Which Houston Acts Passed the SXSW Sniff Test?

Highness' Qween Mhy attracts a crowd at SXSW
Highness' Qween Mhy attracts a crowd at SXSW
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
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Another SXSW is behind us all, one that saw a newb negotiating the highs and lows of the massive conference and festival, being initiated as a member of the "surprise SXSW show" set and hearing lots and lots of music over the course of a week. The people of SXSW were beautiful, the beer was cold and plentiful and we didn't hear one band we would not wish to grace one of our hometown venues.

No trip worth taking would be worth the packing time if it didn't include touting some of Houston's best acts to complete and total strangers. We've done this sort of thing before: in the sticks of Amarillo, on the waterfront in San Francisco, and in the (cannabis) clouds of Denver. Because practically anyone we met in Austin last week was a musician, we asked some of them to give us their unbiased takes on their Houston-based peers. We provided a playlist of 50 local acts and asked for their takes on what they liked best. Here's who we met and what they had to say about the state of Houston music:

Stephie G. is a Nashville-based drummer we met in the Austin Convention Center hallways late one afternoon at SXSW. She was on hand as a first-time attendee, hoping to gain some critical knowledge of the music business by way of the conference's music business programming sessions. We learned she is working with other Nashville artists on projects still in the works and that she was very excited about the chance to catch Jimmy Eat World and Weezer at festival showcases later in the week. Here's what she liked from our playlist:

"Say Girl Say's 'Naked' is full of stunning harmonies, along with catchy acoustic riffs and grooves. The lyrics lead you into a relaxing dream sequence," she said.

"Buxton's 'Half a Native' features uplifting acoustic melodies and mellow vocals full of peaceful vibes. This is the perfect lazy-Saturday-morning-enjoying-a-cup-of-coffee song."

One afternoon, we happened upon a group of rappers furiously freestyling and passing the mike right in the middle of 6th Street. Many were impressive but none had the flow and charm of Qween Mhy, one half of the Atlanta-based rap duo Highness. She and cohort Ms. Rabelle are leading the "Highness Movement," their own description for the femme-charged, Outkast-inspired music they make. Not surprisingly, at least one of their H-town selections was a kindred spirit:

"We loved (Onehunnidt's) 'Screw Culture' — it was a nice twist on Tevin Campbell's 'Can We Talk.' Instant classic! Also Genesis B.L.U. is coming with the amazing lyrics over a dope beat. Femcees taking over!"

Gainesville's Savants of Soul
Gainesville's Savants of Soul
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

Familiar, comforting sounds pulled us right off the street and into San Jac Saloon one afternoon, where a 9-piece soul band with a funky horn section and soulful crooner was holding court. It wasn't Houston's own Suffers (they were roaming Europe at the time) but Gainesville, Florida's Savants of Soul. Channeling past greats like Otis and Aretha, but with original material that had a full saloon grooving, this band is the real deal, y'all. We danced in the doorway and gyrated over to the foot of the stage to snap a couple of photos and watch the set up close. We had to know if the band was aware of its local kinfolk. Drummer Alex Klausner polled the band on our playlist and delivered their joint response:

"So our responses might or might not surprise you," he said. "I should say there were songs that individuals in the band liked better than others, but these were the artists representations all of us on tour could agree we liked the best," he said.

"The Suffers — obviously, we love The Suffers and have for some time. Their sound is so in the ballpark of what we do and we would love to share a bill with them sometime. Days N Daze — believe it or not, our band is largely comprised of old punk and ska kids, so the song 'Misanthropic Drunken Loner' really spoke to us stylistically. Didn't hurt that it had that touch of brass in it either," he noted. [Editor's note: Author's kids are in DND.]

"Nick Gaitan & The Umbrella Man — hard to put a [finger] on why we loved 'Hurricane Song' so much, but I think we universally agreed this song was a good one — hit us in all the spots bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers might. Also reminded us of a band we love from home called The Mud Flappers. Another band we would really love to share a ticket with!", Klausner said.  "It's pretty cool how diverse the Houston scene is."

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