Lady in Red

Pop star Taylor Swift brought her sticky-n-sweet stage show to Toyota Center May 16.

Live Shots

There was a moment about a minute and a half or so into last Thursday night's concert where Taylor Swift stopped, looked straight into one of the many cameras filming her show and smiled. The crowd roared as if they had seen a miracle. It was the type of loud that you're not sure is entirely possible.

And that was just for a smile.

The night would go on, hit songs would be played, words would be said and confetti would fly, but in that one euphoric moment, none of that mattered. Taylor Swift was there, in person, and she was happy. And so the crowd was happy.

Moments like that make it really hard to focus on the music. This is unfortunate, because what gets lost in the world of tabloid gossip, funny memes and the fact that a lot of the time it's just more interesting to talk about Swift rather than her music is the fact that she is a talented songwriter.

Other than to talk about testing the waters of dubstep on "I Knew You Were Trouble" (the live version features an even bigger dubstep breakdown that still doesn't exactly work), not a lot has been said about the songwriting of her most recent album, Red, which made up the bulk of the songs of the show.

The songs of Red are, much like her stage show, perhaps a bit too glossy. Swift doesn't write songs that really lend themselves to big stage spectacle — "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" excluded, because it's got that massive pop hook — so at times the stage show felt a bit forced. Not bad or unimpressive, because it was nice to look at and clearly they spent money on the show, but the strength of the songs and the talent of the musicians playing them would have been enough to carry the show.

The show was at its best when it got down to basics, with Swift at her acoustic guitar or at a piano. A prime example of this was her performance of "All Too Well," which featured her at the piano with simple staging. There was a moment as the song hit its peak where she paused to wipe tears away from her eyes and in that moment I was completely hooked, thinking to myself, "Wow, this song is amazing."

This is weird, because five hours earlier I listened to the song in my office and thought it was mad corny.

Now sure, we could get into the cynical runaround about how she's playing a character and the tears were probably manufactured, but what really stood out about the show is how genuine, for the most part, Swift comes off. With the exception of some disingenuous-sounding banter about bullies to set up "Mean," most of her speeches to the crowd came off as a glimpse into who she might actually be as a person. Sure, they're all well-rehearsed — they all end with the title of the song she's about to play, after all — but maybe there's some real truth to them.

Not that it matters. Hardcore Swift fans — the type who spent the night before making signs out of Christmas lights — were going to eat up everything she had to say anyway, and haters gonna hate.
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Only in Houston

The Next Wave
Houston is enjoying yet another ska revival.

Jesse Sendejas Jr.

Billy Munoz wants to reassure you would-be skankers to just get on the dance floor and do your thing. He won't judge you.

"It doesn't matter what you look like as long as you're moving," he says. "The goofier the better. We feed off our audience."

Andrew Garrigan agrees.

"Is there really a way to skank that doesn't look a little wonky?" he asks.

Munoz and Garrigan are Houston musicians, both well-qualified to speak on the subject. They're members of area ska bands and both agree they are seeing more fans attempting to skank because they're seeing more fans at shows.

"From our perspective, with six years in the scene, we've definitely seen a rise in our local ska/punk movement," says Munoz, the towering yet suave front man for Always Guilty. "And it's definitely because of the fact that we and all the other bands we play with put a lot of effort into making people move."

Garrigan is the drummer for Molotov Compromise, which formed in 2006. In his mind, Houston has long had a love affair with the genre.

"When I was like 14, I would go to Fitz with my friends and we would watch ska shows with like 20 bands on them, and I always wondered where they all went," he says. "Either way, ska is making a resurgence and I think a lot of people are going to take notice."

People are taking notice, and not just in Houston. Molotov Compromise was tapped to perform on the main stage at the Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival later this month in Las Vegas. They'll share main-stage honors with Devo, Bad Religion, Flag (the Keith Morris-fronted band playing Black Flag songs) and others.

"What a great opportunity for us to get in trouble," Garrigan says. "We have never been more excited about a show before. We're doing our best to not lose our shit and get it together."

The hard work put in by himself and bandmates Jeremy Pacheco, Steven Jolly and James McDowell — the bulk of which was done in Houston — got them the gig, Garrigan adds.

This city is growing new rude boys and girls all over again, according to Isaac Rodriguez, bassist for Fuska, one of the newer ska bands to emerge.

"Ska comes back in waves, and I guess this is just another wave," says Rodriguez, whose band formed in 2010. "The shows are getting better and better and the kids are coming out and bringing their friends with them the next time."

That growing audience is finding more to choose from when the bill is ska-filled. Joined by newer groups like La Skandaloza and The Failed Attempt, these bands have invested the time, money and energy to push their brand closer to the forefront of Houston's musical community.

Of course, anyone familiar with local bands could argue ska has never fully departed as long as stalwarts Los Skarnales have been around. That band's co-founder, guitarist Jose Rodriguez, says he admires these bands and others like The Suffers and Indiginis, who are helping bring the music back to local prominence.

"I remember the ska scene in the mid '90s," Rodriguez reflects. "All ska shows were packed and it was pretty damn cool. I think what's cool about the ska scene today is that the bands are in it because they love it. Not saying there were fakes in the '90s; what I mean is that if you play ska today, you might struggle more to get shows. You do it because you love it."

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