Houston's 15 Most Underrated Solo Musicians
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Calling anything “underrated,” particularly in the Internet age, is just poking the proverbial bear. It's entirely possible, hypothetically, that somebody out there somewhere legitimately thinks Taylor Swift, Kanye West and/or Bruce Springsteen are underrated. In Houston, even talking about musicians far enough on the mainstream's radar to even potentially qualify as “overrated” is a short conversation indeed, opening a completely different front in the “underrated” argument – namely, if almost every musician in town is underrated, how can it be fair to choose only 15? Easy: We asked people we trust, not only to properly interpret the word “underrated,” but to pick musicians who, in their opinions, don't get enough credit for what they do, either from local audiences, the media, their peers or some combination thereof. So in the simplest terms possible, these are 15 local musicians – who either create and perform as a self-contained unit or flit between enough different projects to count as their own entity – we'd simply like to see more people talking about. That seems fair enough. (Note: List is in alphabetical order.)
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Earlier this year, The Guillotines’ Bill DeGidio spent five good minutes explaining to me what an incredible guitarist Glenn Gilbert is. He said Gilbert’s among the best he’s shared a stage with and does things on guitar he couldn’t dream of, which is saying something since DeGidio is no slouch and his own son, Curtis, shreds harder than an industrial cheese grater. Further, his endorsement comes from five decades of playing alongside some garage and punk rock elites. But none of this is a surprise to anyone who’s seen Gilbert play, and many of you have, since he’s performed with numerous bands such as Supergrave, Vanity Crimes, The Guillotines and Giant Kitty. Presently, he’s representing Houston axe-handlers on a 70-date U.S. tour as lead guitarist for Tacoma, Washington’s Prophets of Addiction. He’s got virtuoso skills honed since grade school, rock star looks and more licks than a litter of puppy dogs taking a peanut butter bath. JESSE SENDEJAS JR.
For more than three years now, I've been paying close attention to Nick Greer, Houston's own red-headed, clown-nosed, theatrics-prone pianist. From his first collaborative album with the G's to regular stints at The Corkscrew Piano Lounge and Prohibition, Greer has been a blast to watch. His musical influences are wide-ranging, and his original tunes rarely fit a specific mold except that they're always emotive and heartfelt. Two years removed from his last studio release, Greer has now uploaded 12 new demos to his SoundCloud account, giving fans a taste of what he has in store for his next record. It seems that everyone in the Houston music scene knows or has worked with Greer in some capacity, which shouldn't be too surprising since he has been an active participant for the past 15 years or so, but his star still hasn't shone as brightly as it should have by now, and local music lovers would do well to examine his catalog if they haven't already. MATTHEW KEEVER
Houston has a number of singer-songwriters deserving of inclusion on this list, but Matt Harlan stands out from the rest. The Central Texas transplant earned rave reviews from various independent media for his latest, 2014's Raven Hotel, which features some of the most poetic, insightful songwriting you'll ever hear. His previous record, Tips & Compliments, is storytelling at its finest, particularly tunes like the title track, "Elizabethtown" and "Over the Bridge" (the latter of which is big on Houston imagery). Harlan is underrated in part because he's understated. His show is not a theatrical one, but rather simply that of a talented singer-songwriter and his guitar onstage, playing some of the finest folk-rock Houston has to offer. See for yourself; Harlan is playing Raven Tower on June 29. CLINT HALE
Whether in wizard’s robes or flannels, whether accompanying himself on a Casio SK-1 or semi-tuned acoustic guitar, Muzak John has an identity as instantly recognizable as the voice of Mattress Mac. But John Martucci is no cocaine Republican. He’s an artist of a singular cast, personable, tireless and bewitching. He’s friendlier than Jandek and ranges much further afield than Daniel Johnston, a totally modern beatnik. Documentaries are made of much less interesting subjects. He’s a mainstay in Houston music, operating somewhere on the outside margins of the noise community where it splashes onto the stationary carnival that is Super Happy Fun Land. In a city teeming with loners and the lonely, John Martucci may be the teemingest. Almost always all smiles, all improv, he’s got what it takes to be the ambassador to a city that’s undoubtedly making it up as it goes along. Muzak will be performing July 8 at Notsuoh with the Wiggins (also a contender for most underrated solo artist in town, but amply covered by this author). TEX KERSCHEN
A Katrina refugee, pianist Gregory “Skip” Nalia has been in demand as a live player, a session player, an arranger and a producer since he arrived here. Nalia’s main gig these days — when he’s not fishing — is with popular dance-groove band Luther and the Healers, who play as much as any band in town. Nalia is as close as we have to NOLA ivory-tinkler Jon Cleary, and can work out on any kind of Louisiana style as well as straight blues or jazz. Nalia produces several albums annually, mainly in the jazz vein, but if you really need to know how underrated he is and what kind of chops he has, understand this: Nalia was chosen by Crusader Joe Sample to be the pianist in his zydeco band, which took Nalia to Tokyo, New York City and points beyond, and also found him central to the album Creole Joe. That’s street cred, right there. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Matthew Kinard’s stage name is Paper Sparrow, which is perfect because there’s something delicate about each of those words. Combined, they adeptly describe Kinard’s atmospheric folk music; there’s a tenderness to it, but it doesn’t always float like a feather in the breeze. At times, it soars like a winged passerine. For example, Kinard recently concluded a night’s worth of gossamer, Elliott Smith-inspired tunes at Alley Kat with Nirvana’s “Polly,” to the glee of those who happily sang along (if one can truly sing “happily” to a song about a serial rapist). Kinard’s been doing this long enough to have earned a Reader’s Choice nomination in last year’s HPMAs and a much larger audience than we saw at the Alley Kat show. Like so many Houston artists, he cut his teeth at Super Happy Fun Land and is now ready to take on the world with approaching summer tour dates. We wish him the best in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado, but think it might be a shame if he’s “discovered” there before more of his hometown neighbors are aware of what he’s doing. He’ll be at Galveston's MOD Coffeehouse this Saturday, so catch him there before he glides westward. JESSE SENDEJAS JR.
A little more than a year ago, Nathan Quick released his best work to date. The folksy Americana crooner's three-track EP City Lights, which barely clocked 13 minutes in its entirety, blew longtime fans away. (Namely me.) The Mile (2014) was a solid album in its own right, but City Lights revealed the singer-songwriter's grit, which had always underlined much of his music but was never before so overt. Eschewing slower ballads for swifter country-infused rock and roll, Quick displayed an energy on his last release that stands as the best example to date of what his live performance embodies. Since City Lights, Quick has kept busy performing at the Mucky Duck, at this year's Free Press Summer Fest and just about anywhere else willing to let him plug in his amp. Next up is a new single, due in August, and a show at the Nightingale Room alongside newcomers Colonial Blue on Thursday. MATTHEW KEEVER
Originally hailing from New Orleans, Vockah Redu has called Houston home since the hurricane years. While he's nowhere near a household name, unless you come from a particularly twerky home, Vockah has been shaking his thing all over the country, touring, putting on unforgettable live shows in festivals and small clubs, alike, for years. He brings the energy of the New Orleans bounce scene — and he’s legit, coming from the Magnolia Housing projects — to his own unpredictable take on pop, funk, rock and modern dance. He’s got more energy, charisma and personal style than any other performer around here, perhaps enough to be a bona fide superstar, in the old sense, with the money and the groupies and the fancy threads. Perhaps in the new sense, too, reality TV, cooking show, vitamin line, fast fashion branding. Until very recently, he was almost completely unknown in Houston, and most definitely underappreciated. Sure, he’s a strange kind of artist, working on a big-picture scale à la Sly and the Family Stone, or George Clinton, rather than as a genre miniaturist. But it’s hard to deny the charm, the fun and the funk. TEX KERSCHEN
Rodgers with the Wheel Workers last month at Walters
Photo by Francisco Montes
“Underrated” shouldn’t be confused with “unnoticed.” Even in a town with droves of musicians aiming to be recognized, you’re going to stand out if you play clarinet, split time between some of the city’s best-known indie acts and perform in an all-female Ween tribute band. Erin Rodgers does all those things – and with a fashionista’s wicked sense of style, as well – but still doesn’t draw enough accolades. Rodgers has earned her Houston music cred on clarinet and keys and as part of Glass the Sky’s lilting vocal harmonies, but she recently expanded her portfolio to include playing alongside her friends in The Wheel Workers. These groups are composed of some of the city’s best, most career-oriented musicians, including Rodgers. So, one might consider Poon — the female answer to Gene and Dean — a down-time project for her. But even that band is composed of Austin-based players with serious chops. JESSE SENDEJAS JR.
A 28-year-old native of Lafayette, Louisiana, who moved to The Woodlands almost four years ago, A.P. Stark has been writing songs ever since he picked up a guitar at age 12. That soon turned into recording music with his father in a makeshift home studio. Making it a point to learn every instrument he could, Stark expanded his sound to draw from a variety of sources and eventually created SkyCatcher Music Group, a songwriting company with other songwriters Chris Chimene and Caleb Hoelscher. With only six months under their collective belts, they’ve gained clients across the country, and Stark is not shy about his ultimate goal of establishing Houston as the new Nashville. Stark has also started a new band with fellow SkyCatcher songwriter Jesse Williams and drummer Dakota Daniels called Phantom Arcade, who just completed writing a full album and are working on getting an EP out by year's end. Their inaugural show will be June 29 at the Nightingale Room downtown. KRISTY LOYE
WAYNE "ANIMAL" TURNER
Wayne “Animal” Turner doesn’t get out much these days, but he spent enough years on the road with Hank Jr.’s Bama Band to have earned the right to stay at home. What with the demise of Blanco’s and virtually any Inner Loop honky-tonk scene, Turner is best located these days up north around the Track Shack and other Spring-area tonks playing with either Jim or Miss Leslie Sloan. While Turner mostly supports, he is also a top-shelf vocalist and can put some serious whupass on virtually any honky-tonk classic you can name. It’s not a stretch to say Animal Turner is Houston’s Redd Volkaert. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Go ahead and search the local press for Twisted Wires, the output of my brother by others, Kim System. You won’t find much. To be fair, part of that is due to his disinclination toward the total bullshit that goes ass-in-hand with playing local shows. Nor is Twisted Wires (not to be confused with the album by Tesla) particularly prolific. His time and talents are too often diverted to production work and performances with other bands, including TENSE, Balaclavas, Future Blondes and Indian Jewelry. Or perhaps it’s because he’s burdened with an exacting ear for detail. Either way, he’s only properly released a couple of singles on the Italians Do It Better Label since 2008. But what great singles they are. Songs like “One Night at the Raw Deal” and “Half Lives” have a way of whizzing around the world, from DJ to DJ, occasionally appearing on TV shows, fashion shows and on the playlists of folks who know what it is to know things of this nature. There are rumors of a Twisted Wires album to come, and once they’re no longer rumors but real, honest-to-god music-biz disinformation, maybe they’ll get a little bandwidth here. TEX KERSCHEN
Photo by Josh Cobb/Courtesy of The Convoy Group
Kay Weathers sings like she's not yet fully awake, and her languorous instrumental tracks are hardly a bucket of icewater in the face, either. The young auteur's disaffected and melancholy songs can't help but bring to mind Lana Del Rey, especially the way Weathers gives off that feeling that even when she's with you, she's not really with you. Otherwise the five songs on her debut EP, Songs For Lucy, would be ideal for a warm bath, a shared bottle of wine, a moonlit walk on the beach or other things lovers do to temporarily put off that gnawing feeling of creeping alienation. It's tempting to wonder how someone so young could have written a song called “Burnout” until you hear the amount of spiritual exhaustion in Weathers's voice; as badly as she sounds in need of a pick-me-up, music as deliciously realized as Songs For Lucy is almost its own kind of comfort. CHRIS GRAY
While guitarist Kerry Wilkins is a shy, stay-in-the-background kind of guy, he’s highly visible to artists in the rap, jazz and R&B scenes in this town. Currently a member of the Unyt Band, Wilkins has been playing since he was 12. By 16 he was playing professionally, and quickly came to the attention of sax man Kyle Turner. Wilkins has a couple of jazz albums of his own, but has played on hundreds of albums produced in Houston. He’s all over the Rap-A-Lot stuff and has been a go-to session man here the past 20 years, mainly because of his iron-fingered efficiency and all-business attitude. A devotee of Hendrix, Santana and other modern stylists, Wilkins is constantly in demand for sessions and live-show work. He anchored the Blue Monday shows at the revived D Bar on Dowling with Jorvan Butler's funk ensemble during a long residency at the venerable Third Ward hot spot, and left many a mouth agape at his cool-blaze fluid dexterity. You’re likely to see Wilkins, a Stratocaster master who can play any style, on just about any stage in town. And not know it. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
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