It was one of those nights in the Near Northside on Friday. Cars were packed in along both curbs on North Street, mere inches from driveways. The paid parking lots did brisk business as folks as pickups and SUVs squeezed in wherever they could.
Both indoor stages at White Oak Music Hall were running, and the upstairs show was a banger: A double-headliner bill with Baroness and Deafheaven, a couple of modern, heavy acts dripping with distorted, melodic textures. Friday was the first night of their month-long tour together, and judging by the enthusiastic turnout, the bill might as well have kicked off the summer concert season.
The sweaty, funky smell of a quality rock and roll gig was already in evidence for opening act Zeal & Ardor, a strange band with balls enough to mix metal with industrial dance music and what can only be described as Negro spirituals. As a live music experiment, the group’s music was certainly fascinating, if rather bizarre. The monastic, foot-stomping strangeness of songs like “In Ashes” and “Servants” seemed mostly the point. Somebody near me described it as “like heavy metal Imagine Dragons,” and I couldn’t come up with a better descriptor than that. If that intrigues you, check ‘em out.
Most of the crowd, though, politely waited through Zeal & Ardor’s set for Baroness. The Savannah, Georgia quartet has weathered a lot in recent years, including a near-fatal bus crash, a series of lineup changes, and the ego-destroying chore of hauling their titanic gear up the stairs at Rudyard’s British Pub. Friday was their first Houston gig with new guitarist Gina Gleason, and fans were packed in tight to see if she could convincingly pull off the group’s patented harmonies.
Baroness opened their set with a tried-and-true number, “A Horse Called Golgotha,” just to prove that she could. Gleason wrapped her voice and strings capably around those of frontman John Baizley, and if some in the crowd couldn’t tell she was new to the group, that was just fine with everybody on stage.
Baizley, for his part, seemed energized and ready for the new tour to get going. His every motion to the crowd was quick and emphatic, driven by adrenaline. So were the songs. A lush, post-rock passage in “Cocainium” morphed into a groovy thump with a disco beat, and “Eula” provided a rich, headbanging singalong. Baroness isn’t quite a metal band; they aren’t much given to wailing and chugging. But their music can still knock you down if it catches you on your heels.
The best part of their set was the final quarter, which saw Baizley break out a gleaming double-necked guitar and go to work on the 12-string half. Fan favorite “Take My Bones Away,” a driving, heavy groove that had fans jumping up and down, singing along. It was the last tune of a long set. I didn’t check my watch to time it, but it must have been more than an hour. Turns out they weren’t kidding about that “co-headlining” tour announcement.
Considering Baroness’s pedigree of great shows in this town, I was interested to see how many people would file out after they left the stage. It didn’t appear to be too many. Deafheaven hasn’t been around long enough to hit Houston as many times as their tourmates, but the Bay Area band have made a name for themselves among the city’s more open-minded metalheads with strong live performances and girlfriend-ready guitar swells. Even those in the audience who weren’t so familiar with them appeared eager to give them a shot.
That shot arrived as if fired from a machine gun with “Brought to the Water,” the set opener from the band’s New Bermuda album. Drummer Daniel Tracy began noisily blasting right off the bat, joined shortly by the shrieking vocals of George Clarke. These two are mostly responsible for the “black metal” flavor of Deafheaven’s best material, and they certainly delivered a hard-charging introduction.
That first song was a long one—they all were, really—that showcased the breadth of the group’s musical ideas, stretching from ugly blackened riffs to poppy, earnest hardcore in the vein of Grade or Thursday. Like Baroness, Deafheaven is heavy as hell, but don’t always fit too comfortably into the metal box. It’s tough to be evil when the stage is decorated with bouquets of white flowers. But they damn near blew the roof off the place next with the new song “Black Brick,” a sprawling pummel that opened up a big, lively pit in front of the stage.
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The last time I saw George Clarke, his short hair was gelled down and he was stalking the stage in Warehouse Live’s smaller studio room. On Friday, he twirled his long locks in time with the blast beats as the pit raged, screaming his guts out in a shrill screech reminiscent of Cobra Commander. The larger stage suited him as a front man, giving him more room to bound about and engage with the audience.
Their set was only seven songs long, but it was a full set by any measure. It’s always impressive when a band can inspire violent pushing and shoving one minute and then wistful embraces between couples the next, all during the same tune. Their searing/soaring dichotomy has been pretty well explored at this point, but it’s still effective. One poor guy had to be helped out of the pit after suffering what looked like a pretty bad sprain, a look of agony on his face. Music doesn’t get much more aggressively emotional than that.
The crowd had thinned out a bit by the time Deafheaven was done. Those who remained were worn down but impressed. This is a tour that’s determined to probe the highest highs as well as some crushing lows across the country. If you’re going to brave the maelstrom, lace those boots up tight.