Rocks Off feels like we live in a Western. This is nothing unusual for us, except right now is the part of the movie (every movie) where one cowboy turns to the other one and says, "It's quiet out here." The other answers, of course, "Yeah... too quiet."
Since about Free Press Summer Fest, the feast-or-famine nature of the live-music business has seemed amplified to us. Instead of the steady stream of reviews throughout the week we've grown accustomed to bringing you, it's been a couple of big shows at Toyota Center and/or The Woodlands, plus a handful from significantly smaller places. Sometimes not even that many. It reminds us of the weather - the creeks swell in the spring and fall around SXSW and ACL, and dry up to a trickle in the summer, briefly replenished by the occasional Britney/Rihanna/Katy Perry thunderboomer.
This weekend, the big stages were completely dark, which is why it was so gratifying that of the three places Rocks Off went Friday night, all three were packed. We took Saturday off... it happens. You will see why soon enough.
The first one we shared with you earlier today, the Houston/Denmark goth-punk sandwich of The Energy, iceage and Balaclavas at The Mink, which was absolutely swarming with people. The other two would have made a perfect double bill at Fitz's or House of Blues, say, with roots-rock guitar ace Dave Alvin and his Austin sidekicks the Guilty Ones at the Continental Club and reunited Houston cowpunks Horseshoe at Rudyard's. (Next time, maybe.)
The Continental audience may have been a little grayer and less inclined to swing from the rafters than their counterparts at The Mink, but the venue was just as crowded and hard to negotiate. And if it was swinging you wanted, Alvin and the Guilty Ones' (especially drummer Lisa Pankratz) wrists were tightened like flesh-and-bone lug nuts, most of all on the tribute to Kansas City cat Big Joe Turner "Boss of the Blues."
Alvin is one of the premier guitarists Rocks Off has ever seen. Friday he blew the doors off with songs from his Blasters/X days and indulged in folky finger-picking. Either way, each precise, razor-sharp series of notes would not have found its mark quite so accurately without the generous context he gave the song: Recounting a well-told bit of Houston music lore before "Johnny Ace Is Dead"; humorously explaining how Hollywood came calling before the sultry "Harlan County Line" (now the theme to FX drama Justified); and honoring friend, late fiddler and former Guilty Woman Amy Farris before touching two-stepper "Black Rose of Texas."
Elsewhere, Alvin's guitar did all the talking necessary, like on the roaring "Long White Cadillac." (Your move, Dwight.) When Rocks Off returned from our brief detour to the Mink, the band was in the middle of the Knitters' "Dry River," which was as torrential as the rain so ardently hoped for in the lyrics.
Rocks Off was hoping to stick around long enough to see how the Guilty Ones tried one of our favorite Alvin songs, the Cajun-spiced "Marie Marie," but as the clock swung around toward 11:30 p.m., decided it was time to cut bait for Rudz. With all due respect to Alvin et. al. (including Marie), we made the right choice.
Not knowing much about Horseshoe except what we had heard secondhand - that they were some kind of roots-rock wildebeest from the days Rocks Off was a young whippersnapper learning our trade in Austin - we had no idea what to expect once we moved aside Rudz's heavy upstairs curtain. It's just as well; no amount of homework short of time travel could have prepared us for the scene we walked into.
The room was full, the band had been playing for a while, and the wheels were good and greased. So was the crowd, which was sprawled out around the various tables, enthusiastically nodding along from the alcove by the bar or in the middle of a bizarre Old West maypole ceremony around front man Greg Wood on the venue's modest "dance floor." Wood stood straight-faced and nearly stock-still as a good two dozen or so dancers entwined themselves around each other and occasionally him - ironically, he reminded us of someone the iceage kids should probably investigate, David Thomas of Cleveland proto-punks Rocket From the Tombs.
In a word, just a word, the band cranked. In three four-letter words, it was loud, mean and sexy, both "fuck you" and "fuck me." This afternoon Rocks Off momentarily confused one of the songs we saw in the 30 minutes or so we were upstairs, "No Shit" - if that's not the title, Wood made generous use of those six letters - with Ministry's "So What." After about 15 minutes, we turned to our buddy sitting next to us on the pool table and said, "this is as good as Drive-By Truckers."
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That's not the kind of praise Rocks Off throws around lightly. But after hearing what Horseshoe did with one of our favorite Bob Dylan songs, "If You Gotta Go," it sure sounded that way. Rocks Off was just glad we saw the few songs we did, but it looks like the reunion wasn't a one-and-done affair after all - according to what we heard upstairs, Horseshoe rides again at KPFT's annual Watermelon Dance next Saturday at Last Concert Cafe and, just over the telegraph, Under the Volcano October 19.
You've been warned. As for us, Rocks Off was reminded that even in the middle of the biggest musical drought we've endured since moving to Houston, even a deaf horse finds a full trough once in a while. Friday night, we found three.