a picnic show in El Sobrante, Blind Vengeance lead singer Jem Powerhouse was rendered unconscious by a football. Determined to go on, guitarist Arnold "Action" Jackson and drummer Doug Pooch played their entire set instrumentally -- much to the displeasure of the crowd, which threw several chili dogs. One member of the audience was blown away, however: Mike Corely, who had been playing bass for speed-metal outfit Thunderbleed since 1996, when he'd been "released" by the Army. Corely's band -- which also included Galileo -- had just broken up, thanks to singer Artie Munx's old lady getting pregnant. After the picnic, Corely approached Pooch and Jackson and set up a heavy-metal throwdown. The foursome clicked quicker than you can drink a case of Schlitz, with Corely and Pooch locking into a rhythm faster than a mastiff on a prowler's leg, and Jackson and Galileo nearly starting a house fire with their explosive riffing. All the band needed was a name. Hoping to combine their two past monikers (à la Guns N' Roses), the musicians tried out Blind Bleed and Thunder Vengeance on Corely's mom, but she wasn't having it. Settling on the current appellation, the group began playing backyard barbecues and Hells Angels dances -- "Anywhere there was cheap beer and hot women," says Corely. As the 'bleed scored bigger and bigger gigs -- opening for Pat Travers at the Pine Street Grill in Livermore, headlining the Outhouse in Los Gatos -- Pooch quit his job teaching drums at Dan's Music (near Arby's on Airport Road in Oakland) and Galileo got himself a bitchin' 1974 Pontiac Grand Prix ("With tape deck!" he says). Somehow, combining the boogie thunder of Mountain with the speedy crunch of Judas Priest and the lecherous wink of Van Halen, the 'bleed delivers a heavy-metal cocktail that'll knock you on your ass. And just in case you think these boys are too pretty, Pooch quotes the Crüe's Vince Neil: "Just because I wear lipstick doesn't mean I can't kick your ass."

Hip Hop/Rap

Crown City Rockers

Formed under the name Mission: in 1998 during jam sessions and classes at Boston's Berklee College of Music, Crown City Rockers came to Oakland a couple of years later to contribute to the Bay Area's decade-long tradition of live hip hop bands. Along with groups like Felonious, 75 Degrees, and the New Dealers, the Rockers have brought a unique, East Coast energy to the scene, powered by a reverence for the style and ethic of old-school hip hop. The Rockers back up the conscious lyrics of MC Raashan Ahmad with dead-funky instrumentals, powered by keyboardist Kat Ouano and bassist Headnodic, that are as tight as any looped-beat arrangement. One listen to One, the group's debut album from a couple of years ago as Mission:, clarifies the quintet's humanist direction. Tunes with rhymes that alternately call out pimp-wannabe MCs and testify to the struggles of a well-meaning absentee father share space with a running roll-call of hip hop heroes. For many of the Rockers' fans, though, it's about the live show, which they've taken from here to Sarajevo, opening for luminaries like Talib Kweli and Common. Onstage, these cats are about celebrating what has become America's most potent folk music and perhaps even rescuing it from total bling-bling commodification. Even though they've had to relinquish their previous moniker to some British has-been goth band, the Crown City Rockers are still on that mission.

Hieroglyphics

Friends since grade school, Oakland's Hieroglyphics crew (Domino, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Pep Love, Casual, and Souls of Mischief members A-Plus, Tajai, Phesto, and Opio) has captured the spirit of the worldwide independent hip hop movement for over a decade with its buttery beats and witty rhymes. Disillusioned by the realm of major labels, which they had many dealings with over the years, and disconnected from mainstream outlets (particularly radio and cable channels), the men of Hieroglyphics developed a truly original business plan in the mid-'90s, exemplified by their local imprint, Hiero Imperium. In addition to reaching out to find fans on the Internet (one of the first hip hop acts to put its faith in the medium), the crew set out on a grueling grind of endless live shows. Today, thanks in no small part to Hiero's pioneering work, indie hip hop has a thriving live circuit and the Internet is a widespread tool.

As driven musicians, it just doesn't cut it for Hieroglyphics to simply be flashy, to spit a few catchy bars and cash that fleeting paycheck for some shiny baubles. Intelligence and a social conscience are just as important: "This ain't Fantasy Island," is the proclamation on a song off their latest, Full Circle. In a fickle hip hop marketplace, it's a challenge to create music that stands the test of time, yet the members of this group have done just that. Perhaps they really do have that third eye depicted in their famous, iconic logo.

Zion I

Producer Amp Live and MC Zion met at Atlanta's Morehouse College in the early '90s, where they formed a group with three friends. That group, Metafour, was signed to the illustrious Tommy Boy, though Amp and Zion bowed out before an album could be released, citing creative differences with the label. Since settling in the Bay Area and forming the Zion I duo, they've faced additional business hurdles that have stalled their creative output. Luckily, however, the act has never given up, and to our ultimate enjoyment these collisions of art and business have only fueled its need to connect with a community and avoid making standard-issue hip hop.

The duo's 1999 debut album, Mind Over Matter, polarized people in the underground hip hop community with its use of drum 'n' bass rhythms on some of the songs, turning certain purists off while simultaneously engaging the ear of a diverse electronic-music audience. That album's follow-up, Deep Water Slang V2.0, is an updated version of a record initially delayed for two years due to the collapse of Zion I's former label. But despite the holdup, even these cuts sound fresher than many of the songs stuck in terminal rotation on your favorite commercial hip hop radio station. Over the years, Amp has also come into his own as a skilled beat-maker, contributing to albums from critically acclaimed local artists Goapele and Mystic. These days, relatively free of label drama (Zion I recently released its third full-length, Curb Servin', on Raptivism), this mainstay of local concerts and parties is sounding stronger than ever -- and it's not done by a long shot.

Jazz

Dave Ellis

Local tenor saxophone player Dave Ellis has taken a fairly circuitous route to his current position as one of the most respected young jazz musicians in the Bay Area. Graduating in 1985 from the same fruitful Berkeley High School program that produced fellow saxophonists Peter Apfelbaum and Joshua Redman and pianist Benny Green, Ellis moved to Boston to further his studies at the Berklee College of Music.

After earning a degree in music production, Ellis returned to the bay and fell in with what was arguably the most important group emerging from the area's new jazz movement, the Charlie Hunter Trio, which teamed the saxophonist with drum powerhouse Jay Lane and seven-string guitar phenom Hunter in a venture that married heady improvisation with propulsive grooves equally influenced by funk and hip hop. The trio's extended residency at the Elbo Room gradually became a standing-room-only affair, bringing jazz to a predominantly young San Francisco audience, likely for the first time since the bebop era. After three acclaimed albums with Hunter, Ellis followed Lane to become one of Bob Weir's Ratdog cohorts in 1996, while also making his debut recording as a leader, Raven, for the Monarch label.

The saxophonist's stints with Ratdog and Grateful Dead related offshoot the Other Ones gave Ellis a freewheeling platform for improvisation and excellent exposure, but his heart remained true to traditional jazz. Today, under the tutelage of mentor and famed Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews (who helmed the artist's latest album, State of Mind), Ellis has a chance to develop into one of the finest tenor players of his generation.

Babatunde Lea

If you've ever stopped to dig the regular percussion jam sessions that take place in Golden Gate Park, with congas and bongos and tambourines popping and shaking on a warm afternoon, you owe it to yourself to check out the music of one of the original park jamsters, Babatunde Lea. Lea was 11 years old when he saw Nigerian master percussionist Babatunde Olatunji and his "Drums of Passion." "The drums were speaking straight to my heart," Lea writes on his label's Web site (www.motema.com), "and they've never stopped since." The young drummer had already learned the congas and caught soul acts at New York's famous Apollo Theater before moving west in the late '60s and taking part in the burgeoning jam-session scene in the park. During the '70s, he went on to record with jazz and pop luminaries such as Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, and Van Morrison, before putting out a debut album in 1979 titled Levels of Consciousness. Since then, it's been a long, patient process of honing and refining his sound, which integrates traditional jazz harmonics and chord progressions with native groove. Lea's music is similar to the precise and polished African rhythms that Leon Parker brought to his own and pianist Jacky Terrason's trios during the '90s, but Lea takes it even further in the Afro-Caribbean direction, integrating Latin and Brazilian beats into his tunes. Soul Pools, Lea's new album on Motema, finds him weaving those fat rhythms in and out of chunky horn arrangements and the occasional vocal, with a cast of musicians surrounding him whose combined pedigrees read like a who's who of jazz history.

Married Couple

While most musicians in the local jazz scene tend to be as promiscuous as Vince Neil in a Nevada brothel, hopping from gig to gig with no idea whom they'll be playing with next or even what kind of music they'll be playing, the four people who make up this Married Couple have chosen, as their name implies, a rare kind of fidelity, not only to each other, but also to a kind of music that's rarely heard these days, and even more rarely done well: a mélange of melody that can be seamlessly taken up by any of the players at any given time, as the band drifts from the carefully composed to the completely improvised, never losing sight of the melody, or of each other. Also unusual is the band's instrumentation: Drummer Jason Levis and contrabassist Lisa Mezzacappa provide snappy, quirky rhythms that clearly show pop and classical influences while not veering too close to either, but instead of the usual chordal instrument that one might expect, Married Couple features Jonah Minton on tenor sax and Rob Ewing on trombone. This calls to mind classic '60s ensembles led by Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean; it frees the band to stretch and pull a tune among the various players without the constraints of the typical "comping" of a piano or guitar. Also thankfully left out are indulgent, interminable solos -- this band enjoys playing together, and the members simply have too much to say as an ensemble to let any one instrument take over for too long. Instead, they bicker back and forth, talk, sing, and work out their shared musical problems like -- well, like any good married couple should.

Latin/International

Bat Makumba

The healthy contingent of capoeiristas and samba dance troupes in the Bay Area sets the bar pretty high for local bands dealing out Brazilian vibes. If you can't provide a relentlessly percussive cocktail of hip-shaking sounds that will force those in attendance to make a club's walls slick with condensed sweat, you may as well not apply. San Francisco outfit Bat Makumba not only prods Braziliophiles to energy levels that make spontaneous combustion on the dance floor a very real possibility, it also does so with mostly original songs rather than well-executed covers of bahia classics.

Inspired by traditional forms from the South American nation as well as by the more modern contributions of tropicalia-era legends Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso (the group takes its name from a CV song), and Jorge Ben, Bat Makumba introduces elements of funk, rock, and reggae to a variety of Brazilian styles, crafting an irresistibly danceable mélange. The creative nucleus of guitarist/vocalist Alex Koberle, bassist Carl Remde, and percussionist Emiliano Benevides formed in 2000, gradually building a loyal audience that has afforded the band a monthly gig at the Elbo Room and a spot on the main stage of this year's San Francisco Carnaval celebration. Augmented at live shows by additional musicians and frequent collaborations with batucada drummers, Bat Makumba's performances deliver an ecstatic intensity that may be as close to a night out in Rio as one can get without a 16-hour plane ride. This year, Bat Makumba self-released its eponymous debut to uniformly positive reviews.

Mas Cabeza

Listen to the traditional Spanish vocal intro and standard Latin rhythm that opens "Descarga Mas Cabeza," the first cut off Mas Cabeza's debut album, E=Mas Cabeza2, and you might just dismiss it as a generic effort by another San Francisco Latin band. But once leader Patrick Morehead slashes into the proceedings with his badass psychedelic organ sound, you realize something different is on tap here.

Formed in 2001, Mas Cabeza combines the melodies of Morehead and bassist Ezra Gale with the rhythms of two of the area's finest Latin percussionists, congero Alan Rivera and drummer Pepe Jacobo, to round off its Frank Zappa-battles-Eddie Palmieri sound. By conveniently crossing from Latin into jam-band territory without pandering to typical "we funky"-isms, Morehead's compositions have brought enough of the required balance of head-expanding and booty-shaking to make the band a regular at jazz clubs like Bruno's, Butterfly, and the Latin-jazz-themed 850 Cigar Bar. And any act that successfully reconfigures the Oscar Hammerstein standard "All the Things You Are" with a Latin swing deserves to be your friend.

Aside from being a local salsa scene fixture, Morehead, along with Gale, also plays in the electric-era Miles Davis inspired combo Bitches Brew. That kind of diversity on its leader's part brings a daring twist to Mas Cabeza, which presents its largely instrumental mix of Latin jazz, Cuban rhythms, funk, and reggae dub with a slight space-rock edge.

O-Maya

O-Maya's philosophy is as follows: "The goal is to take all of the band members' collective musical experience and create a cohesive original fusion." Anyone who's seen the crew do its thing live or listened to its self-titled debut CD surely would agree that the results are just that. Through their shared desire to be funky and soulful, the members of O-Maya twist a diverse array of traditional styles -- hip hop, samba, salsa, merengue, reggae -- into crafty compositions. But rather than devoting entire pieces to each genre, the band's aesthetic finds it shaking to a number of different rhythms and melodies from moment to moment: If it weren't for the smooth transitions, it would almost sound like someone was simply turning the radio dial. The group's diversity no doubt works because of the pedigree of each of the musicians involved. Vocalist Destani Wolf has played with SoVoSo and John Santos, and leads her own group. Percussionist Hector Perez has written music for commercials for the likes of Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Toyota, the Gap, Levi's, and Nike. Bassist Steve Hogan moonlights in the Coup and the Josh Jones Latin Jazz Ensemble. Multi-instrumentalist Bill Artola has performed with Wild Mango, Orquesta Borinquen, Tierra Morena, and Organic Creation. Saxophonist and flutist Quincy Griffin has composed music for the Sharper Image, the National Park Service, and Goal Line Productions. And conga player Rene Flores has been seen playing with Orquesta Borinquen, the Franco Brothers, and Orquesta Sensual. But experience alone doesn't get you on the dance floor. Fortunately, O-Maya's infectious hybrid of rhythms and styles does.

Lifestyle Music

Project: Pimento

Contrary to Project: Pimento's claim that it features "one of the world's few theremin players," there are actually quite a number of thereminists making noise these days. The problem, however, is that the majority of these players can barely squeeze a note out of the thing aside from some atmospheric science-fiction eeriness. For those who don't know, a theremin makes notes based on a musician's hand's proximity to two metal antennae; one hand controls the sound's pitch, the other the sound's volume (it looks like someone controlling a puppet, only without the puppet). Since the musician never actually touches the instrument, it is very difficult to play. Which brings us back to our original point: lots of theremin players, most of them shitty. Fortunately for us, Project: Pimento's guy, a fellow who calls himself Robby Virus, is the rare thereminist who can not only play the strange instrument, but also do so with surprising skill and originality. Virus and company -- vocalist Lola Bombay, bassist Maker's Mark, guitarist Absolute Michael, and drummer Top-Shelf Rich -- play an intoxicating blend of psychedelic lounge music that hearkens back to modernism, art deco, and all things kitsch. Echoes of the '40s, '50s, and '60s can be heard in songs that cover the whole spectrum of lounge, including the theme to Star Trek, "Diamonds Are Forever," "Whatever Lola Wants," and "Black Magic Woman," among others. And when the original tunes lack a loopy lounge vibe, the Pimentos excel at swanking them up. Most striking is the way Virus' midair noodling interacts with Bombay's seductive crooning. The band's latest self-titled release culls 12 of its finest jazzy lounge renditions.

Tom Jonesing

Tribute bands litter the San Francisco music landscape to be sure, but few claim to be as memorable as Tom Jonesing, a group that elevates the art of the tribute through both its technique and stage presence. After being inspired by the splendor of a live Tom Jones show in Reno, Steffanos Xanthoudakis (a musician and theater performer who had played with bands the Shadowmakers and Oliver Stretch) set about transforming into Tantric Tom, an appropriately suave master of sexual kitsch. From there, he recruited guitarist Jeff "Rockin'" Roberts from Rolling Stones cover band Tumbling Dice, Pansy Division bassist/ vocalist Chris Freeman, keyboard player Dean Mermell ("The Tickler"), and drummer Mark Macario. There's also a lovely trio of go-go-booted backup singers, San Francisco Symphony Chorus members and longtime collaborators Pat Bregant, Mary Lambert, and Sandy Notimier, also known under the now-friendly name of PMS.

Tom Jonesing is a favorite at local spots like Bimbo's, Club Deluxe, and the Velvet Lounge, but has also brought its good-time vibes to Europe for two tours. No disrespect to the man, but Mr. Jones himself could take a lesson in sexual energy and roof-raising from these enthusiastic disciples, who can convert even the most lounge-wary into believers grinning with guilty pleasure.

The Vanishing

Imagine this: You're cold and spooked, seeking any kind of shelter from the creepy, dark night. A bat flies overhead, flapping and squealing. You glance up just in time to see ominous clouds pass across the full moon. Are these shots out of a bad music video from the '80s? Perhaps. But they're also the images evoked by the sounds of the Vanishing, the Bay Area trio that twists disco bass lines, trembling synthesizers, sputtering drum machine beats, and punk-ish screams into songs that could serve as the soundtrack to the spookiest and cheesiest of cable-TV horror flicks -- songs that also happen to be as catchy as they are eerie. Composed of former members of Subtonix, the Knives, the Lies, and Zonetech, the group formed in 2002 and has released a 10-inch and a split EP (with Lost Sounds), as well as this year's Songs for Psychotic Children, which the band's label, Gold Standard, describes as "uptempo shock therapy to exorcise even the most stubborn dancefloor demon in you." Yes indeed, as evidenced by Children, Brian Hock (drums, synths), Jesse Eva (bass, vocals, sax, synths), and Sadie Shaw (synths) enjoy working with the hairs on the back of your neck (song titles include "Princess Poison," "Obituary," and "Terror, I've Been Trying to Meet You"). Think Wire and New Order meets the Addams Family and Edward Gorey. Also think about leaving the kids at home so they don't have nightmares for a year.

New Genre/Beyond

Faun Fables

Acoustic and electric guitars, woodwinds, autoharp, and toy organ are only some of the instruments used to create 2001's Mother Twilight, songwriter Dawn McCarthy's collection of trenchant tunes. Also instrumental were, well, her travels. "I traveled alone in Europe the summer of '97 with many questions. Singing was my passport. Twilight was my favorite time of day to go for walks. It's a matter of kinship -- a key for my pre-memory," explains McCarthy, aka Faun Fables, in the CD's liner notes. According to McCarthy, the writings in her trusty journal, composed while she whisked through Ireland, Scotland, England, Italy, and Germany, became her inspiration for these songs (the record's cover art -- images of exploratory dashing through dense, secluded woodlands -- is thus quite fitting). Accompanied by minimal yet dramatic music, sometimes nothing more than a winsome acoustic guitar, McCarthy's voice wails and whispers while her lyrics evoke thoughts of nature, introspection, and shadows. What stands out most are the vocal melodies themselves, which have a strong pop element to them, but which are further influenced by Eastern and Western classical styles alike. McCarthy phrases and delivers her words in every manner but that which we'd expect from a singer/songwriter. Her art ends up running the gamut from whimsical to spooky, delicate to forceful, something altogether not unlike what you might find in a well-worn children's book of, you guessed it, fables.

Kitten on the Keys

A musician who began playing piano with Courtney Love in the mid-'80s with a band called Sugar Baby Doll (which became Sugar Babylon shortly before breaking up in 1987), Suzanne Ramsey could have easily ended up merely an obscure piece of music trivia had she not moved to San Francisco. It was here that she discovered some risqué old tunes through a customer in the antique shop where she worked. Now, as Kitten on the Keys, she's one of the bright, giggly spots on San Francisco's burlesque scene.

From her swingin' home base out in the foggy depths of the Sunset District, Ramsey concocts sweetly twisted songs that channel her love of cabaret through a beautifully kinky mind. While the piano is her primary and most wonderful instrument, Ramsey also has a knack for bringing the best sounds out of just about anything, from an accordion to a Hello Kitty vibrator (the latter is featured prominently on her song "Mr. Buzzy Happiness" from her 2002 sophomore album, Kitty Muffins, released on her own Rugburn Records).

Ramsey performs campy vaudeville acts at her own shows as well as with the Cantankerous Lollies and the San Francisco Famous Burlesque Orchestra. With the greatest of ease, this instantly memorable doll transforms herself from a saucy Shirley Temple (with an infamously naughty cover of "On the Good Ship Lollipop") into the female version of a fanciful Liberace, from a sparkly fairy on roller skates to a ukulele-wielding flapper.

Shadow Circus Creature Theatre

For those who were more delighted than creeped out by the infamous puppets-gone-wild antics of Peter Jackson's 1989 movie Meet the Feebles -- which set the standard for offending-through-puppetry with its swirl of vomit and promiscuity -- Shadow Circus occupies a void. For founder Dave Haaz-Baroque is not one to be content with the boundaries outlined for him by the typically innocuous world of puppetry -- he's much more interested in breaking through them. After a rebellious infiltration of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry and the Jim Henson Foundation for an 18-month course of study (where he was not known for going with the flow), Haaz-Baroque returned to San Francisco three years ago with a "most destructive and offensive musical puppetry troupe."

But Haaz-Baroque's characters have much more depth than Jackson's could have ever hoped to achieve. Sure, Shadow's principal members, such as Overlord Hatchett (a fuzzy red punk on guitar) and drummer Scary Lynn Hanson (a lovable but frightening young wannabe hybrid of Hanson and Marilyn Manson), espouse the merits of legalizing marijuana and living the hedonistic music lifestyle in a pursuit of becoming, as they say in one of their tunes, "The Best Ass in Rock N' Roll." But they're also displaying their interest in Celtic and Greek mythology, as well as the macabre tales of author H.P. Lovecraft, even as they lampoon such lascivious and dark local rock bands as the Gun & Doll Show and Galaxxy Chamber. Deep puppets, indeed.

Pop

The Aislers Set

If you're gonna form a band that plays your vision of the sometimes-bland sounds of British indie pop, you'd better make sure that band is top-notch. That's the lesson you'll take away from the Aislers Set, the brainchild of Amy Linton, former singer/guitarist of local noise-pop combo Henry's Dress. In 1997, Linton holed up in her garage with her guitar, drums, and other gear and wrote and recorded the intimate, airy, Belle & Sebastian evoking foundation of the Aislers Set's debut album, Terrible Things Happen. Combining that with the mod-ish, jangly fare she conjured out of her collaboration with Track Star guitarist Wyatt Cusick, Poundsign bassist Alicia Vanden Heuvel, and Scenic Vermont drummer Yoshi Nakamoto, Linton made the Aislers Set a critical and popular favorite here in the Bay Area.

Although the Set's subsequent albums -- 2000's The Last Match and this year's How I Learned to Write Backwards -- have seen it touching on psychedelia and '60s soul-pop respectively, Linton's solid songwriting and coy vocal style remain the band's signatures. That kind of locus has earned it local gigs with pop heavyweights such as Magnetic Fields, not to mention an opening slot on a current U.S. and Canadian tour with indie heroes Yo La Tengo. Scene pundits can argue all night as to whether the Aislers Set is the Bay Area's best band, but you'd be hard pressed to find such a conversation in which Linton and her supergroup were not at least mentioned.

Loquat

This electro-laced, sugar-sprinkled pop quintet takes its name from the citrus tree that guitarist Earl Otsuka got scolded for climbing in grade school and that lead singer Kylee Swenson discovered on nighttime jaunts in college. Not surprisingly, Loquat's sweet-and-tangy sound suggests a jaded twentysomething cradled in branches, balancing between childhood nostalgia and grown-up resolve. But, like Björk or Edie Brickell, the band manages to capture kidlike charm without sounding childish.

Back in 1996, Otsuka and Swenson turned their vegetative solace into a two-person trip-pop project, and since then they've added three adept analog musicians -- bassist Anthony Gordon, drummer Christopher Lautz, and keyboardist Ryan Manley -- to transform Loquat into an appetizing group affair. The band's always-catchy, often-bittersweet midtempo melodies are bolstered by sunny piano accents, cloudy synths, and Swenson's hypnotically delicate, aching vocals. So far, Loquat has released two too-brief collections, The Penny Drop EP and a 10-inch vinyl volume titled Fall, which captures that season's pleasant chill and crispness. Standout tracks like "Swingset Chain" -- packed with delightfully dizzying regret from a playground point of view -- and the slow, stark piano ballad "Internal Crash" hint at what's to come on the band's still-in-progress first album. Though that long-awaited release is at least a year away, it's not too far-reaching to suggest that the record will cement Loquat's status as the Bay Area's most promising pop band.

The Pleased

The Pleased (formerly the Please) is five West Coasters who pay homage to British rock by writing ultra-catchy, psychedelic mod-pop songs. At times channeling the soulful vocals of Bono, Ian Curtis, Billy Idol, and Neil Diamond (but truly in the best possible way), singer Noah Georgeson croons confidently amidst thick soundscapes that alternate among upbeat, droney, and reverb-drenched. Unlike the current crop of retro rip-off artists, the Pleased claims its own unique corner of the rock world, with melodies and arrangements that are diverse and original enough to distinguish the band from the pack. Georgeson (on guitar as well) and guitarist Rich Good splatter distorto-riffs and coy picking onto a dense, interlocking canvas of rhythm and atmospherics. Bassist Luckey Remington is not afraid to push the beat with eighth notes or remain minimalist when the songs calls for it, and keyboardist Joanna Newsom, who plays a mean harp and writes amazingly tender songs in her own solo project, here knows how to lie back, occasionally tinkling synth textures that waft in and out. Meanwhile, drummer Genaro Vergoglini drives the songs with either tender, lilting minimalism or grand-but-tasteful rock beats. Having already played with the likes of Clinic, the Walkmen, French Kicks, the Music, Von Bondies, Hot Hot Heat, and the Vines, the Pleased, which is set to drop its first full-length later this year, is on the right track for winning over fans on both sides of the Atlantic.

Punk

Bottles and Skulls

Originally a trio hailing from Florida, Bottles and Skulls formed in 1999 before moving to the Bay Area and adding an additional guitarist. The group plays mildly varied punk rock that incorporates bits of garage and pop but with an emphasis on energy, anger, and spastic rocking. While recording its latest full-length, Born in a Black Light, with legendary grunge producer Jack Endino (Nirvana, the Dwarves, Murder City Devils), the band tightened its songwriting and sound, producing a record that's 37 minutes of pure searing and flailing. Singer/guitarist Brent Travis Jones shouts distorted, adenoidal lyrics about bullet holes, the devil, television, girlfriends, and plastic bags (hey, it can't all be deep). Most compelling is when he touches upon universal themes: "I love death, death loves me/ I'm begging death please/ Please, please me/ I love myself, myself loves me/ I'm begging me please/ Please, please me," he sings on "Please, Please Me," a good indication of how the band's lyrics mimic its fearless instrumental sounds. Jones and guitarist Christian Erik rock the ominous axe tones, reminiscent of both Black Sabbath and Guns N' Roses, but far more vigorous. Meanwhile, bassist Johnny Hildo and drummer Scavuzzo make sure to provide solid beds of tight, aggressive rhythms. It's not easy to dispatch punk that's at once vicious, visceral, and intelligent. The fact that Bottles and Skulls does so almost effortlessly is why you see it listed here.

Fleshies

While the MTV-sponsored parade of crap bands sporting perfectly coiffed mohawks might lead some cynics to argue that punk rock has indeed bought the farm, the Oakland-based hooligans who make up Fleshies are doing their damndest to keep the anarchic spirit of the music alive. Formed in 1999 by lead screamer Johnny No Moniker, guitarist Mattowar, bassist Vonny Bon Bons, and drummer Hamiltron, the foursome established an early reputation for unhinged live performances. Dishing out a feral brand of noise akin to what the kids from The Lord of the Flies might have come up with had they been given guitars and sequestered in a dingy East Bay warehouse, Fleshies concealed their lack of actual songs with over-the-top onstage abandon.

Happily, the band soon started pounding out quality material that easily equaled the intensity of its delivery. The raging tunes found on Fleshies' Alternative Tentacles debut, Kill the Dreamer's Dream, matched the agitated lyrical bile of No Moniker's vocals with a careening assault of power-rock riffs that teetered brilliantly on the edge of total collapse. The band's 2003 follow-up, The Sicilian, took Fleshies into more unpredictable territory, sneaking moments of sweet melancholy in between pounding sociopolitical diatribes and ironic meathead anthems. Relentless touring has honed the group into an unstoppable juggernaut that deals out lawless mayhem wherever it goes -- onstage, No Moniker becomes the clothes-shedding, crowd-surfing heir apparent to the now-defunct Jesus Lizard's David Yow. Fleshies trump the mindless hardcore regurgitation of their so-called punk peers with an original brand of rock 'n' roll chaos.

FM Knives

Comprised of former members of punk bands such as Nar, Los Huevos, Lil' Bunnies, and Karate Party, FM Knives might very well be Northern California's reigning kings of Buzzcocks-style punk rock. What makes the quartet interesting though, is that, rather than simply spouting anti-establishment lyrics about "the man," like so many other punk bands, singer Jason Patrone shows instead of tells. "I wake up screaming/ At mortgaged ceilings/ Everyday at 5 to 8 I/ Tell the mirror one more day/ My Monday tie/ The porno lied/ Watch the snow on Channel 8 then/ Thirty minutes on the train," Patrone sings on "The Man From OSI" from 2002's Useless and Modern. Here, and throughout the group's three records, we get insight into our own lives, what it means to perceive the world as being bleak, bloated, and boring. But the effect of FM Knives is anything but depressing -- cathartic is more like it. Lyrics aside, the Knives are proficient at playing unabashed punk rock, complete with distorted bar chords, driving, melodic bass lines, and playful, but manly, drumbeats. There are even moments that suggest an early Ramones playing to a pierced, leather-clad CBGB's crowd. Of course, if you even slightly consider yourself a fan of local punk rock, you probably know all this already.

Rock/Indie Rock

Coach Whips

In this complicated world of recall elections and record companies throwing the book at 12-year-old girls, it's good to know that, at least for one local band, not much has changed since the Kingsmen's famously down-and-dirty, unintelligible take on "Louie, Louie" 30-some-odd years ago. Led by Mission maven John Dwyer, who has arguably graduated a step from his "tardcore" band Pink and Brown, the Coach Whips make no apologies for simple three-chord tunes, most under two minutes long, with mangled lyrics shouted passionately over messy lo-fi drums and Casio keys. As John Harlow's cymbals sizzle like 50-cent steaks in a Las Vegas flophouse and Mary Ann McNamara sets a boogieing surf tone on either keyboards or tambourine, Dwyer's spazzy, hyper guitar drives the band while he gargles lyrics through several layers of grease. Though the Whips have been compared to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a more apt analogy might be Spencer spouse Christina Martinez's Boss Hog (the vintage, early-'90s version), all slutty innuendo and dirty twang. Dwyer dispenses with even the modicum of polish that marks Jack White's guitar playing in the White Stripes, and wisely avoids reaching for the art-school pseudo-philosophy of White's lyrics. Instead, "Look into my eyes when you come" is about as deep as things get. Which is not to say that there isn't any artfulness here, or musical talent. Dwyer is an accomplished musician, and both Harlow and McNamara have ties to the performance art scene that derives from the San Francisco Art Institute. It's just that in a town where music audiences are more apt to sit on their hands than stand up and shout, the Coach Whips are a welcome splash of stanky, gritty firewater.

The Cuts

Describing their sound as being influenced by the likes of Love, Television, the Kinks, the Who, the Zombies, and the Velvet Underground, the Cuts play R&B-heavy rock music that relies on everything from shakers, honky-tonk pianos, fuzzed-out guitar riffs and solos, plentiful drum fills, and funky, bouncing bass lines. Released in 2002, their latest full-length, 2 Over Ten, finds singer/guitarist Andy Jordan channeling Mick Jagger and Elvis Presley as he sings in spurts over music that sounds quintessentially Californian. Keyboardist Dan Aaberg, drummer Garett Goddard, and bassist Carlos Palacios paint psychedelic portraits behind him, music that, at times, floats, jazzes, folks, rocks, and just plain weirds out. It's not difficult to imagine neon go-go dancers shaking up a storm while the band plays. For that matter, it's hard to imagine anyone with a modern haircut attending one of its shows. Maybe that was a factor in choosing the band name. Who knows? Regardless of the retro vibe, however, the Cuts will appeal to anyone who likes his arrangements intricate, his textures trippy, and his lyrics earnest and well-delivered. This is music that replicates the sound of the past so well, you'll forget that it's even doing so.

Phantom Limbs

"Phantom limbs" is the phrase for the perceptual anomaly that many amputees experience in which their brains perceive pain and other sensations in limbs that no longer exist. Naming your band after this condition raises a number of questions. Are the Phantom Limbs trying to make music for war veterans? Have they themselves experienced the condition? Well, one thing everyone can agree on is that this phenomenon is a spooky one. Which fits nicely with the Phantom Limbs' spooky brand of ghost rock. Comprised of members who have done time in Circus Redickuless' Organ Grinders From Hell, the Boyscouts of Annihilation, Anal Kitties, Scurvy Dogs, and Black Ice, this quintet plays dissonant rock, the dramatic sound of which -- thanks to its ghastly organ component, the same kind of organ you hear in old horror flicks -- is seemingly inspired by another Phantom (of the Opera) altogether. The addition of this texture gives the Limbs an instantly recognizable signature that surely helps convey their addiction to Halloween-style emotion. Clearly well-rehearsed, singer Hopeless, organist Stevenson Sedgwick, bassist Sköt B, guitarist Jason Miller, and drummer Mike Klösoff churn out riff after dramatic riff of music that is as freaky as it is catchy. If you haven't yet donned your hockey mask or vampire teeth to attend one of their shows, you're probably the sort of meek person who's afraid of the dark to begin with.

Soul/Funk/R&B

Goapele

Twenty-six-year-old Goapele Mohlabane (pronounced KWA-pa-lay) has been a Bay Area activist since the tender age of 10, participating in peer support groups such as Be Present Inc. and the Bay Area Black Women's Health Project and honing her interest in singing by using her voice at local protests. She leads her life trying to be conscious of her impact on others and the world, and has successfully nurtured that philosophy in other young girls through her work and now her art. And thanks to increased national attention of late, her musical pursuits are quickly beginning to blossom into a promising future.

The Mohlabane family business ensures that Goapele doesn't have to compromise her integrity or creativity in building a lasting career: She released her debut album, Even Closer, through her mother and brother's own label, Skyblaze, last year. The record features the gorgeous single "Closer," a smoldering anthem (and one of the few local tunes to get commercial radio support). Goapele's sinewy melodies and full-bodied voice draw comparisons to Sade and Nina Simone, and her fusion of soul, jazz, hip hop, and world music is slowly but surely starting to grab the ears of legends from Ray Charles to Prince. She's also the undercover vocal weapon of notable local hip hop artists, appearing on standout songs off recent albums by E-40, Hieroglyphics, Zion I, and J-Boogie's Dubtronic Science. Indeed, this oft-dubbed "Bay Area's best-kept secret" is clearly not going to stay hidden for long.

Harold Ray Live in Concert

While its fans may sport ironic mustaches, wide neckties, and other kitschy affectations of hipsterdom, there's nothing sarcastic about Harold Ray's devotion to old-school soul. In fact, like the Godfather of Soul James Brown and the Rev. Al Green, the musicians who comprise Harold Ray Live in Concert have become sonic evangelists of sorts, espousing a devotion to vintage equipment, analog recording, live performance, and mostly forgotten catalogs of obscure soul pioneers. Sure, Harold Ray (real name: Jason Morgan) and his backing band, Live in Concert, play mostly covers, and the band's appearance -- somewhere between geek chic and just plain geek -- is a far cry from the flashy sophistication of its forebears. But none of that matters when the guys take the stage with their rollicking blend of sweaty melodies and over-the-top antics. As its name suggests, Harold Ray Live in Concert boasts a religious allegiance to live performance, even with its recently released self-titled debut for Alternative Tentacles. The album, recorded live in one night, is an aural embodiment of the band's onstage energy, where the sextet exudes such a feverish enthusiasm that onlookers might expect drum kits and mike stands to come hurtling toward them at any moment. Crowd-pleasers like the Showstoppers cover "Ain't Nothing But a House Party," James Brown's rough-hewn "Tell Me That You Love Me," and the foot-stompin' "Soul Dance No. 3" by Carl Holmes & the Commanders roil with strutting bass lines, brawny saxophones, and, of course, the band's bread and butter: the hollers and shrieks of Morgan, which the vocalist spreads on thick.

Martin Luther

You better believe San Francisco singer Martin Luther knows something about being a rebel soul, and you better believe it goes deeper than the name his parents gave him. Born and raised Martin Luther McCoy in Hunters Point, Luther came up -- like most soul singers -- with a firm ethical base due in part to his singing in the church choir. But it was his older brother who, by turning his sibling on to Parliament/Funkadelic, brought him into the canon of late-20th-century, rocked-out soul. While the spirits of Hendrix and Sly lurk throughout both of Luther's independently released albums -- 1999's self-released The Calling and this year's Rebel Soul Music on Goodvibe -- the vocalist transcends the easy "neo-soulster-with-guitar" pigeonhole into which many media types have tried to stuff him. Rebel especially typifies Luther's complexities. The psychedelic "Pimpmobile" (which features guest hero George Clinton) hails the gumption behind street hustling, while the downtempo jam "Sleepwalking" addresses the lack of consciousness in the black community. It's the kind of scope that's attracted stars like Oakland's Mystic and the Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon to appear in Luther's video for "Soul Assassinator" and scored the singer/songwriter live slots with the Roots, Saul Williams, Eric Benet, Cody Chesnutt, Medusa, and Dwayne Wiggins. While these accomplishments are pretty sweet, perhaps the biggest tell is this: How many other new-generation soul men can you name who can maintain credibility after writing and performing an exclusive anti-stress rap for Real Audio release on Oprah's O Magazine Web site?

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