“Out with the old, in with the new,” is far too cavalier and much too dismissive to apply to last night’s New Year’s Eve celebration in downtown Houston. Still, the trite old adage kept popping off like bottle rockets throughout the night. There was the traditional countdown from one year to the next, of course. Outgoing Mayor Annise Parker made an onstage appearance to wish us well just moments after clearing her office for the guy taking over on Monday. The night’s headlining bands were a reminder, too, that even greatness someday must pass the torch to great promise.
A bevy of family-friendly events was highlighted by a full set from “The World’s Greatest Party Band,” the B-52s. Kate, Cindy and Fred proved they’re not ready to be nudged aside just yet by playing exactly every B-52s song you wanted to hear. But, big-stage openers and Houston’s own Tontons were definitely “the new” in this equation, and earned some fans who happened upon their set while waiting for fireworks.
We brought along a friend, a young woman who loves the B-52s thanks to her father, who is a huge fan. She worked her way to the foot of the stage for their set, an act that required no small degree of dedication thanks to the throngs of people who wanted to dance this mess around. But, before that, she stood in awe of the Tontons and offered some thoughts as a first-timer.
As we fans are inclined to do, she initially focused on Asli Omar, the diminutive front woman with the big stage presence. She chatted comfortably with her fellow Houstonians from the stage, telling us it was Tontons’ first New Year’s Eve gig in five years and apologizing for getting her little black dress’s sleeve tassels caught up in her microphone cord. Vocally, Omar has her own thing going, but our friend compared her to Metric’s Emily Haines and the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan. She saw some Freddie Mercury in her stage presence. Pretty good company, we’d say.
As they went through songs like “Leon,” “Sea and Stars,” and show closer “Golden,” our friend, who is also a musician, directed our attention away from Omar and towards the band's stellar guitar tandem of Adam Martinez and Andrew Lee. We’ve seen the band in venues with acoustics far better suited for their work than the middle of Smith Street, which made their playing even more impressive.
Kudos to those who came to the party early enough to catch Tontons. The mass of humanity that flooded in for B-52s seemed to synchronize their arrival with the first notes of set opener “Pump.” It was a sudden influx and stretched from Bayou Place to Jones Plaza and deep down Smith. They were rewarded for their enthusiasm by getting “Private Idaho” by song three.
Fred Schneider’s vocals were familiar and time-captured from 1976, but they’ve never been tested over 40 years of performing the way bandmates Kate Pierson’s and Cindy Wilson’s have. They took lesser hits like “Pump” and "Mesopotamia” to warm up for showstoppers like “52 Girls” and “Roam.” The set included some nice surprises, like ‘Girl From Ipanema Goes to Greenland,” “Strobe Light” and “Party Out of Bounds,” a song that remains more fun than about 52 percent of music released last year.
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As the set worked its way towards midnight, the crowd bought into the world’s greatest party. We saw some very unusual moves, particularly during “Dance This Mess Around.” We heard some off-key vocals, especially during “Love Shack.” We were a little disappointed the crowd didn’t go “Down! Down!” during “Rock Lobster,” but it was amazing to see some kids bouncing around to the beat. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, which was the prime mission, of course. That’s the measure that says we’re not quite ready to place B-52's on that “out with the old” list and may never be. There’s always a place for having fun in music, which means there’s always a place for B-52's.
Personal Bias: I heard the first five songs from the 1979 debut album live last night. I could have gone home happy with just those five. Fortunately, we got to dance to lots more. But those five songs – wow. Also, how are the B-52's not yet in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
The Crowd: Houston proud people of every sort who were not afraid to dance in the streets. Happy New Year’s to you beautiful neighbors!
Random Notebook Dump: Can we talk about those pyrotechnics? Sorry, but that was the worse display of fireworks since your tone-deaf friend went all Katy Perry on karaoke night.