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By Nathan Smith
Three men in matching pink V-necks and loose black ties begin their set by singing jovially in unison, "We're the Gaze, checkin' you out!" It's uproariously funny. No, it's better than funny. It's amazing! It's genius! It's the best thing to happen in Houston music since Frank Beard introduced himself to a drunk and half-conscious Dusty Hill in 1969!
Or so I'm told, anyway. When I walk into the Proletariat's smoke-choked main room, the Gaze is already a good three songs into its well-honed shtick and in the midst of ripping a Houston skronk-rock jam that would make the dweebs in Three Day Stubble a wee bit jealous.
Overwrought superlatives are being tossed about the room. I spot longtime friend and bandmate Shawn Adolph and ask his perspective, knowing full well we share a brain on most matters music.
"It's all right," he says, harshing the mellow a bit. "This is the best song they've played."
"What about this first song/intro I keep hearing about?"
"Oh. That was pretty good, too."
The arty freak-out draws to a close (in it, the Gaze manages an electric TV solo -- believe it!) and the pink partnership ekes out a few more numbers before calling it a night. As for me, I see no evidence of brilliance, just a band that isn't quite sure what it wants to be. Emotionally wrenched pop songs (ballads, almost) are interspersed with jokes told by a drummer in love with his own speaking voice. He's also plenty enamored with his decision to wear little more than tiny, nut-hugging undies; when not droning on, he stands up from behind his kit to beat us over the head with his oh-so-daring half-bulge. It's all very confused.
If you had to guess, you'd think the guys hadn't been together very long. You'd be right. The members, it turns out, met only a month ago, through a Houston nightlife experiment called the Starr Project. Let's back up and explain what this is all about.
The Starr Project has nothing to do with Ringo. No, this trial-by-fire was inspired by Maurice Starr, the rhinestone-studded Navy cap-wearing "General" who gave the world New Kids on the Block and New Edition/Bobby Brown. Inspired by Brown's boy-band-building methodology, local scenesters Bronwyn Bowser and Serena Hightower have created the Starr Project. Its mission: to form four bands from 20 strangers, then give them 30 short days to pen and practice original tunes before performing in front of a live audience.
The idea is a gun aimed straight at the temple of Houston's notoriously lackadaisical, do-nothing, underground rock culture. "I just thought, instead of complaining about how bad the scene sucks, we could just do something about it," Bowser says. A refugee of the tight-knit, walk-around scenes of both San Francisco and New York, Bowser is quick to point out the uphill climb a commuter city like ours faces when it comes to musicians mixing.
Hoping to bust through the malaise, she dropped by local musician/artist haunts such as Brasil and Sound Exchange and laid out jars adorned with straightforward messages: "Starr Project. 20 strangers, four bands, 30 days." It worked. The musicians dropped their names in these receptacles, and a drawing took place 30 days before the show I attended at the Proletariat. Bandmates were assigned, and the hard, monthlong row was hoed.
Along the way, Bowser and Hightower scheduled a few "keep your eyes on the prize" meetings and offered help with costumes and graphic design to any band that requested it. (They see the Starr Project as a way to draw together artists of many types -- not just musicians.) And they were always a point and a click away (firstname.lastname@example.org) to help with questions or concerns.
Thus far, the guys in the Gaze are the prize pupils in this crash course in band-building. Slightly askew, yes, but at times wildly entertaining. What of the other bands? Chromatic Interference, the group that followed the Gaze on the stage, is composed of guitar, bass and hand drum -- the flamenco guitarist pulled out a couple of weeks in -- and they sound like what would happen if John Lee Hooker got flattened by Black Sabbath's "Planet Caravan." This is not a good thing: If they are in need of a clever catchphrase à la the Gaze, I would recommend: "We're Chromatic Interference...and we should've practiced!"
In stark contrast to Chromatic Interference, the luck of the Starr Project draw granted Suitcase -- the third band on the bill -- a well-matched lineup of antiquated instruments: banjo, trombone, tiny piano and mandolin. The band members are all wrapped in 1940s-style suits, and they come across as a Squirrel Nut Zipper wet dream.
I don't catch the last act's name. We'll call them "Playing After 1 a.m. to an Empty Room." It's not their fault. Drawings for the Starr Project's next round -- whose new bands will be showcased at the Prolo on August 13 -- took place between the sets and ran longer than expected. Several signer-uppers turned out to be no-shows -- damn you, feckless Houston scene! -- or downright fakes. Eventually things got settled, and the next show solidified. So be there next month, ready to cheer, laugh, heckle or sign up to be a part of the next batch of Houston apathy-busters.
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