Photos by Ramon "LP4" Medina
It would be a stretch to call Wednesday's Jana Hunter/Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez show - which had been hastily relocated to Garden Oaks coffeehouse/pub the Petrol Station from DiverseWorks - normal. That much was clear when some guy came out of his house and expressed his extreme displeasure that photographer Ramon "LP4" Medina and I parked on the (public) street in front of his house. Something about how he wasn't going to be happy at all if a car tore around the corner and knocked Medina's into his yard. And it seemed like such a quiet, pleasant neighborhood. Whatever, dude.
Irate neighbors aside, the show, which packed the patio of the converted filling station near 610 and Ella, was a laid-back, low-key affair. I can't imagine there being much activity on the Hands Up Houston message board last night, since most of the principals were there sipping craft beers or homemade wine and swapping storm stories, murmuring to each other about how they were happy to be out, happy to be anywhere.
Chris Ryan and "Mike" with the spoils of FEMA
Besides Medina, the Skyline Network's Ryan "adr" Clark, producer Chris Ryan, David Dove of Nameless Sound, Ben Murphy of Bright Men of Learning, and various members of Bring Back the Guns, Young Mammals, Wild Moccasins, Woozyhelmet and Sharks & Sailors all showed up to welcome Hunter, who moved to Baltimore last year and hadn't been back "in a while," back to Houston.
Hunter's Baltimore buddy Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez (who later played guitar in her three-piece backing band) opened with a set that was, almost throughout, a dead ringer for late English acoustic poet/cult hero Nick Drake. Alvarez took many of his lilting guitar lines from Simon & Garfunkel circa "Scarborough Fair" - later coaxing a beautiful tone from a plugged-in Fender Strat on a song or two - and delivered his lyrics about blackbirds, wizards, children, girls with "pinecone eyes" and so forth in a pristine, nearly pitch-perfect high tenor.
Call it the return of Juno-folk, and the crowd - totally freaks and geeks, with a few ballcap-clad locals thrown in - was digging it. So much so that they refrained from talking to their neighbors during Alvarez's set - I can't even tell you how impressed I was by that.
Clad in a fedora, giant owlish eyeglasses, T-shirt and gym shorts, Hunter and her bearded band went on a little before 9 p.m. as she explained, "I wrote most of these songs in a house I drove by that doesn't exist anymore." The music was similar to Cowboy Junkies' narco-folk with lots of sweeping, My Morning Jacket-like sighs thrown in - hearing her live for the first time (like I was), most people would probably peg Hunter as acoustic PJ Harvey - like last year's White Chalk with guitars instead of piano.
Hunter sings in a hurt voice, deep and husky - probably pitched lower than Alvarez's, come to think of it - that, though not especially bluesy, was dry and matter-of-fact enough to remind me of Lightnin' Hopkins for some reason. It was a blunt counterpoint to her murky, meandering music, not far removed from neo-troubadours like Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine. One song was almost Siouxsie-ish with Hunter's sinister come-ons; another coupled a Phil Spector melody with some spectral, swooning slide guitar.
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During the languid gospel/drone of the song that began "I opened my hands to you and showed you my soul," a nearby train whistle split the night - and did it in key with the band, which drew a hearty laugh from the crowd. Somehow the whistle sounded in perfect counterpoint with Hunter during the Peggy Lee torch-song blues of "Leopards on Fire" (just a guess at that title too), making the scene on the eerily green-lit patio that much more surreal.
"The band's gonna go get loaded, and I'm going to play a couple songs by myself," chuckled Hunter before closing with a couple of solo numbers that recalled a more curt Billie Holliday, as her wayward guitar, for some strange reason, made me write the following note: "guitar chords as weather radar."
So no, Wednesday's show wasn't quite normal at all, but even as much as I go out, it felt totally fresh. If we're all starting over after Ike, this was a great place to begin. - Chris Gray