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Norma Zenteno wonders if the new wave of Latin rock will take her higher.

Port Vale
Rudyard's
Thursday, April 27

After swapping places on the marquee with San Francisco's Timonium, Port Vale ended up headlining the night. Judging from the continuous hoots and whistles from the audience, it was perhaps rightfully so. Timonium's Adam Hervey even found a place in front of the bandstand to bob his head wildly to the new headliner's bouncy tunes. Said Hervey, who previously had heard of Port Vale only through its Web page: "We love Port Vale."

Following Timonium's set of sedate six-minute songs, Port Vale proved to be lively and refreshing. After a quick transition, the band launched straight into eight songs of indie-pop bliss. With one tune after another, Port Vale never ceased to amuse.

The band's newer songs outclassed any of its previous material. "Young as Snow," "Roman Hands," "Hushed Singles," "The Roof Fell In!" and "Airborne Rangers of Oslo" all were likable from the first few bars. While marvelously catchy, these songs still exhibited some compositional sophistication, with interesting twists and turns. While "Roman Hands" came off like a surefire radio hit, the kind that inspires all manner of impromptu air-guitar antics, "The Roof Fell In!" found the trio alternating between quiet interludes and speedy, punkish pop. If only more bands knew how to pay such attention to craft and dynamics.

The musicianship was strong and confident, though singer/guitarist Lance Walker's voice wobbled a bit on one tune, "Witchcraft and Snowfall." Meanwhile, bassist Brett Shirley and drummer John Adams kept the pace supercharged all evening.

As soon as the last song ended, people were shouting for encores. Walker seemed mildly irritated and Adams had already walked off the stage, but within a few seconds the band was playing the whimsical "Pacific Palisades," off its Western Winds EP. Then, egged on by Hervey and someone who wanted her $4 worth, Port Vale honored another request. This time, it was "Mass Transit at Midnight," the B-side from Port Vale's first seven-inch.

For the third encore, a clearly reluctant Walker declared that the band could play the entire set in reverse order for the following hour. Despite his sarcasm, he announced they'd play "All the Able Postmen," which pleased the audience. By the fourth encore, Walker was laughing, and the audience was left to sing the lyrics "but the south side sucks, yeah the south side sucks" from "North By North."

And with that, it was finally over. Walker decided he didn't know any more songs. -- Sande Chen

Norma Zenteno and Raised By Wolves
Fabulous Satellite Lounge
Saturday, April 29

Norma Zenteno has come full circle. Old-time fans may remember her '70s-era garage band, when the Houston diva played Santana-influenced Latin rock. Well, she's back at it with her latest outfit, Raised By Wolves.

Three percussionists provide the bottom end with a dense sonic latticework of roiling Latin rhythms. Three guitarists, including Artie Villasensor on first lead and Zenteno on second, rock the top end. Unlike most Latin-rock bands, the Wolves have an ace in the hole: Zenteno's vocals, delivered both in English and Spanish. The group also benefits from Zenteno singing her own tunes, not some prearranged and prepackaged lyrics and melodies.

Judging by this set, the band already enjoys a torrid chemistry. On tunes such as "Mango Mambo," the three percussionists propelled the rhythm with imaginative patterns while creating continuous tension by hitting different beats within the measures. Unlike rock drummers, who generally provide a timekeeping function, the Wolves' salsa percussionists created melodic figures that Villasensor could complement cleanly and economically. On "Amigo Mio," a tune that Zenteno wrote about a conga musician, the band opened the piece as if it were a blues song. Then the drummers kicked the song into Latin overdrive, opening it up for further exploration. At one point five band members were taking part in the dense rhythmic display, building the energy level to an intense climax.

With the comeback of Carlos Santana and the mainstream commercial breakthrough of Latin pop, clearly the time is right for Norma Zenteno and Raised By Wolves. Miller Lite recently agreed to sponsor the band, which reportedly has received nibbles from several record labels. Of course, the Houston diva has heard it all before in her three decades in the biz. She, like the rest of us, will wait and see if the current Latin wave takes her for a ride too. -- Aaron Howard

Trish Murphy
Party on the Plaza
Thursday, April 27

Though she gigs here about once a month, this performance revealed a refreshed and energized Trish Murphy. Or perhaps she was just happy to finally reach the stage following an obnoxiously long entrance, complete with dramatic red lighting, heavy smoke and spectacular ambient music. Either way, Murphy sauntered up beneath the spotlight, hugged her guitar and erupted into song by strumming a jaunty riff.

Murphy's show consisted mainly of songs from her three-year-old debut, Crooked Mile, evoking the folksy feel of her hometown, Austin.

"Wow, every time I come to Houston, something's changed," Murphy said at one point. "First Bayou Place, and now Enron Field. I hardly recognize it anymore."

Perhaps Houston should invite her back more often so the changes aren't as jarring. Of course, it has becoming increasingly difficult to book her; she has been all over the map lately. After playing last year's Lilith Fair, Murphy earned enormous exposure, drawing instant comparisons to the likes of Sheryl Crow and Jewel. That's a mixed blessing for a musician who's working hard to carve her own name into the scene.

Sadly enough, her new songs, freshly introduced here, don't seem to be anything new at all. Instead, they sound like leftovers from Rubies on the Lawn, her second solo CD, in which she abandoned the folkie approach and developed a solid pop sound, down to an odd remake of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking." Murphy appears to have lost her musical direction.

But this performance at least contained some good melodic numbers. And just when Murphy seemed to be moving the show in an up-tempo direction, she, with no explanation and certainly without smooth transitions, delivered two or three mellow tunes. Perhaps this was her sly way of keeping the audience attentive.

Since Murphy's show never reached full, butt-wagging ecstasy, people did little more than sway with the cool breeze or tap their toes. At one point, the rumble of Harleys cruising down Smith Street drowned out her rendition of "Relentless." But people kept their eyes on her, mesmerized nonetheless.

Murphy definitely has all the right tools for success: the long blond hair, the cute girly voice, the tight faux-leather pants with white stars on the side. She appeals to both men and women. She's beautiful and charming without the pretensions or bitchy attitudes of major rock stars. Her looks have by no means made her successful, but they haven't held her back either. Men still fantasize that when she sings, "Would you throw me down / Could you get me in bed" that she's singing directly to them.

"I love you!" yelled one drunk guy in the middle of the show. Murphy shrugged it off, then said: "You love me? Thanks, but are you sure you want to make that kind of commitment?" The perfect response. Keep 'em fantasizing, and don't piss off the girlfriends.

While Murphy has the stage presence of a marquee babe, her music remains a few rungs down on the concert bill. Yet no matter what she sings, her fans appear devoted, caught in the sway of her powerful voice. She has a mighty set of vocal cords, that's for sure.

When she finished the show, Murphy announced that she would be signing autographs at a small card table next to the stage. A huge crowd quickly swarmed the designated area. The singer stepped down from the stage, briefly greeted and hugged some friends backstage, then rushed over to the table.

"My fans await," she said with a sigh.

- Giselle Rodriguez


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