Downtown H-town Throwdown

On stage at the Copa Cabana, the Linus Pauling Quartet's Ramon Medina is in a frenzy. His eyes are tightly shut, he's white-knuckling the mike in his hands. He's growling unintelligible, guttural gibberish -- the only words that can be made out among the band's twin-guitar acid-metal din are the chorus, and for that Medina pitches his voice as high as the ululations of many an Arabic moment of tragedy and/or triumph. "LA TAPATIAAAA!" he wails, vigorously rubbing his vocal cords to squeeze out every last wobble in his voice in his tribute to the venerable Richmond Avenue taqueria.

Country-rock troubadour Greg Wood is taken by it all. He strides over to the stage alone, stands about two feet from Medina and stares, half smiling. And stays there for the rest of the song, just standing there alone, staring. The only other person on the club's dance floor is longtime local musician and Rudyard's employee Brad Moore, who is sitting down, nodding his head to the beat.

Medina thrashes, growls and wails, Wood stares and smiles, and Moore sits and nods, and the song ends in a crescendo. Medina screams "Satan!!! Satan !!! Satan!!!" and the band hammers home his point -- which apparently is that La Tapatia is Lucifer's favorite place to pick up a plate of goat-meat tacos. (Medina says that he offered Wood the post as the Linus Pauling Quartet's "official Satan mascot" and Wood accepted.) If it wasn't the finest strictly musical moment of Sunday's Music Awards Showcase, it was certainly the strangest.

Or maybe it was seeing Michael Haaga performing at the Verizon. I've seen quite a few Haaga shows over the last year or so, and all of them were in small clubs. Seeing the band stretch out on the huge stage and hearing their music over the Verizon's stellar sound system was quite a treat, as was the world premiere of his video for this year's would-be Song of the Year "If and When" on the venue's swimming-pool-size screens. The fact that it starred "Duncan" -- my neighbor's son who figured in my family's travel misadventure of a few weeks back -- made it all the weirder.

Also strange was the fact that I didn't see a bad band all day. With my delicate sensibilities and finely tuned hip-o-meter, I expected to hate LoneStar PornStar, but their gritty, blue-collar ska-funk-rap won me over in spite of myself. (Other critics at this paper despise me for that, but what the hell.) Sure, they're trashy, and sure, their Sublime-meets-Chili Peppers sound isn't the most original, but they worked hard in both bringing out their fans and then in entertaining them while they were there.

The Delayed kicked off my afternoon with a set of ferocious hard rock. I would call it punk -- after all, the band members are all heavily tattooed, and the drummer (one of the best in town, by the way) sports a Mohawk, and their music is loud and fast -- but the band mocked that designation throughout their set. "We'll play you some more of that fuckin' punk rock," snarled their shaven-headed singer, who looks a little like a mixture of David Cross and Henry Rollins, and ignored a table full of children immediately in front of the stage. "Fuck your mother! Fuck your father! Oi! Oi!"

You wouldn't confuse blues-rocker the Mighty Orq with punk of any kind. You might be forgiven, however, for thinking that he is one of Duane and Greg Allman's long-lost brothers. His guitar-playing has improved by leaps and bounds over the last couple of years, but for me it has always been his voice -- deep, soulful and majestic -- that has set him apart, and under the soaring ceiling at the Twelve Spot it billowed forth, well, mightily. And when he averred that his is no longer a straight-up blues band a week ago in this paper, he spoke the truth. Today, his trio sounds more like a blues-steeped rock band like ZZ Top, the Arc Angels.

By eight o'clock I was in the VIP area in the Rice Hotel, where I gathered plenty of news. The guys in Chango Jackson have signed with a new manager and are planning to release two albums…Medicine Show is planning an upcoming "stoners vs. drunks" basketball game…Hayes Carll, who couldn't attend this year's showcase because of his road schedule, just landed some opening slots on Buddy Miller's U.K./Ireland tour…Spain Colored Orange's recording sessions for its Lucid Records debut are progressing well…John Evans didn't "circle the drain" very long -- he has another new record coming, and he says this one finds him making yet another stylistic shift…

Other Press correspondents have different stories to tell, so I'll let them take it away.

William Michael Smith didn't care much for Molly & the Ringwalds ("lame," he called them) but was especially knocked out by Los Skarnales. "Distill their act down to its best 45 minutes and they're superstars," he says. And then there was Filthy McNasty, which in the interest of full disclosure I must tell you is headed by Press Nightfly columnist Brian McManus. "They tore it up," Smith says. "People were standing on the bar. It was pretty incredible."

McManus -- wearing his reporter hat -- humbly agrees with Smith's assessment of his set. "WE FUCKING RULED!" was the slightly-less-than-objective message he e-mailed me in all caps the next day. McManus also witnessed the power outage that shortened the set of Bring Back the Guns (I heard that they later rallied and put on an intense show), and five minutes of LoneStar PornStar, whom as I hinted before, he did not dig. "If I stayed for much more of it I'd get seriously depressed," he said in the same e-mail. Next, McManus rolled on down to what he calls "an empty room being played by Three Fantastic," who he says he was "surprised to find that [he] didn't hate." McManus had beefed with them in the past -- something about a Three Fantastic vs. Filthy McNasty Battle of the Bands that almost ended in fisticuffs -- but on this day their differences were set aside. McManus and Three Fantastic singer-guitarist Charles Peters met in the street between sets and "had a lengthy chat about putting our bands' beefs down. It was a Houston band UN convention right in the middle of Main Street. Very sweet."

McManus added that You(genious) was "really bad," due to the fact that he played his tracks off a "virtually inaudible iPod." As a result, the Caucasian R. Kelly clone "couldn't hear the music and was off-time (and horrendously off-tune) during the four songs I saw." McManus found more to enjoy in the purrings of Meowcifer. "They were really good. I didn't know much about them before I saw them," he says. The two girl vocalists and their intermittent Rhodes keyboards and spacey violins bowled him over. "They were my pleasant surprise of the evening," he says. Spain Colored Orange he still doesn't "get," he says, and he was immensely unimpressed with the Slim Thug/Bun B/Devin the Dude rap showcase. (Occasional Press contributor Matt Sonzala disagreed with that assessment.) And then there was a scandal in the VIP area -- a friend of his told him that another Houston musician wanted to stab him and that this musician even showed her the knife he planned to do it with. And no, it wasn't a member of Three Fantastic.

Press correspondent Bob Ruggiero took in Modulator and was wowed by their "very cool '80s vibe." "They showed what Missing Persons could have been like if they were actually a good band," he said, and complimented the stage presence of the "sexy" but "not trashy" singer Julie Zamora. ("Those curves!" he gushed. "Those hair highlights!")

Next up for Ruggiero was ESE, whom he called "the best act overall." "These punk/metal boys couched their aggressive sounds with a great sense of humor." That humor is in their banter, as well as in their song selection. Ruggiero loved their speed metal version of the Texas Tornados' "Who Were You Thinkin' Of" and their two-second cover version of War's "Low Rider." "We play so fast, we've run out of songs," their bassist said. "Any requests?"

Of Cameron Dezen's cover of Prince's "The Beautiful Ones," Ruggiero said it would have made him cry had he not worried of "seeming gay." Ruggiero said Spain Colored Orange sounded like "a band fronted by Herb Alpert and Ben Folds" and gave "Most Ferocious Moment" honors to Chango Jackson's cover of "Helter Skelter."

And then there was You(genious). "Looking at the John Candy-meets-Barry White artist dressed in a waiter's uniform of white shirt and tie while passionately singing 'I wanna fuck you like a muthafucka' divided the crowd," Ruggiero said. "Some left aghast, some loved it. 'This is the worst performer EVER,' one anonymous Press employee told me. 'But you have to see him!' "

But we don't want to go out on such a mixed note. We'll let Medina -- the Satanic Tapatia saluter -- have the last word. "I've played at two South By Southwests, and this was more fun than both of them combined," he told me. "It rocked, I got drunk, and I called in sick to work today!"

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