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HPMA Aftermath: Small Sounds, Yoko Mono, Katie Stuckey and the Swagger, Espantapajaros, Buxton, Los Skarnales and Thee Armada

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Small Sounds is a bit of a misnomer. There were six or seven of them Sunday (I couldn't figure out the revolving-bass-player thing), and between their strong vocal melodies and great sense of dynamics, their sound was anything but small. I was particularly fond of the mix of Fender Rhodes and steel guitar in a few of the songs, a really pleasing sound that added great texture to a solid batch of songs

The Sounds’ take on Americana was much closer to the Band, Ryan Adams or Beechwood Sparks than to fellow Texans Reckless Kelly or Honeybrowne. They can on occasion twang with the best of them, though, but probably the most Texas thing about them Sunday was the singer's Lyle Lovett-like hair. He looked like he was walking into a strong wind the whole time he was on stage.

A nice crowd had gathered by the time they finished with a song that captured everything good about the band - insanely catchy, before evolving into a nice spacey interlude. I left very satisfied, at least until I hit the stifling heat of Travis Street.

Yoko Mono/photo by Daniel Kramer

Over to Dean's for Yoko Mono. I have to admit that I have missed the rise of "Rock en Espanol" in Houston, mostly because my Espanol is extremely poor, but thanks to Yoko Mono, my eyes have been opened. What a great band. My notes from the set were mostly cryptic scribblings of superlatives.

Yoko Mono is really impossible to classify. First off, the level of musicianship was just mind-blowing. The two guitarists had very different yet complementary styles, the drummer was insanely good, the conga player didn't stand out but I felt him the whole time (which means he's a great comga player) and the bassist is just incredible. The band’s first song was a deep funk groove, the second reminded me of Cream at points and the third somehow evolved into Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla". Wow.

That led into a deft shift into a samba-esque rhythm with sustain-y guitar that couldn't help but remind me of Santana, but that was really the only moment that made me think of what I had previously considered "Rock en Espanol". In fact, thanks to Dean's inadequate PA, I couldn't even tell it was "en Espanol" most of the time. Maybe the clothier/bar can use some of that $4 bottled water revenue to help pay for an upgrade.

Back into the heat for the long walk to the Hard Rock Café for Katie Stuckey and the Swagger. I had seen Katie before at Cactus Music, and at that time my take was “Real good singer, not-so-good band.” So I was cheered when I saw three guys from the Small Sounds setting up to back her.

Katie's a strong, strong singer with some solid original material. Comparisons are never really fair, but I'd put her in between Kathleen Edwards and Miranda Lambert if I had to. She was a little stiff onstage, but had definitely loosened up since the Cactus appearance, thanks in part (I’m sure) to the fact that she was fronting a far superior band. I daresay she's ready to do a full-length with a decent-size budget and good producer (she was hawking an EP from the stage). Of all the acts I saw, Stuckey has the most commercial potential. She's definitely one to watch.

Espantapajaros/photo by Chris Gray

After a dinner of Hard Rock nachos (only $15.95 - what a deal!) and Stuckey’s crowd-pleasing version of "Tfor Texas" it was back to Havana for more "Rock en Espanol" from Espantapajaros. Not a conga drum in sight as the band sets up, just two Les Pauls and a rhythm section. Their first number totally evokes the Beatles "Rain," once again reminding me how ignorant my notion of what "Rock en Espanol" was only three hours before.

Espantapajaros' roots are obviously British rock from the late 60's early 70's and Neil Young and Crazy Horse (or should I say Loco Caballo?). Song after song rocked with crunchy, swirly guitars. The crowd, the most diverse I saw all day, was obviously familiar with the band, cheering everal songs as they began. Estantapajaros was equally at home with short, punchy rockers and long jams, including one that began with a raga-ish drone and evolved into a long, prog-y number. A fight nearly broke out during that one, but somehow the peaceful vibe prevailed.

Buxton/photo by Jim Bricker

My previous experience with Buxton was at the Westheimer Street Fest a few months back and frankly, they were a big ol' mess. However, I got a definite sense there was something there.

I was definitely the oldest guy at Butterfly High for their set, which kicked off with a sort of indie-rock Duane Eddy intro, leading a song that began like an Iron & Wine B-side and quickly stormed into a a rocker with a chugging train rhythm overlaid with insane Clarence White meets Johnny Marr guitar. Impressive.

The next song was equally hard to describe, except it was kinda obvious the band has been listening to Bob Dylan’s Bringing it All Back Home recently. Song after song rolled by: some beautiful, some chaotic, all strikingly original. The great thing about Buxton is that none of these guys would be nearly as good in any other band. There's a sense of organic completeness there that occurs in all truly great bands and make no mistake, Buxton is a great band.

It was hard to make out all the lyrics, but one image really struck me. In a song about a missing child in the 20's, the singer described the family's desperate attempt at some closure by burying a rocking horse instead of their child. Haunting. Buxton wasn’t the tightest band I saw Sunday, by a long shot, nor were they the best players or singers, but to my mind, Buxton was the best band I saw Sunday. Incredible.

Los Skarnales/photo by Daniel Kramer

I headed out on an incredible high to Venue for Thee Armada. When I got there, Los Skarnales were still tearing it up to a huge, responsive crowd and I thought, "Wow, my evening is gonna end on a really high note!" Unfortunately, Skarnales finished soon after I arrived, and the crowd headed for the exit like Hurricane Rita was coming back for another shot.

Maybe 50 or 60 people remained in the cavernous club for Thee Armada. I began to worry a bit when someone I’m pretty sure is Chewbacca's son came onstage with a guitar in his hand - a guitar singularly and tastefully adorned with a Confederate flag. I didn't panic, though, as I sipped my $5 bottled water. Hadn't all the bands I had seen previously been incredibly diverse? Hadn't they all somehow reflected the uniqueness of Houston? Surely there would be something in Thee Armada that would continue the five-hour high the HPMA showcase had produced so far.

Or not. Chewy Jr. and his compatriot on guitar produced not one memorable riff during the entire set. The whole thing was "modern rock" by the numbers without one shred of originality or anything that said "Houston" - heavy bass and kick drum with a noxious vanilla pudding of undistinguished guitar in the middle topped by a singer who looked just like all the guys on reality shows who "have a band."

His annoying Blink-182 vocals and Mariah Carey-ish hand gestures were muted a bit by the fact that his conversational lyrics and sometimes-catchy choruses were the band's only virtues. They ended their mercifully short set with a song about Texas that really had nothing to do with Texas. I headed for the train, exhausted and (for the most part) elated by all the great music I had experienced. – Greg Ellis

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