Exile on Main Street

Jaime Hellcat's gold lamé shirt hangs ready as the Flaming Hellcats frontman unpacks his guitar before their showcase at Life Lounge Sunday.
Daniel Kramer

Screw the haters — Million Year Dance is awesome. A stripped-down, acoustic version of the mystical Montrosian rocker band closed out Music Awards night at Livé with a transfixing set. Jonathan Welch's soaring tenor is a municipal treasure, and it's a little bit perplexing trying to figure out just why he's not a superstar yet.

Of course, taking in that set meant I had to miss Sideshow Tramps, Fondue Monks, Bring Back the Guns, Karina Nistal, Sharks and Sailors, Arthur Yoria and the Dimes, all of whom were playing at the same time at other venues. (I did catch a bit of John Evans's honky-tonkalicious set.) But for me, it was worth it. MYD unplugged was that cool.

Back in 2001, I longed for several clones, so me and my test-tube twins could take in all this music. The 9 p.m. slot on Music Awards night makes me revisit that dream every year.

Not that the other slots didn't have me wishing I could be in two spots at once as well. Mrs. Racket and I got the shindig underway at four at Bar Bollywood, where we took in Dizzy Pilot's face-melting psychedelic rock. These guys say their upcoming record has the potential to ruin marriages — ours survived this show, but we can kinda see their point. For some reason, they put both Mrs. Racket and me in mind of Oasis, before Oasis started sucking.

Five p.m. found us up on the balcony at the Rice Lofts — the gathering spot for all the bands before and after their shows. This is the party of the year, folks — just about every band that matters in town knocking back free booze and chowing down on quesadillas and stuffed mushrooms, while impromptu jam sessions rage in an adjoining room. Going up there is like checking into the Hotel California — it's damn hard to leave.

But leave we did after catching up on some local band gossip. (Erik Bogle of Bring Back the Guns told us he had signed up in the Fatal Flying Guilloteens as Brian McManus's replacement, for example.) We toddled on down to Life Lounge to catch Flamin' Hellcats, who were not, in spite of what we wrote last week, dressed as priests. Singer Jaime Hellcat was rocking a Vegas-a-riffic gold lamé shirt, though, and the band did live up to their billing as roots-rocking Oscar Zeta Acosta-type dudes. When we left, Jaime was howling out that song they do where he's begging some lucky girl to give him some of her panties.

Next, we toddled across the street to Livé. Now that is a really lame name for a club. How do you pronounce it, for starters? Lie-vay? Lee-vay? And then it's right across the street from another place called Life Lounge. Can we get a little more generic, please? Anyway, Opie Hendrix was playing, and he managed to distract the crowd from the three TVs over the stage, one of which was showing news or SportsCenter or something like that. The TVs gave the place a Daytona Beach on Spring Break vibe. Please, bar owners, turn that shit off. We next headed around the corner to the Red Cat to catch the tail end of petite rapper Cl'Che's fiery set — she was joined onstage by Candy Red, a striking woman with close-cropped gold hair, and the two of them wrecked shop.

We continued in the hip-hop vein as the next hour rolled around. The Grit Boys show at Venue offered one of those "only at Music Awards" moments as the members of Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys strolled around the club in their cowboy duds and battered Stetsons. Venue is yet another downtown club with a crappy name (yes, I guess you can get more generic), but it's a terrific place for live music. It reminds me vaguely of Rockefeller's — the stage is immensely high, and there's some supercool old brickwork behind it. It's downright magnificent — if this place committed seriously to live music, it could be one of the city's marquee venues. And, oh yeah, they really need to change the name.

We popped into No Tsu Oh for a visit with Jim Pirtle, and we were treated to a weird scene. (Unfortunately, No Tsu Oh wasn't a HPMA venue.) A guy-and-girl DJ team was onstage. The guy was a vampirish-looking fellow with a pencil-thin moustache, and he was rocking a powder blue vintage suit. He looked a wee bit over-served, especially for that early hour. At any rate, he was more than holding his own on the decks with his classic rock set, and then he left the stage and somebody put on a record that met with his disapproval. He remounted the stage, stalked over to the decks, seized the platter and flung it against the brick wall across the club. Pirtle vaulted from behind the bar. "Hey, dude," he said, mildly, given the circumstances. "Calm down. There are humans here."  

Next, we caught the end of Drop Trio's space-jazz set, which was cool, as always. (Ian Varley is considerably more hirsute than he was the last time we saw him — I guess he was able to quit his day job.) And that brings us to Million Year Dance...Over to you, Chris. — John Nova Lomax

Sunday was like getting tossed into the deep end after one or two swimming lessons. I figure I'm well-acquainted, musically if not personally, with about ten Houston bands, somewhat familiar with maybe two dozen more, and the rest might as well be from Mars. Or Dallas. Kidding. So I was eager to dive into this buffet of Bayou City talent, but once I got to Main Street, it was disorienting. I move away from Austin after 14 years — barely making it downtown in time for the showcase, in fact — and the first thing that happens is uncomfortable South by Southwest flashbacks start popping up like migraines.

The showcases are obviously patterned after SXSW before it became the out-of-control, all-consuming vortex of beer, bands and BSing it is today: A handful of clubs in reasonable proximity, wristbands affordable without a second mortgage and an overall vibe that's still Texas friendly, not New York/L.A. douche bag. That alone was a tremendous relief, as I still don't know very many people in Houston. And I'd never been inside the Rice building beforeÉdamn, that shit is tight. But I also found a few familiar pitfalls.

Walk into a club at the wrong time, or sometimes even the right one, and you either get ten minutes of sound check or a band's last song, which happened with the Poor Dumb Bastards (shirtless Southern punk), Dizzy Pilot (lurching Primus/Butthole Surfers spaz-rock), Cl'Che (fierce feminine rap), Skyblue 72 (Alanisian vocals, Zeppelin backbone) and the Blaggards (floor-shaking Celtic booze-rock). You wind up seeing bands in venues not outfitted for regular live music: sports bars, bistros, Irish pubs, Indian dance clubs — actually that's a new one — and the sound mix often suffers accordingly. People pass you their demos on the street entirely unsolicited; thanks, Cymblem. (Incubus-like moody metalÉdecent, just not my bag.) And sometimes a showcase goes totally off the rails.

Depending on who you talk to, Insect Warfare's set at Slainte was cut short because one member was so intoxicated he could hardly stand, let alone play an instrument; they were dangerously close to blowing a circuit (or several) in the soundboard; or one of the stage managers simply didn't care for them and pulled the plug. Whatever happened, the five minutes or so they did play were almost indescribably awesome. Over a frenetic bed of staticky noise that sounded like a busted radio turned up to 11, the "singer" let out periodic vocal blasts that were a fair approximation of someone retching. The crowd ate it up; even the blond in the "I was eating pussy before it was popular" T-shirt seemed bemused.

Other stuff I dug: Like the Cure and Ramones, Black Math Experiment explored the seam between pop and something darker and edgier; they also turned Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" into a pop-punk romp. El Orbits singer Tomas Escalante gave it his all on Freddy Fender's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights." Satin Hooks were terrific, evoking early R.E.M., Guided by Voices and TV on the Radio with driving rockers and beguiling melodies, plus they had crowd-surfing mannequins. And Karina Nistal is the total package: singing, dancing and rapping like a Latina M.I.A., she captivated the crowd at the Red Cat Jazz Café, many of whom stuck around all evening just to see her.

Some bands I saw either did one thing really well — the Flaming Hellcats' adrenalized rockabilly; Aqua Velva's genial B-52's bop (nice beehives) — or varied wildly from song to song, with mixed results but moments of brilliance. Bring Back the Guns were intense, enervated and a little at loose ends, then completely changed course with a perfectly sculptured, Pixies-ish song that radiated an eerie inner calm. Sharks & Sailors employed broad dynamics, interlocking arrangements and methodical builds to overcome a frightful mix, passing Explosions in the Sky and Austin's late, great Ed Hall to arrive at a place not far from...Trail of Dead, Sonic Youth or Kyuss.

"It's a killer day in Houston," Allen Hill, one of the few local musicians I do know (so far), told me during Satin Hooks.

But not, he added, an ordinary one, having all these bands play mere blocks from one another.  

"In Austin, you walk out your door and it's right there," he said. "Houston, you walk out your front door and nothing. You walk down to the corner and still nothing. Stuff doesn't come to you, you have to seek it out — but if you do, it's bad-ass."

So it seems. Can't wait for more. — Chris Gray

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