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I'm almost ashamed to admit this was my first Westheimer Block Party, or Street Fest, or Surprisingly Well-Organized Locals-Only Outdoor Event Sponsored by a Competing Publication on a Shoestring Budget (That Nonetheless Needed More Food Vendors), or whatever you want to call it, really. Despite the many things I failed to understand - why HPD didn't block off the street, how that guy tapping on two plastic buckets with drumsticks all day didn't get sunstroke, what that dude walking around with a cardboard box on his head was hoping to accomplish (same for the stick-thin blonde in five-inch stripper heels), why the Good Lord saw fit to bless Saturday with such phenomenal weather - in a little more than five hours, I think I got the gist of what was going on.
It's not exactly AP calculus: Open a couple of clubs early, throw up a few stages in various parking lots, allow the city's artists and anarchists to peddle their wares, make sure there's plenty of beer on hand, make it free and a party's going to break out. It has to. A long time ago, SXSW taught me that trying to see every band on offer - even at a free festival - is a fool's errand, so I didn't sweat the fact that someone cooler might have been playing somewhere else at the same time. But because I still feel like The New Guy in Houston, I also avoided bands I had seen or heard before (though not entirely... well played, Buxton and Karina Nistal). Here's what I came away with, in chronological order:
News on the March (Avant Garden, outside): Four young guys and a female cellist who had obviously been through their parents' (or even grandparents') record collections. The first song I heard was rambling '60s folk-rock a la the Lovin' Spoonful or Dylan circa Blonde on Blonde, the second sweetened the harmonies for a Beach Boys/Grandaddy vibe and the third crossed the pond for some vintage blissed-out Village Green Preservation Society action. Can we start a discussion thread on how under-appreciated the Kinks are?
Come See My Dead Person (Mango's, inside): Yes, that's their name. Although bands with such distinctive monikers often expend most of their creative energy deciding what to call themselves, this was decidedly not the case. The second band in a row I saw prominently featuring an instrument of the stringed variety (here, a violin), these voyeurs veered from sad-bastard Tom Waits folk to rollicking ragtime rock. And with a name like that, there's no excuse for missing their next gig.
Mechanical Boy (Numbers, inside): Impressive. This quintet started with some sturdy Rapture-ish disco rock, piled on the synths for a second song that emphasized the singer's vocal similarities to the Killers' Brandon Flowers (not an insult by any means) and proceeded from there. The bassist hump-de-bumped like a junior Flea, and the band did a sharp left turn into a driving, catchy acid-rock number with a faint whiff of "War Pigs." A subsequent ballad illuminated a troubling tendency to lean on generic modern rock (think A Perfect Circle) but they're still onto something. One to watch.
Perseph One w/AndAcc (Numbers, outside): Solo female rapper who breathed new life into the old INXS lyric "words are weapons, sharper than knives." Perseph had an entire arsenal at her disposal: brisk flow, smart lyrics, offbeat vocal effects (echo, echo and more echo) and squelchy beats from turntable accomplice AndAcc, but her confident, casual, commanding stage presence carried the day. Charisma to the Nth degree.
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Basses Loaded (Numbers, outside): Picture it: someone tells you about a band with three bass players and a drummer - and that's it - and you're like, "Jeez, did humanity not get enough of this with Primus?" Oh, how wrong you would be. Surprisingly mellow and noodle-free, the quartet skillfully navigated the same indie-rock/jam-band divide that Modest Mouse pretty much owns these days, thanks in no small part to their ability to manipulate their fuzzy four-strings to approximate keyboards and guitars. The singer, besides displaying a wunderbar command of the German tongue, can hold his own with Frank Black in a scream-sing competition. The harder riffs brought out the loopy Pixies similarities even more.
Poison Apple Martini (Mango's, inside): Take-no-prisoners speed-punk from a femme-fronted trio, perhaps a hair out of place in a venue that charged $4 for a Lone Star, but never mind. Bracing but not overloud - technical difficulties, ubiquitous at events of this nature, aren't always detrimental - they betrayed a heavy debt to the Pacific Northwest, like the combined all-stars of early-'90s Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars spawned an especially bratty child. The singer's voice was was well suited to her material, full-throttle and authoritative, which is much more important than singing on-key. Subsequent buzzsaw riffs also revealed an interest in heavy psychedelic blues and drone.
Electric Touch (Numbers, outside): A ringer of sorts, this Austin-based quartet (half of whom do hail from Houston, mind you) has already secured spots on the emerging-artist stages of Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. They managed to overcome some acute early sound problems, but not quite the derivative nature of their material. After two nondescript tunes that married the Rolling Stones' slouching riffs to the Strokes' penchant for repetition, they found their footing with a cover of Tom Petty's "American Girl" that the fortysomething hot moms next to me absolutely loved. ("They're awesome," one gushed, before it came out her friend actually had a kid in the band.) Jangly ballad "Saved" evoked Summerteeth-era Wilco, and "Get the Money" dipped deeply into the psych-pop of Abbey Road... right up until they broke into "Come Together." Still, it takes guts for a band to be so open about their influences, especially when their originals come up somewhat lacking. But they've got the basics down, and closing Romantics-like rocker "Breakdown" proved it would premature to write them off.
American Sharks (Mango's, inside): Hell-for-leather punkish hard rock like the Supersuckers and New Bomb Turks used to make. Add a healthy dose of Memphis/Detroit garage R&B, and assorted nods to Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and the Misfits, and here's a band that sounds exponentially better the more fucked up you happen to be. Born to play Rudyard's on a weekend, when no one gives a shit what happened to their dates, or their car keys.
Midnight Pilots (Avant Garden, inside): Four hairy dudes in their 30s doing aggressive pre-Sister Sonic Youth noise-rock. (See Bad Moon Rising, EVOL.) Loud as fuck, but light on its feet - the kind of music custom-made for cramped upstairs lofts. Drove several cringing nonsmokers out onto the balcony for respite; the perfect way to end the afternoon, in my mind. - Chris Gray