Making Sense of a Trying Year

Although it seems like it, Noise doesn't listen to music all the time. Sometimes he ­watches DVDs.

His immediate past viewing includes both bang-bang seasons of NBC's 30 Rock and Runnin' Down a Dream, Peter Bogdanovich's four-hour documentary about the band responsible for Noise's favorite three hours of 2008 — Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' hot August night at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in front of a sold-out house and garden of 20,000-plus pumped-up fans. Every song was as glorious as the first time you heard the oceanic opening organ lick of "Refugee."

Another of the year's better shows came just last week, under very different conditions. A promising band from Baltimore by the name of Wilderness, very well regarded in indie-obsessed blogger circles, closed out its set of dense, vaguely android neo-Goth to a single-digit audience — of all dudes, no less — upstairs at the Mink. Unsurprisingly, magnetic, perspiring singer James Johnson was clearly not in the same room as the rest of us.

Like a sparkplug and piston, those two extremes of the music business — the conquering heroes and talented unknowns laboring in semi-obscurity who may one day take their place — could not function without each other. But Houston has to be the only U.S. city the numbers people call a "major market" where the local music scene can feel like a ghost town.

This peculiar sociocultural hiccup drives the fraction of Houstonians who wish, musically speaking, we were more like Austin, or Chicago, or — God forbid — L.A. or Dallas, absolutely shithouse bonkers. It probably should. But their first, and fatal, mistake is expecting Houston to resemble anywhere else. That just doesn't work here — never has, never will.

Houston is as fascinating as it is frustrating, and 2008 threw all kinds of ghosts in the machine and devils in the woodpile. We spent the summer agonizing over whether indie-rock apparatchiks had organized some sort of blacklist campaign against the city, and the fall digging out from the biggest hurricane to hit Texas in 25 years. That sort of thing will shore up a city's priorities real quick.

Meanwhile, the local amphitheater/arena circuit barreled ahead like gangbusters all year long — Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen through Judas Priest, Coldplay and Madonna — and Houston welcomed its own House of Blues (cha-ching!) and the 2008 Latin Grammys. We made a fumbling attempt to establish our own rock festival in Rock the Bayou — which, despite being woefully underbooked and underattended, wasn't a bad time at all as long as you managed to stay out of jail for selling an extra ticket you didn't need.

Houston had its share of haymakers in 2008. We'll start with Beyoncé, whose I Am...Sasha Fierce notched one of the year's most impressive sales debuts at upwards of 400,000 copies — double that (it's a double album), and you're talking AC/DC or Lil Wayne-type numbers. Bun B carried UGK's legacy — cut all too short upon Pimp C's death a year ago last week — into a successful solo outing, II Trill.

Pimp, it's worth pointing out, was partially felled by the notorious Houston-born codeine concoction sometimes known as "drank." Although sizzurp's heyday is long past by now, this year Houston's Innovative Beverage Group, Inc. turned lowercase drank into capital-D, over-the-counter Drank, an "anti-energy drink" or "extreme relaxation beverage" containing rose hips and valerian root. ("Warning: this product may cause drowsiness.")

The Geto Boys got back together for a July 4 show people are still talking about, and Scarface supposedly "retired" with this month's Emeritus, though we'll see how long that lasts. The City of Houston even went so far as to proclaim July 22 "Trae Day," about three weeks before the proud member of Assholes by Nature administered an old-school beatdown to rival Houston rapper Mike Jones at the Ozone Awards, the annual Southern hip-hop honors visiting our city for the first time. MTV News loved that little dust-up, and Trae got a hilarious cartoon out of the incident easily found on YouTube.

Although it didn't draw the same above-the-fold amount of attention, Houston's indie scene had a prosperous year, artistically if not financially. A tip of the cap, then, to the class of 2008: Two Star Symphony, Indian Jewelry, News on the March, Buxton, Gold Sounds, Balaclavas, Woozyhelmet, Riff Tiffs, Paris Falls, Satin Hooks, Glasnost, No Talk, Motion Turns It On, Wild Moccasins, Sharks and Sailors, Something Fierce, Antarctica Starts Here, Espantapajaros, Chango Man, Yoko Mono, Tontons and McKenzies. Apologies for the inevitable omissions.

And then there was Ike. The category 2 hurricane (and category 4 storm surge) that washed ashore the evening of September 12 leveled Galveston landmark the Balinese Room, severely damaged that city's 1894 Opera House and Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe — both of those venues, like Galveston itself, are now inching towards recovery — and went all George Clinton on the Woodlands Pavilion, tearing the roof off the sucker to the tune of more than $2 million in damages.

The Pavilion's response to such a potentially devastating event pretty much tells you all you need to know about Houston, not to mention Southeast Texans' appetite for live music. Since it was already going to have to rebuild, the Pavilion decided it might as well expand, and is upping its covered seating capacity to 6,500 in a $9 million renovation scheduled to be finished in April. A similar-sized facility will be open in Sugar Land soon.

For not even close to the last time, Houston isn't Austin — music isn't an essential component of either this city's economy or its self-image, and probably never will be. That's not entirely a bad thing. Like those weird exotic plants that only grow in the dark, the music scene's low profile fosters an underground that's as fertile as it's ever been.

And, even in Houston, live music is far from a luxury. As the economy falters and things seem to grow more uncertain by the day, its fundamental role as spiritual tonic only gets bigger. More than anything else, music — whether Tom Petty or Two Star Symphony — is the beacon reminding us that no, we don't have to live like a ­refugee.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray