The United States contains more than 10,000 “Main” streets. Today, some will hold parades and quaint, quintessential American family gatherings. But no Main Street is quite like Houston’s. For example, Sunday evening, at the annual music festival dubbed Madness on Main, you could have seen a grade-schooler dancing with glow sticks to the inventive electronic sounds of Houston’s LIMB. You could have watched masked stage performers toss bagged spinach (or was it lettuce?) towards the crowd while performance artist Traci Lavois Thiebaud thrilled her audience with unique thoughts, words and sounds. You could have witnessed festival headliner Black Pistol Fire offer a performance so bombastic it may have helped open up the skies for the relentless storms that threatened the event but held off ‘til the last possible moment.
There was a lot to hear with 19 bands playing. Austin’s Sailor Poon was one of 20 originally scheduled to perform, but had to cancel when its drummer dislocated a shoulder while traveling to the event, if the buzz in the building is to be believed. (The band says she’s recovering and they’ll be back in Houston June 30 at White Oak Music Hall.) The Houston Press tried to catch as many of those 19 acts, and all the music fans listening to them, and here are some observations from the day.
HOUSTON IS OKAY WITH CHANGE
If you want to be annoyingly technical about it, this year Madness on Main actually occurred on North Main, relocating to the grounds of White Oak Music Hall for its fourth installment. The event originated a few MetroRail stops south at the so-called Mid-Main venues (Continental Club, Big Top Lounge, etc.), but the new spot seemed to suit festgoers and performers just fine. For one, it provided an early glimpse at whether the event might prove successful attendance-wise. If you arrive to an event at White Oak right when it’s starting, as we did, and you have to park over on Farwood Street when you arrive, as we also did, it’s a good sign.
One thing the new locale did was allow the vibe of the day to flow. Previous MOMs weren’t necessarily disjointed, but at White Oak, if you wanted to, you could step out of the music hall onto its tiered outdoor decks, and hear the bands playing on the Raven Tower stag, as we did with Dem. Outdoors at twilight, with Raven Tower’s bulb lights glowing, the humidity hanging in the air and with trippy visuals backing the group's roots-reggae sound, the moment was pure tropical escapism. You almost had to glance over at the downtown skyline to remember were you were.
This year's fest seemed to draw a sizable crowd. The organizers said they hadn’t yet tallied Sunday's attendance, but the bars were crowded and free seats on Raven Tower’s massive deck were at a premium. If the move bothered music fans, it didn’t show.
HOUSTON LOVES TO DANCE
The festival gave Houstonians ample opportunity to enjoy one of their favorite pastimes, and not in a low-key way, either. The first act we caught was Ruiners early in the day, looking only slightly out of place playing in a room bathed in sunlight. The crowd rocked out to the band’s guitar assault, daylight be damned. One of the best runs of the day was the five o’clock hour at Raven Tower. It kicked off with the always reliable Mark Drew, breathing orange fire in his Astros jersey, inspiring a sea of bobbing heads both for his own rhymes and those of special guest The Aspiring Me, a.k.a. TAME. Flyger Woods followed and brought an unbridled energy that was exciting to see before the dinner hour. The hour concluded with the funky hip-hop of newcomers the Jax/IV Project. By the time they cleared the stage, our legs needed a respite from dancing, which came courtesy of Traci Lavois Thiebaud.
Thiebaud is Houston’s own noise poet, somewhat reminiscent of Laurie Anderson in her prime. Whether she was making music from a cat toy fashioned into an instrument or looping audience members’ attempts at bird chirps and long burps into a piece, it all just worked, thanks to her poetic musings. It was a perfect follow-up to the furious hour of rap that preceded. Thiebaud and her company of performers brought a bit of madness to Main (okay, okay…North Main).
Around the time Something Fierce served up its post-punk goodness, listeners were dancing like they remembered it was a holiday weekend and they didn’t have to work today. One fellow – we’ll call him Batman, based on his attire – was enthusiastically shaking to the band. Others thrashed to MOTHS, which forged through some technical difficulties to deliver a solid set, or shimmied to Bayou City Funk’s take on the jam band. Special props to the fellow who was actually doing The Running Man in a public establishment in 2017, so moved was he by Soul Creatures’ crisp cover of “Jungle Boogie.” LIMB’s James Templeton provided an interactive dance experience, inviting listeners to crowd in around him so he could feed from their energy.
But perhaps no one tested the crowd's moves more than Kiko Villamizar and his Austin-based group. Billed as “cosmic urban Latino” music, it’s influenced by Villamizar’s Colombian roots and is a spectacle to take in live. A few fans twirled to the music, looking experienced and comfortable. Others seemed gleefully clueless what to do, but danced anyway. Houston loves to dance.
HOUSTON LOVES ITS OWN
Bayou City fans' allegiance is so strong that White Oak’s downstairs hall was brimming with them as local avatars Gio Chamba and Genesis Blu discussed their style at a fashion panel while out-of-towners Lloronas wailed to a sparse crowd upstairs. The band, which recalls acts like Fea and Houston’s own Giant Kitty, wasn’t deterred by the light attendance and delivered a solid set on its first trip to H-town. Later in the night, with fewer Houston acts to compete with, Austin’s Hector Ward & The Big Time drew a good crowd for its set. The band’s bluesy rock resonated a little more with some of us who heard the Allman Brothers influence in their groove, hard to miss with the news of Gregg Allman’s passing over the weekend. Headliners Black Pistol Fire is a duo that looks and sounds like a full band, using every inch of the stage with frenetic bouncy energy from guitarist/vocalist Kevin McKeown and a blur of hair and drumsticks from animated drummer Eric Owen. The band is ridiculously entertaining and it was good to see Houston recognize talent from outside its city limits.
But even acts who have since relocated in order to grow their brand appreciate their hometown's undying love. That was the theme during Lyric Michelle’s set, one of the festival highlights. The hip-hop artist with arguably the best 2016 album from these parts headed west to California on the heels of its critical success. Back home, she proclaimed her love for the H in song and by wearing a Clutch City tee. She was grateful in mid-song patter, but her set was filled with defiant lyrics and emotion, the keys to her own personal growth and honest music.
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While Villamizar was winning over Houstonians in the downstairs hall, Flower Graves — formerly Mikey and the Drags — pulled in their faithful fans upstairs. Front man Miguel Ponce, aka Mikey Drag, was playing his second set of the day, having kicked off all music with surf rockers Phantom Royals hours earlier. Their keys-laden psych/garage rock tunes may have evoked a different time, but we knew where you were. In Houston, on Main Street and appreciating your own.
“You guys enjoying yourselves?” Ponce asked the filled room, which responded with an enthusiastic “Woooo!”
“Me, too,” Mikey said. “It’s a good hang, a good quality hang.”