May 10, 2019
Legend has it that nearly 100 years ago when Rockefeller’s was still a newly minted bank building and not yet a music hall, Bonnie and Clyde robbed the place. It’s a pretty safe bet that most of the crowd at last night’s sold out PUP show there had no inkling of the building’s former life (it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, kids), but they might have understood what it was like to be the victims of a sudden heist. That’s because the Toronto-based punk band burst into the joint with a full arsenal of perfectly-crafted songs and demanded the crowd hand over every ounce of energy and exhilaration it could spare. The crowd gleefully surrendered.
PUP is touring in support of Morbid Stuff, its new album, which released only a month ago. It’s arguably the best-reviewed effort of the band’s career to date and, though it’s only been widely available to listeners for about 30 days, Houston’s PUP fans already knew all the lyrics to its songs. We know because they sang their lungs out to the show opener, the new album’s title track, and Morbid songs like “Kids,” and “Free at Last.” That one followed one of the band’s older and more beloved tunes, “Sleep in the Heat.” Posting it high up the set list, the band made a clear statement about how the night was going to go – everybody move, nobody get hurt.
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The crowd complied, at times too jubilantly. The band’s vocalist Stefan Babcock had to ask at least one overzealous fan to not make life difficult for Rockefeller’s security staff, a slight interruption to a party that the band likened to a high school prom. The venue’s ornate architecture does lend an air of elegance to any show held there, and it is prom season, after all. Few prom bands can spur deafening, rhythmic hand claps from the crowd the way PUP did when performing “Free at Last.” Not many can get crowd surfers hoisted midair the way they did on “Dark Days,” an older track.
“This is one of the first songs we ever wrote,” Babcock introduced "Dark Days." “A lot of the first songs we ever wrote suck. This one’s okay.”
The crowd clearly disagreed that the band’s older stuff doesn’t stand next to the newer tunes. One of the very best moments of the show was PUP’s offering of “Reservoir,” a cut from its 2014 self-titled album. In a distant era, the space at Rockefeller's was created for transactions and “Reservoir” was a wild exchange of currency, something akin to the world’s most rad bank tellers cashing million dollar lottery checks for a few hundred lucky winners. The audience shouted its appointed line -“Meet me at the reservoir!” – with glee.
Near its end, Babcock told the crowd that the show had two songs left and no encore, which was fine by the gathered since the pair were two of PUP’s biggest hits. Everyone in the room sang to “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” as if they too had personal knowledge what its like to trek tirelessly from one city to the next in the same stinky tour van. That was followed by the frenetic chant-heavy show closer, “DVP.”
Before they shut down the set, PUP apologized for taking four years to get back to Houston, though it was obvious that absence (and a killer new album) has made the heart grow fonder between fans and the band. They promised to not take so long next time to return to the scene of a beautiful crime. Then, they made their escape to their getaway vehicle, a massive bus parked catawampus behind the former Citizens State Bank.
The Openers: Casper Skulls came on right at 8 o’clock to make sure the coast was clear for the headliners and found the hall two-thirds full at that early hour. Everyone gathered was treated to a set of melodic indie rock tunes from the band, which also hails from Toronto. Their stripped-back sound was a nice lead-in for what was yet to come. Tunes from the set you should seek out include “Colour of the Outside” and “Primeval” from the band’s 2017 album, Mercy Works.
Ratboys was sandwiched in for a pretty stellar set, too. The crowd was engaged by the Chicago band’s front woman, Julia Steiner, who explained the notions behind some songs (its most popular tune, “Elvis Is In the Freezer,” is about her dog, she noted) and otherwise rocked the crowd with guitar-crunching tunes.
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Personal Bias: Maybe because I chatted with him ahead of last night’s show, I’ve grown sort of fond of PUP guitarist Steve Sladkowski. After he Tweeted our story to fans, I started following him on Twitter and his posts suggest that he and the band aren’t taking all of its deserved acclaim too seriously. His Texas posts have been funny, including a couple from last night where he rues ordering a large margarita in Texas and gives a shout-out to Velvet Taco. Before the set I gave him a “Clutch City” tee-shirt, since he’s an avid basketball fan and because I was hoping for some good karma. Alas, the Rockets fell, so now I’m rooting for the Raptors to upend the villains from Oakland.
The Crowd: Asked the first 10 punks I saw if they’d ever been in Rockefeller’s before and they all said no, they never had. They seemed to have a splendid time, though.
Random Notebook Dump: One time at Rockefeller’s, I sat 10 feet away from him while Ray Charles played songs from the birth of soul music. I was one of about a half-dozen people who braved flood waters (sigh) for a set by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I once geeked out when they sat my wife and I a couple of tables away from legendary Houston music writer, Bob Claypool, for some show he reviewed. I’d never seen crowd surfing or a mosh pit at any of the many shows I’ve seen there before. The late Bob Claypool might have been turning over in his grave at the idea of punks in Rockefeller’s, but I’m about it. Let’s do some more of that, please.