Identity Crisis

Well, Houston has lost another top-notch musician, and this time the Music Awards jinx can't be blamed. Mary Cutrufello -- who, believe it or not, never won a single one of our awards -- failed to return from her usual winter sojourn on the Minnesota tundra this year and has all but closed the door on ever moving back down to her summer digs here on the bayou.

"I'm a rambler," she says. "There's no plan. Permanent and me don't go very well together. I may come back, I may never come back. I don't know. And I'm happy with that. If I come back, I'll know exactly why."

She is coming back temporarily, and true to her word, she does know exactly why. She wants to show off her new band to Texas and Texas to her new band. On September 19, she'll be back at her old Rudyard's stomping ground for an early show. "I put a band together the week before I went to South By Southwest, which is why I went to South By," she says. "I was telling people, 'Watch me when I come back,' 'cause I already knew what I had."

By then she already knew what she had had enough of, too, and that was what she deems is Houston's faltering music scene. "I love Houston as a town," she says. "It's not my home, but I spent almost a third of my life there. I love the town as a town. As a music town -- it isn't one. Bits and pieces are there, but it never seems to have congealed. It's too bad -- the city's so huge. For me personally, though, I needed a breath of fresh air for my musical reality, and I needed to leave town to make that happen."

Keep in mind that Cutrufello left town in January, though she's been back a couple of times since. Things were bleak then. Houston had just come out of one of the most traumatic years in its history, and the clubs were suffering. Cutrufello missed out on Pam Robinson's single-handed Washington Avenue revitalization, the success of Hands Up Houston in bringing more and better bands to town, and the continued development of many of our young acts and new venues.

But there's no getting around the fact that with regard to pop/rock over the past 20 years, the lake-ringed quasi-Scandinavian metropolis has us beat. "I've traveled around the country and been to virtually every market of consequence," she says, "and Minneapolis had hands down the best, the most professional and the most vibrant music scene…There are people who make a living as cartage guys here, for God's sake. I'd never heard of cartage guys outside of New York, L.A. and Nashville."

Right about now you're probably about as flummoxed as Racket about what a cartage guy does. No such animal exists here. Apparently, they make a living humping amps and instruments from musicians' homes to their recording studios. Say you're Jeff Beck and you have 45 guitars and a skyscraper of 128 amps, and you figure you're gonna need every last one of them, not to mention your djembe drum and the ten-foot gong you picked up the last time you were debauching in Bangkok, to express your muse. You can't possibly take them all to the studio yourself, ergo cartage guys, the road-less roadies of the studio.

One suspects that a small army of cartage guys could subsist on working for Prince alone, so often does the pint-sized velveteen Valentino log studio time. But Cutrufello is quick to point out that Minneapolis has produced many more artists: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Semisonic and Soul Asylum come to mind in quick succession.

"There are so many bands that have come out of here and made it to the next level in the past 20 years. What that does to a scene is make people suddenly think that going to the next level is not something that other people do. Any one of us could be the next person to write 'Closing Time' or 'Runaway Train' or 'Purple Rain' or whatever it may be. I think that really makes a difference in the way a scene perceives itself."

Allow Racket, if you will, to slip into rant mode.

That's it exactly: the way a scene perceives itself. Houston's rock scene has a poor self-image, because no band has made it big in a long time. The examples of ZZ Top and (to a lesser extent) King's X can only drive the hopes of local musicians for so long, and that time has passed. The prevailing idea out there now is that no one gets out of here alive without moving to Austin or L.A. And can anyone tell Racket when that formula worked for a Houston band as well as staying home has for ZZ Top? Has moving to Austin or California ever worked for anyone from Houston at all?

Right now the labels are looking for something, anything, to get them out of their doldrums. They want a new sound; they want a city to name the next big thing. Houston's very much in the news right now, but mostly for all the wrong reasons. We are the fattest, ugliest, most polluted, most humid, most bankrupt, psycho-killingest, cough-syrup-swillingest city in America. When people think of Houston music, they come up with a series of fractured images of Urban Cowboys, Geto Boys, codeine and smash-hit R&B divas.

What we need to do is come up with a sound that combines all that, one that includes the bad stuff but also what makes this city great against all odds. DJ Screw had the humidity and the codeine parts down; now if we could just find a band that can combine that with a sound that screams Houston the way Calexico's whispers of the desert, or the Strokes' reeks of Manhattan, or Dr. John's billows New Orleans. The world doesn't have a cohesive image of Houston yet, musically or otherwise, the way it does of New York or New Orleans. But neither was there a common conception of Seattle pre-Nirvana. In that case, the music came to define the city, which is what Racket is calling for from Houston's musicians.

In short, we need cross-pollination. We need to fuse a bunch of stuff together to create something new and accessible. To step over into Houston's country history for a moment, think of Freddy Fender and Lyle Lovett. Neither of them kept it pure by any means. Lovett's jazzy big-band blues-country shouts Houston, and where else but here would you find a Mexican-American guy singing country and blues tunes set to a Cajun beat? We need more stuff like Calvin Owens's experiments with Latin rappers, the Free Radicals' grab bag of genres, Tejano versions of "Wipe Out," and Tow Down's fusion of rap and country. We also need to get the Africans, Caribbeans and Asians involved in the Anglo/Hispanic scene the same way that myriad ethnicities mix in the music scenes of London and Paris. So far, our city's music hasn't reflected the awe-inspiring swamp of Babel the Bayou City is.

You see, bands are like supermarkets. Some bands are Krogers; they make few concessions to where they are. A few are great, most are mediocre, and some are terrible. Cutrufello typifies a great Kroger act -- she could be from anywhere in America. Most indie rock bands are Kroger-style, as is any country act that wants to conquer Nashville.

Then there are Randalls-style bands. These bands are old-school Texas, the reliable good old boys and girls. They usually don't travel well beyond the state, though ZZ Top certainly did. Into this bracket also goes the play-it-safe wing of the Texas country movement, though Racket would much rather spend an hour in Randalls than five minutes listening to Pat Green.

What we need more of are the Fiesta bands. These are vibrant, fearless, funky and always interesting, if at times a little frustrating. Bands that are doing something original, something that reflects Houston. Here are the mold-shattering roots acts like Jug o' Lightnin'; Arthur Yoria, a popster with a pedal steel leading his band; and Simpleton, a band that combines the best of underground hardcore with stellar rap.

If you have out-of-town visitors, are you gonna take them to Kroger or Fiesta? If you enjoy shopping on any level other than the utilitarian, you're gonna go to Fiesta.

If you're an out-of-town record exec, and the same ol' stuff isn't working, and you're looking for a city with a sound, what type of band are you gonna sign?

Like Cutrufello said, all it takes is for one band to make it.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

KPFT ambient rock DJ Jeffrey Thames (a.k.a. the King of Grief) is the host of that station's excellent Sound Awake program. It's the best show in town you've never heard, that is, unless you stay up until three on a Wednesday-into-Thursday morn. Thames mixes local acts like Pale and Strangelight with national artists like Air, Doves and DJ Shadow, and offers us a clue of what mainstream radio will probably sound like five years from now. As Thames puts it, it's "the cool stuff from KTRU, without all the avant-garde caterwauling." On September 7, Thames will be kickin' it live for the first time in a club setting. The 18-and-up show at Numbers features cheap drinks and benefits KPFT, so go and get your grief on for a good cause.


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