Though the Pedro the Lion/Earlimart matinee ended a full three hours before doors opened for the Arcade Fire's Sunday-evening show, a line of fans stood and waited in the cold outside Mary Jane's Fat Cat. Some hoped for a miracle: that a ticket would come their way at the last minute. Others just wanted to push their way to the front of the stage and stay there.
Now this was something I'd never seen before, and neither had any of Pamland's employees. Who was this band? Until a few months ago, when Pitchfork gave them a 9.6 review, I had never heard of the Arcade Fire, and two of the members -- brothers Win and Will Butler -- were from Houston. Well, The Woodlands, anyway. Nobody I knew on the scene knew them, so a couple of weeks before their show, I tried to find out more about them. I arranged an interview with them through their publicist.
What followed was one of my worst interviews ever. The publicist had told me that Win was burned out and didn't want to do any more interviews -- which, with all the hype that has come their way lately, I completely understood. So she told me to call Win's cell number and to ask for Will, who was more eager to talk, and who, I was told, was a big fan of the Press. He liked the cartoons, the publicist told me.
So there it was at the end of a long week. I called the number I was given. Win answered. And instead of asking for Will, I accidentally asked for Win. He went ahead and glumly gave me the interview anyway, only I thought I was talking to Will the whole time, which became apparent only when I prefaced a question about 15 minutes in by saying, "So, you're kind of a part-time member of the band, right?"
"Oh, you're thinking of Will," Win said. They were at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco having a raucous lunch. The cell phone's reception was poor. I hoped I'd heard him wrong.
"You mean you're not I was told you were burned out "
"I am. Here's Will." And with that, an infinitely more cheerful Butler brother came on the line. I asked him a few questions, and then inquired about the Press. I asked if it was true that he liked our cartoons.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Do y'all still run seven pages of them every day?"
"No, you're thinking of the Chronicle," I said. Turnabout's fair play, I guess.
Man, later I had to drink a couple of shots just to listen to that tape. Anyway, I did learn that Win Butler made one brief foray onto the Houston scene before lighting out for Canada: a collaboration with Calvin Stanley of Pale that didn't get off the ground. Much like our interview.
Fast-forward nine days, away from my office and over to Mary Jane's. During soundcheck, I see Win talking to a middle-aged couple who also have gained early admittance to the club. I assume they're his parents; wrong again. It's an Argentine couple, neighbors of the Butlers since childhood. I don't think I'm hearing right when the man -- George Martin, by name -- tells me that the Butlers are the grandsons of swing bandleader Alvino Rey. Once again, who are these guys?
Martin says that this is his first time seeing the band live, and that it took the band's CD Funeral a few spins to grow on him. But now, he adds, he's a huge fan.
Soon after that, the doors open and the cream of the H-town hipster crop streams in in knots of four, five, a dozen. And after the opening act -- a violinist backed only by dubbed recordings of himself playing violin -- the Arcade Fire takes the stage.
And they deliver, at least on the part of the show I see. Shorthand for me would be New Order with a string section and accordions, and I don't mean that as a put-down. For starters, it's the good New Order -- the one that died after Power, Corruption and Lies. And the string section is a very good one. The combination is a new spin on a old sound that people love but that has been done to death, and it works very well. And the best thing about them is their cohesion. There doesn't seem to be any ego-hogging going on here -- they're a band, not a collection of stars, and they have the rare knack of making a crowd positively pulsate along with the band.
I don't think they'll change rock and roll; in fact, I don't think they'll get much bigger than they are. I'll bet their popularity peaks at about the Verizon Wireless Theater level. But I think that's the reality of the new music business right now. Fans are spoiled for choice. Thanks to all the media breakthroughs of the past ten or 15 years, we're all exposed to more and more music, and through that process, we've all become tougher critics. The upshot of all this is that there is no center of rock and roll to change anymore -- only subgenres to master. Right now, the Arcade Fire reigns supreme over indie rock, and if they keep that togetherness and continue working hard, they'll be able to attract a thousand devoted fans in every town from Tokyo to New York to Berlin for years to come, they'll have the respect of the media, and they'll make really good music every step of the way.
Mistah Mistah Scarface in da Montrose
I had other big fish to fry that night, so I sped the Racketmobile over to Montrose to see a New Jack Hippies T-shirt-sporting Scarface at Numbers with his new funk band. You read all that right: Scarface sported a New Jack Hippies T-shirt and played at Numbers with a funk band. But I didn't get to see it. I arrived at the club the second he left the stage. I did get to talk to him; he told me he really enjoyed playing rock clubs, so we can expect more of these shows coming up.
Speaking of 'Face, The Foundation, the Geto Boys reunion album, hit record racks last week. Having taken in a couple of spins at the Rap-A-Lot listening party at Club Omni in the Third Ward, I've got to say that Bushwick Bill gets off the best lines on the record: "They say the end justifies the means / so I guess the dope dealers justify all the fiends."
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And if The Foundation spurs you toward Geto-nostalgia, you should check out the blog of former Press listings editor Matt Sonzala. There, at houstonsoreal.blogspot.com, you'll find accounts and pictures of the Scarface Numbers show and interviews with 'Face, Willie D, Bushwick Bill and, yes, even DJ Ready Red, whom Sonzala tracked down in Northern California.
The Arcade Fire show just might be the last truly great show that Mary Jane's ever sees. Owner Pam Robinson says she's outta there soon, that the building is just too run-down for her to stay. In the next couple of months, she plans to open two other nightspots. The first, more modest one, is an icehouse, and it will be in the ramshackle little building immediately to the east of Mary Jane's. The second will be her boldest venture yet: a 750-capacity venue a mile or so down Washington Avenue toward town. April is the tentative launch date for the new club, and District Six is one of the names being bandied about. "Sixth Ward's a little fancier than this neighborhood here," Robinson says. "We can't call a club Mary Jane's down there."
Here's hoping Mary Jane's can find a buyer. It's one of the few buildings in town with a 20-plus-year history as a club. (Pre-Mary Jane's, it was the Shimmy Shack, and before that Pat and Pete's Bon Ton Room.) The grunge on the floor here is hard-earned, the stuffed animals on the walls and the yellowing Last Supper print stained with the nicotine of ages and the secondhand smoke of many, many greats. It's living history, so somebody buy it, please. I don't want to have to write another depressing club obit.