Best Of 2006

Every summer, these directors and actors commit themselves to making the Bard accessible to all members of a family. They mount their shows in enticing outdoor venues around the city, turning every play into a festive alfresco event. And since every performance is free, you've got nothing to lose by taking in a fresh-air version of King Lear or Macbeth.

Previous Winners

When he heard the Black Diamonds, Dead Boys bassist Jeff Magnum was impressed. "I think I know a thing or two about loud, noisy, kick-ass rock and roll, and these kids have swiped the best elements from all that rotten rock, personalized it, and made it their own," he says. Early on, singer Chad Van Gils played a bagpipe on the onetime set staple "Wentelteefjes," but when the track threatened to become a signature novelty, the bandmates dropped the pipes to concentrate on rambunctious, Zeppelinesque rock. So make sure you see them live before they do some damn fool thing like break up to pursue higher education.
Cleveland's 77 South recorded its debut EP, 1-800, in Nashville, and it's surprising that the country capital let the band go. Maybe it's because -- unlike most of Nashville's recent offerings -- 77 South tends toward the traditional: piano, mandolin, jangly guitar, and gentle harmonies. Lyrically, singer Jeff Ronay covers all the necessary bases, proudly declaring his love for his wife, dog, and pickup truck. Still, 77 South isn't averse to crowd-pleasers and has even been known to pepper its sets with covers of "Honky Tonk Badonakadonk." And if the room is right, it'll follow up with some Creedence or Skynyrd.
Until this year, roots troubadour and bandleader Patrick Sweany was one of the area's best-kept secrets. But word was bound to get out about the 31-year-old Massillon native. And the new C'Mon C'Mere album, released on New England's Nine Mile Records, made it official: Sweany has arrived as a major talent. Bob Basone makes his deep baritone guitar moan, while Clint Alguire keeps bump-and-grind time. Produced by Delta bluesman Jimbo Mathus and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, C'Mon C'Mere will leave you wanting a cigarette, a shot, and a nap -- in that order.
Head hidden beneath an oversized blond afro, "Johnny Vegas" leads maestro keyboardist "Electric Andy," nimble guitarist "Flip Flash," and hard-slipping bassist "Furious Styles" in Disco Dynamite. JV and the Double-D perform '70s favorites, putting on a flashy show of synchronized dance-steps. "Love Train," "YMCA" -- if you've heard it at a wedding, these guys know it.
There's something about a touch of country that adds to the weight of heartache. Chris Allen cut his teeth in Rosavelt, playing a rugged roots-rock sound reminiscent of Exile-era Stones and the Replacements. Now, on his solo debut, Goodbye Girl and the Big Apple Circus, Allen has created the perfect soundtrack for the brokenhearted. Whether pining after "Sweet Lorraine" or pondering a "Guilty Heart," Allen has a way with tales of longing and loss, delivered in a gritty, baritone drawl.
On record, Disengage is a taut, ass-kicking hardcore machine. Live, it's a brutal juggernaut of unrestrained roar, cleaving the air like a locomotive and producing enough turbulence to knock you down. Singer Jason Byers roams the stage like a rabid animal, as the rumbling quartet behind him plays sonic steamroller. For the listener situated in this blast crater of sound and fury, it's nigh impossible to suppress a rising ire, a communion of alienation, anger, and frustration.
Anyone expecting to make money as a musician is a little nuts. But if you want to really rake, it's best to be completely psychotic. While the ramshackle nature of their instruments -- which include cracked cymbals, cardboard barrels, and a mic constructed from an old CB radio -- could be a gimmick, this duo's sizzling attack and unrepentant passion carry the day. The offbeat, devil-baiting nature of the lyrics -- with their pokes at religious hypocrisy -- is enough to make you cry, "Praise Jesus!"
Chris Kulcsar, manic frontman for This Moment in Black History, has the goofy, over-the-top appeal of Pee-wee Herman. While Kulcsar's mid-song forays into the audience are amusing, it's between songs that he really shines, spewing non sequiturs as if his head were a balloon with a slow leak. "We write Sesame Street songs, like, remember, ÔFree to Be You and Me,'" he offered at a recent show. We have no idea what Kulcsar will say or do next, which contributes mightily to the quartet's whole furious, anarchic presence.
Ross' name will surprise some people, since she's only 16 and hardly as accomplished in her singing and musicianship as other artists in town. But stardom's no longer about talent so much as sex appeal and youth -- that and pitch-correcting equipment, writing teams, million-dollar ad budgets, and sponsorships. Which isn't to disparage the Mentor teen: She has a fine voice and, more important, plenty of stage presence -- obviously benefiting from her background in musical theater and film. "Confusion," the single from her forthcoming second album, boasts a swirling modern-rock sound that's a nice fit. Look out, Kelly Clarkson!
In the summer of 2005, Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney had an epiphany: "If my little Ohio band did it, so can the rest." With that, Audio Eagle Records was hatched. Carney scoped out the local scene in search of Ohio's most promising acts, and less than a year later, Audio Eagle put out its first record, Bloodsongs, by Gil Mantera's Party Dream. The Youngstown duo went on to earn rave reviews at this year's South by Southwest festival and now has its own national tour. Watch for Audio Eagle's next releases, by Kent's Beaten Awake and Akron's Houseguest.