Pride of Place

For me, the Houston Press Music Awards Showcase opened and closed with odd juxtapositions of cultures. It began with the Lady D firing up her zydeco machine as I watched Argentina piss away a 2-1 advantage in the last seconds of the final of the Copa America tournament, and then completely fall to pieces in the ensuing penalty shootout, much to the dismay of the Speakeasy bartender in the striped Argentina jersey. Five hours later, I watched Los Skarnales put their gritty, corrosive Pachuco Boogie Sound System through the paces at Blu Torch, a nightclub normally known for being an Asian-American hang. Creole zydeco and South American soccer? Barrio ska at a swanky Asian dance club? That's Houston in the 21st century, baby.

In between those multicultural bookends rested a library of intense sights and glorious sounds, and a few things that were just downright weird. I saw indie rock at a jazz bar, rock en español at the Mercury Room and a kinky freak-out in one of the inner sanctums of Jesse Jones's crown jewel. That last would be the impromptu set by JW Americana in a function room upstairs at the Rice Hotel. Of all things, this gig put me in mind of the Kennedy assassination. Rodney Elliott's stage attire -- an old-school Western suit and plastic cowboy hard hat -- has always reminded me of the big plainclothes cop in that picture of Lee Harvey Oswald getting shot, and the Rice Hotel, where JFK spent his last evening alive. Anyway, as the band sang about hot dogs, I was subconsciously thinking of this when Elliott and JW Americana bass player Doug Kosmo went all Madonna-Britney on us, French-kissing right there on stage. Jesse Jones probably went into convulsions in his grave.

A couple of hours earlier, Greg Wood had a hard time making it to his set at the Blu Torch. Somehow he was forgotten out at his Spring Branch bowling alley, and was forced to resort to taking a cab to his gig, which he said devoured all his gig money. Which wound up costing me money, as he demanded I buy him a drink just as his band launched into a super-intense, 15-minute set. In return for the drink, he did dedicate a song to me, and where once he branded me "A Bad Example of a Man," this time around I was labeled "Texas Trash." Who says even lowly music journalists can't come up in the world? At any rate, Wood's set culminated with the singer on his knees, his one good eye rolling back in his head, and the band kicking out all the jams as he bellowed out "Everything Is Okay."

And everything was as I took leave of that and headed over to the Mercury Room for Chango Jackson. Cactus Music general manager Quinn Bishop was in attendance as well, and he was very impressed. "If I could sign one band in Houston, Texas, right now, it would be Chango Jackson. Their level of professionalism is amazing. They played the perfect showcase set." They had some new stage gear -- Afro wigs, cheesy T-shirts with their names printed on them, white socks pulled up to their knees -- but the set list for the most part remained the same. The flying tamales and "Speak English You're in America" were a couple of the highlights, although the same stage was the scene of some idiocy after their set; specifically my moronic, rambling and drunken introduction of Clouseaux. Hey, guys -- I did it on purpose. Yeah, that's the ticket -- I wanted to make an ass of myself so it would be easy for y'all to sound great by comparison. Uh-huh. Anyway, they did sound fantastic, and the Mercury Room's pretty much the perfect venue for their suave sounds.

And one of the best things about the whole day was how every band brought their A-game. The Lady D, UME, Chango Jackson, JW Americana, Greg Wood, Clouseaux, Los Skarnales...every band I saw freakin' rocked, and the only thing that sucks is that you can never see even half the bands you want to see. I had three or four bands highlighted in every time slot, and just about every time I planned to flit from venue to venue, taking in a little of this or a little of that, I would wind up waylaid by a killer performance, stopped in my tracks by something I couldn't tear myself away from.

But that's not what I like best about the event. My favorite thing has got to be how this event chips away at the endemic cliquishness of the scene, or make that scenes. Indie rockers go to blues shows. Hip-hoppers check out a little honky-tonk. Jazzbos catch a little rock en español. And vice versa. Houston's multiethnicity bodes well for the future of the city as a music town, but only when and if people start sounding like what we look like. If we continue to copy styles from other cities, if many bands keep taking the words "You don't sound like you're from Houston" as a compliment, we'll always be an afterthought. But if we revel in all of what's offered here -- an incredible blend of people with European, Central and South American, African and Asian heritages -- and come up with music that reflects all that, bands from outside Houston will start taking it as a compliment when people tell them they "sound like a Houston band."

Some bands here have done this. ZZ Top and Lyle Lovett both steeped in the blues, and they are among the biggest successes we've ever had. Today, it's most often bands that are either all or in large part Hispanic -- Chango Jackson, Vatos Locos and Los Skarnales, to name three -- that show the greatest willingness to take chances with style, to play fast and loose with genre, to reflect that Houston is not a wanna-be-(name of rock city du jour goes here).

In short, they seem to have pride of place. But then every band did last Sunday -- downtown was a proud place to be, thanks to all the wonderful bands, the people on the other side of this building who work so hard to run the event, the people at the clubs who are kind enough to host us for a wild-and-woolly evening. And even though I get the feeling that the rain might have eroded attendance a little this year, I still feel like this was the best Music Awards Showcase ever.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax