Toadies, Helmet, Ume House of Blues July 20, 2012
The '90s were in high demand in Houston on Friday night. Up in The Woodlands, the Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler, Cracker and more packed 'em in to relive some of the decade's best one-hit wonders.
Downtown, the Clinton-era jams were a little harder. Texas' alt-rock kings, the Toadies, rolled into House of Blues on a co-headlining tour with Helmet, and they brought Austin's Ume along with them. If you'd seen any of these bands before, you knew this was a hot ticket.
Ume's set at Free Press Summer Fest was one I was disappointed to miss, so it was great to see them back in town again so soon. One of the best bands that Houston has lost to the brighter lights up 290 in the last few years, the three-piece fronted by guitar-shredding dreamgirl Lauren Larson came ready to make some new fans. It was nice to see the venue already full when they went on.
It wasn't the '90s that Ume's set brought to mind, but the late '70s. On studio tracks like "Captive" and "Rubicon," Ume pulls off a glistening indie-pop sound gentle enough to land the group on the soundtrack of The Vampire Diaries. Their live sound is much thicker, like Black Sabbath covering a Smashing Pumpkins tune. They're a power trio, complete with smokin' guitar solos and trashcan endings. It's a righteous sight to behold.
As the petite Larson stomped around the stage and threw her hair wildly, the sound coming out of the band's vintage amps reminded me of early Rush, as if the Canadian progsters had never left the garage for outer space. When I went to check out Ume's merch after the set, there was a line. These three are definitely on their way up.
Like the Toadies, Helmet has been actively touring and recording of late after a period of inactivity following the band's '90s salad days. Bandleader Page Hamilton has trotted a number of lineups into the studio and out on the road over the past eight years, recording three albums in the process. The last time I caught them in 2004, Anthrax's Frank Bello was on bass.
On Friday night, Old Man Hamilton turned up with a band of young ringers that packed an impressive punch into Helmet's metallic, hardcore-inflected rock. The group opened with the crushing "Swallow Everything" from 2006's Monochrome, and the young rhythm section quickly proved to be just as rock-ribbed as the band's classic '90s lineup.
It wasn't until the band kicked into "Renovation" from 1997's Aftertaste, though, that it started to feel like a real Helmet show. They played a good bit of material I remembered from Aftertaste and Betty, including "Driving Nowhere," "Birth Defect" and set highlight "Wilma's Rainbow."
Songs from the group's breakthrough album, Meantime, didn't make it into the set. The band did one of those increasingly popular "album release anniversary" nostalgia tours for that record last year, and evidently they're sick of it.
"That album is retired for the next year, just so you know," Hamilton said.
The singer kept the onstage chatter to a bare minimum compared to the last Helmet gig I saw. The group finished up with "Milquetoast," thanked the crowd and beat it.
The crowd's response to Helmet was polite and enthusiastic, but c'mon, this is Texas. That stage belonged to the Toadies on Friday night, and as the floor swelled with concertgoers, there was no question which of the co-headliners had packed the house.
The House of Blues can get a tad claustrophobic during sold-out shows. People were packed in tight like Bourbon Street crowds during Mardi Gras, and drunks smashed their way across the floor like Siberian icebreakers.
The audience greeted Ft. Worth's alt-rock icons like family as the band appeared and immediately broke into "Heel" from 2001's Hell Below/Stars Above. The crowd really went nuts when they followed that up with "I Come From the Water," the night's first big shout-along. By the time the song ended, the Toadies owned the entire Houston Pavilions complex.
While classic Toadies cuts like "Away" sent the crowd into hysterics, the band has a new album to promote. They didn't skimp on new material from Play.Rock.Music, set to be released next week. "Summer of the Strange" and "Animals" from the forthcoming record were met with sincere interest, and the band actually dared to close its encore with another new one -- the upbeat "Rattler's Revival."
It was the beloved '90s riffs of "Possum Kingdom" and "Tyler" that really brought the house down, though. For the assembled thirtysomethings in attendance, those songs have ascended to the realm of musical touchstones well worth the evening's ticket price to experience again. The screaming along to "DO YOU WANNA DIE?" was ear-splitting.
It's a little unfair to call this current trek a nostalgia tour when both Helmet and the Toadies have been plenty active the last decade. Still, the pairing made it hard not to take a wistful look back at the days when crunchy guitars and restless angst ruled the airwaves.
If Friday's sellout is any indication, there's a slew of people out there ready to pay for valet parking to hear proper, heavy alt-rock again. Good thing the Toadies and Helmet are still around to give it to them.
Personal Bias: Disappointed not to hear "Unsung."
The Crowd: Gainfully employed rock fans.
Overheard in the Crowd: "Dude probably needs oxygen between songs. They still rock, though."
Random Notebook Dump: "Possum Kingdom" still rules.
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See more photos from Friday on the next page.