The Best of 2009: Nightlife's Annual Local-music Awards

by Chris Wissmann

So now, the academy wishes to honor, in the category of...

Best Local Musician/Band of 2009

The consistent answer was Stace England and the Salt Kings, whose extraordinary concept album, The Amazing Oscar Micheaux, explored the life and career of the first great African American film director-- a man born in Southern Illinois. The Amazing Oscar Micheaux sent England and company on an innovative tour of film festivals and even four dates in Europe-- then on January 2 of this year England and the disc received a lengthy profile on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday. The Amazing Oscar Micheaux continues a string of England's fantastic Schoolhouse Rock-style albums about the region, including Greetings from Cairo and Salt Sex Slaves, which confirm the incredible historical wealth of Little Egypt. Here's hoping that England can continue to find local topics worthy of musical exploration, and do so at such a high calibre.

Runners Up: No list of great local music could ignore the Woodbox Gang or Bourbon Knights, both of which issued fantastic CDs and ended their eras with a bang. (Or did they? The former left the door open to returning after frontman Hugh DeNeal concludes his incarceration for mail fraud, and the latter may play a Saint Patrick's Day reunion show in March.) The Whistle Pigs may eventually fill the void with their Fugs-influenced comedic hillbilly music; check out their 2009 disc, Long Term Plan, to hear how well their songwriting holds up when not augmented by pyrotechnics and other entertaining onstage antics. Although the Black Fortys kicked off 2009 with a wonderful EP, Kaskaskia Island, and they remain an excellent band with great artistic and commercial potential, the group didn't fully capitalize on the momentum they generated in 2008. Ivas John represents the next great generation of local blues musicians, and keeps edging closer to a harder sound that will hopefully expand his audience. Finally, psychedelia gets its due through Nighty Night, whose record sold relatively well in Japan, as a distributor told Nightlife.

Best Local CD of 2009

The Woodbox Gang.

Whether a listener prefers Mortimer Bustos playing Keith Richards to Hugh DeNeal's Mick Jagger on Arrestitution: My 601k Plan, or the more experimental Woodbox Gang playing Paul, George, and Ringo to DeNeal's John on White Trash Voodoo-- that's just a matter of personal perspective. Either way, the CDs remain titanic accomplishments. White Trash needed just a little more work in the mixing and mastering departments, but the arrangements and songs are amazing. The solo disc is almost sonically perfect, and oddly enough it's not nearly as dark as the band effort. There's some self-pity and defiance on DeNeal's songs, which he clearly hasn't earned-- last fall he pleaded guilty to the felony of defrauding actual people-- but the songs are almost good enough to forgive him the occasional attitude, and in any event many lyrics are heartbreakingly contrite. Those familiar with this bizarre saga inevitably will endlessly entertain themselves by psychoanalyizing DeNeal through these songs, but even casual listeners will find their worlds deeply enriched by the portraits of the oppressed losers and lunatics that DeNeal and the Woodbox Gang paint-- dark as these CDs get, there's almost always a wicked sense of humor at work.

Runners Up: The Moon Buggy Kids' Secret Handshake is the best local punk disc of 2009. Like "White Trash Voodoo, Secret Handshake is an honest portrait of regret and anger that's so fun that it's easy to forget about the artists' indiscretions," wrote one survey respondent. The Bourbon Knights' Krampusnacht expanded the band's grasp from drunken pirate and Irish music to a wide range of demonic eastern European folk and American burlesque styles, a perfect swan song. Stace England's The Amazing Oscar Micheaux, noted above, deserves another shout here. The best local blues CD of the year was Larry Dillard's Blues Therapy, which used the studio setting to its fullest, adding a full band and Shadi Frick's horn arrangements to Dillard's strong voice and guitar. Gods on Safari's Suplex Reality is a loud, complex, challenging work that recalls Frank Zappa. The Swamp Tigers' Nobody Else moves Josh Plemon a little closer to rockabilly than country. Finally, the Kevin Lucas Orchestra's Green and Blue brought the group tons of airplay for an independent artist, and they wound up on the Grammy ballot's long list in a few categories.

Best New Local Musician/Band of 2009

Giant City Slickers.

The consensus winner for 2009 was local supergroup the Giant City Slickers. Consisting of equal parts Woodbox Gang and Etherton Switch, plus great drummer Charlie Morrill, the western swing five-piece holds down a weekly Wednesday night show at Tres with the more stripped-down honkytonk trio Black Yodel (which in turn contains the three youngest Giant City Slickers).

Runners Up: Combining the garage rock of the MC5 or Stooges with a bluesy Memphis groove and the lo-fi sensibilities of Doo Rag, Shithawk, yet another endeavor by the underappreciated Nic Schurman (states, 'Boro City Rollers) absolutely rocks.

The Pecan Sandies, a two-piece retro-rock band that blew the mind of one survey respondent, rounded out the rest of the nominees.

Alumni of the Year

So many people who cut their teeth in the Carbondale music scene have gone on to mass success that keeping track of them is difficult-- and this year, music-scene expatriates did their alma mater especially proud.

Tweak Bird, a duo featuring brothers guitarist Caleb and drummer Ashton Bird, probably made the biggest news. Formerly of local band Cash Gal, the brothers Bird released an exciting CD, Reservations, spent the summer touring with Tool, then embarked on a three-week tour of Europe.

Runners Up: Nic Kruge, a teenage sensation in his Carbondale band Funomenon, now performs in a poppy electro-dance Miami band called Van Gloria. The quintet released a well-received CD, Bluebird, and brought Kruge back home for a gig at Tres during a nationwide tour.

Joe Swank, now working in Chicago at Bloodshot Records, kept popping into town to reunite with his MoJoDeans pals, and finally polished off a hot CD with his Carolina band, the Zen Pirates. Swank recorded the disc, Hank Williams Died for My Sins, with Rick Miller, the leader of Southern Culture on the Skids, and endowed it with a title track by another Carbondale alum, Dave Schultz. Two other once-locals, Mathien and the YellowHammers (the latter, featuring members of 1980s Carbondale greats the Modern Day Saints, released a strong self-titled CD in 2009), are also making a splash in Chicago.

Old-school local musicians recognized Darryl Phinnessee singing the opening lines to "We Are the World" at Michael Jackson's funeral. Phinnessee, a local-music alum, worked as a backup singer for Jackson, and also is famous for penning the lyrics to "Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs," the theme song to Frasier. Finally, there's Nora O'Connor, who sang background on the acclaimed Neko Case album, Middle Cyclone, and backed Case on Jay Leno's show in March. Then, O'Connor came back to where it all started to sing with Robbie Fulks at PK's.

Quite a good year, ay?