The 2008 Houston Press Music Awards Showcase Is Filled with Talent and Absurdity
Well, as they say in Hollywood, that's a wrap. And as they say in Houston, "Damn! I can't believe I ate the whole thing!" We kid, we kid. But reflecting on Sunday's Houston Press Music Awards Showcase a few hours after the curtain fell, I have to say, I'm feeling pretty good about the city at the moment. Of course, that could change by the time I'm finished writing this, but it's not going to. I've already seen the end of how this night played out, and it's definitely the (goodbye) yellow-brick-road, "there's no place like home" scenario. Because that sort of thing doesn't just happen in the movies.
During the showcase's first hour, various logistical duties meant I was only able to catch snippets of Two Star Symphony (who, luckily, I saw Friday at Rudyard's for the quartet's CD release; it was packed, and I've never seen that many people trying so hard to be quiet in a bar before), Sugar Bayou and D.R.U.M., whose deep reggae vibe had a solitary dancer doing calisthenics on the Venue dance floor as about 75 people looked on. (Not bad for 4:30 in the afternoon.) But from the outset and all day long, I saw bands watching other bands; this sort of thing needs to happen more often.
Realistically, the most you can hope for from a movable musical feast like Sunday's is about two acts per hour, the bulk of one set and hopefully the tail end of another. So the first showcaser I was able to spend any real time with was Wild Moccasins, fresh off a star turn as the B-52's at the previous night's Twotennany at the Mink. The folk-rock fivesome is about the closest thing to a bona fide buzz band as Houston has at the moment — well, them and Tontons — and Notsuoh was (beyond) packed with the requisite scene-makers: Ryan "adr" Clark of the Skyline Network, Ramon "LP4" Medina of Free Press Houston, Ben Murphy from Bright Men of Learning, two-thirds of Sharks and Sailors, and so forth.
Personally, I wasn't completely sold, though it wasn't entirely the Moccasins' fault: The mix was brutal, driving a wedge into the effervescent male-female vocal interplay that is such a key component of the group's sound. Still, a couple of songs were as sparkly and enticing as the Cure circa "Boys Don't Cry," and when Zahira Gutierrez opens up both vocal cords, the Moccasins sound a little like Sleater-Kinney, too.
Afterward, I walked all the way next door to Dean's Credit Clothing and what appeared to be about a ten-minute bass solo by Yoko Mono's Rozz Zamorano, which soon enough morphed into a heavily psychedelic, equally lengthy guitar freakout courtesy of one Walter Busterstrings. All you gringos out there better listen up: Some, maybe even most, of the best rock and roll in town right now is en español.
This became even clearer a little later on at Havana, thanks to the Hendrix/Zeppelin/Black Crowes onslaught that was Espantapajaros. A shaggy-haired wisp of a man, Pablo Espantapajaros is an absolute demon on the guitar, and the airtight three-piece band behind him set up a rolling groove that could have been transplanted from the Fillmore in San Francisco or that long-lost dingy London basement where the Yardbirds first started spreading their wings.
Wayside Drive delivered some sleek, punchy, bass-heavy alt-rock boosted by Natalie Osborn's Siouxsie-like vocals, but Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me" wasn't quite the right choice for a cover — maybe something by the Pixies or Violent Femmes instead. The Wiggins, a.k.a Jon Read, a drum machine and an ocean of reverb, turned "Burn On," Randy Newman's ode to Cleveland that opens 1989 baseball comedy Major League, into an industrial-rockabilly tour de force like the Cramps (who sprang from Akron, a few miles to the south) might have done.
Over at the Rice Lofts' Empire Room, the open-bar nerve center of performers mingling and gossiping, shirt-and-tie-clad Tontons guitarist Tom Nguyen said the reason he and his bandmates looked so sharp was "we just came from church" — the band's set at Venue a little later drew across-the-board raves — and Two Star Symphony cellist Margaret Lejeune said the quartet's upcoming collaboration with the Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on an original production of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is "gonna be really bloody and disturbing." But mostly everyone was talking about what shall henceforth be known as the RocBar Incident. Or Near-Incident, really.
According to several eyewitnesses, including members of the band, Brian's Johnson singer Jeff Johnson decided to have a little fun at RocBar's expense during the AC/DC tribute band's early-evening set. "This is our first time at the Cock Bar," he told the audience. "We've never played a gay bar before." Shockingly, RocBar management was not at all amused. Brian's Johnson managed to muster enough friends to avoid altercating with the Bayou Place club's security staff on their way out (don't look for a return engagement anytime soon), but that wasn't quite the end of it.
Almost as soon as all this went down, word started circulating that punk pranksters Poor Dumb Bastards were planning something "special" for their 8 p.m. set there, which predictably packed the place. This turned out to be singer Byron Dean in biker shorts and a homemade lucha libre mask, improvising lyrics along the lines of "RocBar...we're at the cock bar." Anticlimactic, to say the least, but nonetheless, the Bastards delivered a sharp set with classic-punk hooks à la the Buzzcocks or Dictators and hell-for-leather attitude of the Supersuckers.
If there was any insurrection to be had Sunday night, surely it would come from Indian Jewelry, the performance-art/noise-rock collective whose night-closing set at the Hard Rock Cafe was practically begging for some sort of subversive statement. At the very least, the people sitting down to dinner at the Hard Rock were in for a mouthful (on closer inspection, most of them turned out to be wearing wristbands, so they presumably had at least an inkling of what was about to transpire), but beyond a few arch comments from frontman Tex Kerschen, the four-piece — or four-piece until random people from the audience came onstage to join in on percussion, anyway — paid very little heed to its surroundings.
And as it turned out, Indian Jewelry didn't need to break the case containing Sting's bass, or anything else, to get its point across. Creating a sticky netherworld of sound somewhere between blues, drone, noise, psych, sludge and straight-up chaos, Indian Jewelry embodied the very qualities that make the music scene here so unique — harsh and unpleasant, perhaps, but also oddly beautiful and compelling — and were thus the ideal way to close out an afternoon and evening filled, in almost equal measure, with inspiration and absurdity.
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