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McComb's Second Finest

Kent Dykes -- a.k.a. Omar of Omar and the Howlers -- was born in the small Mississippi town of McComb, which also happens to be the birthplace of Bo Diddley. That fact has been driven home in just about everything written about Dykes since he moved to Texas two decades ago. So, if you aren't aware yet how seriously the Austin singer/songwriter/guitarist takes his affiliation with a legend, you don't know diddly (pardon the worn-out pun) about old Omar.

To Dykes, sharing hometowns with his hero is no minor biographical footnote, and it's definitely more than mere coincidence. Fate is more like it. This may sound a little corny, but it's almost as if his lot in life were predestined. While Dykes' journey is ongoing, it's always been fairly obvious from his songs where it begins and ends. Fueled by his dual passions for the blues and swamp-soaked rock and roll and the competing loyalties to his Mississippi roots and the musical melting pot that is Texas, that journey has sustained Omar through ten releases and a few recording deals, including a short-lived period in the late '80s with a major label. But even when Dykes seemed headed for a real commercial breakthrough -- which was only briefly -- he never appeared overly concerned about where success would take him; he already knew where he was going.

Dykes considers himself less a blues master than a blues messenger. For him, it's always been about the music -- he lives the cliche. That's made quite clear on "Low Down Dirty Blues," a slow-cooked blues-rocker from his latest Watermelon Records release, World Wide Open. "Robert Johnson was the king of the blues / He was the best around / I was standing right beside him / On the night the deal went down," Dykes croaks in his signature deep-bottom growl. By the time Omar gets to the "I am the low down dirty blues" chorus, it's obvious that he's not talking about himself standing with Johnson at the crossroads; the "I" in the tune is the blues talking.

Picking up a guitar at age 13, Dykes worked out the kinks playing at local blues clubs in McComb for largely black audiences. Soon enough, he pieced together the first Howlers lineup and began touring Mississippi and the Southeast. But it wasn't until he moved to Austin in 1976 that Dykes found his most appreciative audience. Busy building their reputation as a live powerhouse, Omar and the Howlers didn't get around to recording until four years later, putting out local releases in 1980 (Big Leg Beat) and 1984 (I Told You So). Touring Europe expanded the Howlers' audience, as did the band's 1987 Columbia/CBS debut, Hard Time in the Land of Plenty, the Howlers' closest shot at mainstream acceptance.

Nine years later, the latest version of Omar and the Howlers (with Paul Junior on bass and Steve Kilmer on drums) is still a band to be reckoned with. The good-time vibe of its shows, which draw lively and substantial crowds in clubs all over the country, has been known to lead even the most subdued onlooker in the direction of the dance floor. Granted, Omar and the Howlers' lack of fresh ideas may not earn them a seat among the masters in blues history. But they're certainly doing a hell of a job celebrating that history while they're here.

-- Hobart Rowland
Omar and the Howlers perform at 9 p.m. Friday, July 12, at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond Avenue. Tickets are $10. For more info, call 266-9294.

Dog's Eye View/Joe Henry -- Last time he was in Houston, Dog's Eye View's Peter Stuart was looking for that elusive first hit. His group's Columbia debut, Happy Nowhere, had been out more than five weeks and was going, well, nowhere. Things have changed for the better since that mid-March show at the Urban Art Bar, which showed that while Dog's Eye View was technically a band, Stuart, the group's songwriter, singer and guitarist, was very much the guy in control of its destiny. Right now, the pleasant, Counting Crows-ish single, "Everything Falls Apart," is doing well on radio, and the group's heavy road schedule has given Stuart the chance to win people over in person, hardly a difficult task for such a genuine person. And while Stuart does shoplift a few too many themes and therapies from his pal Adam Durwitz -- self-analysis, self-pity and self-loathing -- he's adopted none of the Counting Crows leader's brooding standoffishness. So earnest is Stuart in his efforts to relate to his listeners that you can't help but get sucked into his songs' familiar trappings.

Joe Henry, on the other hand, is still looking to relate to a significant audience ten years and six releases down the line. He's a neo-folk wanderer, an odd-bird poet with a guitar and something to say. Yet, when he finally spits it out, the results are as emotionally perplexing as they are lyrically stunning, which may seem strange in light of Henry's tendency to write about simple, everyday people. Needless to say, fully experiencing Henry live requires some hard thought, as does listening to his latest CD, the sparse yet substantial Trampoline. Think hard enough, and you should be rewarded -- maybe not instantly, but somewhere down the line. And if that's not incentive enough to see Henry, maybe the fact that he's married to Madonna's sister will stoke your curiosity. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 11. Free (a KRBE/104 FM-sponsored event). 266-1000. (

 
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