Paste Untapped Festival Discovery Green November 16, 2016
It's hard to imagine an event like Untapped Houston happening a few short years ago. Still in its infancy, Discovery Green was reluctant to book large-scale events such as this combination music/craft-beer festival; these days it's a wonder the park was even available. As far as respected mid-level indie bands like the Walkmen or Heartless Bastards were concerned, the Bayou City might as well have been Timbuktu.
But also, I think, until very recently the local music scene simply has not had the kind of bands that are essential for the success of a festival like Untapped -- groups popular enough in Houston to make it worth a promoter's fee, but that also have enough mass appeal to prevent everyone who just came out for the beer from streaming towards the exits.
In that, Untapped lucked out by landing The Suffers, the Tontons and Wild Moccasins, three of the more charismatic acts this town has seen in some time. All three seem to be on the verge of rounding another corner in their respective careers.
Underwritten in large part by Paste magazine and both produced and promoted by Dallas-based events company Spune, Untapped had been done twice before in the Metroplex -- as have a handful of similar events like Denton's Canned festival -- but Saturday was its first time in Houston. The drizzly weather, punctuated by brief outright showers, had to have cut into the expected attendance, but it also could have been a lot worse.
Therefore the crowd may not have been what organizers were hoping for, but outside a few hiccups that weren't strictly their fault -- for one, tickets that had been bought online but not printed out reportedly wouldn't scan due to the overcast conditions, leading to a sizable logjam at the box office right after the gates opened -- Untapped has to be counted as a qualified success, especially for a first-time event. Hopefully they'll do another one.
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Lately it seems like you can't step outside in Houston without running into the Suffers, whose diligence is starting to pay real dividends. As the first group on the festival's "main stage" (Discovery Green's permanent stage served as the other), they didn't have a whole lot of stage time, but still managed to work in (or is that work out?) -- a satisfying representation of their self-described "Gulf Coast Soul."
A sizable crowd down front looked on as the and the plus-size group belted out its horn-blasting, rhythmically robust sound that spanned supple rocksteady reggae and bifurcated '70s R&B that alternated between suppressed and full-throttle. Front woman Kam Franklin offered to cook for a lover on "Go Back," from their debut album due next year, and one nearby fan found that tasty enough to offer an Aretha comparison -- which for once did not sound like utter blasphemy.
Afterwards one Suffers fan brought his girlfriend onstage and offered up a flowery marriage proposal she sheepishly accepted; they may not have to look too far for a wedding band, but they better book that reception well in advance. The Suffers are already a force to be reckoned with, and only getting better.
Also with an album due in early 2014 is Wild Moccasins, whose indie-pop via New Wave sound has undergone quite the transformation. Gone is some of the group's past chirpiness as well as most of the twee; in its place is a sleek, almost European pulse that suggests they are entering some kind of Talking Heads/Remain In Light phase: half funk groove, half Brian Eno omnichord, but all pop nonetheless.
Moccasins singer Zahira Gutierrez, meanwhile, is still going toward some sort of Cocteau Twins zone that mingles possession and rapture. If it's not the Suffers, this is Houston's best band to dance to right now; Giorgio Moroder would not be displeased.
It started raining shortly before the Tontons started playing, which instantly brought on an ACL flashback to the monsoon that accompanied Cure last month; then the rain stopped but the flashback didn't. Not sure why that thought never occurred before, but the quartet's songs are swimming in the same kind of mysterious guitar textures and punchy but melodic basslines that are a hallmark of some of the better Cure albums.
Maybe it's that the Tontons' songs seem to come from a place of warmth rather of fear. That would be the contribution of front woman Asli Omar, whose prowess as a front woman continues to grow as she becomes more seductive and sisterly alike.
Coming off three months on tour, in a year that has seen the Tontons play both Hangout Fest and Fun Fun Fun, she was extra-glad to be in front of a hometown audience too -- "Hello my Houston babies," Omar purred to the crowd, and hardly had to say anything else, just sing them bewitching songs like "Leon" and "Never Never."
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As for the "headliners"/out-of-town guests, they were fine. I enjoyed Heartless Bastards more than the Walkmen, but only because I am older and I prefer their rougher sound that's not afraid to smack you around a little. Singer Erika Wennerstrom can really howl, and her wounded-warrior voice is more than up for the challenge set forth by her three bandmates steeped in the deeper crevasses of the Stones/Zeppelin oeuvre.
The Walkmen were a little too clean-sounding for my taste -- if it goes on long enough, that Edge-like guitar tends to make me zone out if being played by someone other than Edge himself -- but I was glad they played "The Rat," the one song of theirs I do recognize right away. Plus the people around me were beaming. If I watched a couple more Walkmen shows, I'd probably come around, though I suspect their uniformity might become an issue.
It was nice to have both bands there, but either one could have dropped out (like L.A.'s Big Black Delta did) and I wouldn't have enjoyed the evening any less. There would no doubt have been more than a few angry Walkmen fans, though.
Of course Untapped was also a beer festival, and it was amusing to watch people sipping from shot-glass-size vessels all evening. Considering the potency of many of the microbrews available (more than 60, laid out as a sort of midway in the main-stage area plus a few to the side of the second stage), it's easy to imagine how the whole thing could have degenerated into an unpleasantly drunken mob, but that didn't happen. So Untapped deserves a lot of credit for booking music that was engaging and energetic, but didn't rile up the crowd too much.
That may be a knock against some festivals, but not this one.
Personal Bias: Former beer drinker; ongoing music lover. "Scene supporter."
The Crowd: Young folks, with a healthy sprinkling of more seasoned beer/music fans. More than a few beards.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Sorry to be that guy."
- "He's 29. He's a big boy."
- " I wish I had a tambourine."
Random Notebook Dump: One thing this festival already has on either Free Press Summer Fest or Austin City Limits is that at those festivals, the downtown skyscrapers were off in the distance; here, they were right on top of you. Even with the unfortunate weather, it was hard to beat the scenery.
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