Saturday: New West Records Showcase At Cactus Music

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New West Records showcase feat. Buxton, Robert Ellis & the Boys, Wild Moccasins Cactus Music April 16, 2011

Although they had a myriad of opportunities Friday night to make themselves bleary-eyed and drag-tailed - Aftermath chose The Wagoneers, and thus chose to write off Saturday morning - enough of Houston's live-music faithful showed up for Cactus Music's Record Store Day New West showcase that the Shepherd Plaza store was jam-packed well before Buxton inaugurated the in-store performances around 2:15 p.m.

Because so much of Cactus' floor space is taken up by merchandise, which people stubbornly continue to buy and certainly did so Saturday, it was hard to tell exactly how many people showed up. Our best guess is that, counting the considerable beer line in the adjacent Record Ranch, the amount of people on hand would have packed the Mink's Backroom, Mango's or Walter's current location to call-the-fire-marshal levels, and filled up most if not all of Warehouse Live's Studio, House of Blues' Bronze Peacock Room and Fitzgerald's upstairs venue.

It would take a mighty cynical person indeed to count this as anything less than great news for a music scene with such a perpetual self-esteem problem as Houston's. But the turnout would have also been a little misleading to any strangers who happened by because, in effect, there were no strangers.

The overwhelming amount of people Aftermath shook hands with, chatted up and nodded at across the room were the same people we have been shaking hands with, chatting up and nodding at across the room at these three groups' shows for several years now. It's heartening to see how successfully Buxton, Robert Ellis & the Boys and the Wild Moccasins have cultivated their local fanbase. There were people there who literally do not miss a show, at least as far as we can tell.

However, it also suggests these groups still have some work to do in expanding that base beyond this close-knit and extremely supportive core. Especially now that they're not just working for themselves anymore.

Luckily, it seems like they're in good hands. New West owner and president George Fontaine (also a partner in Cactus) is a legitimate fan of all three bands, and was there beaming like a proud papa Saturday. Aftermath has heard nothing from any of the bands except that New West, which signed them all in January, has been completely supportive and accommodating.

New West likewise seems to understand it's making a long-term investment. It probably won't happen in the foreseeable future, but it's hard to interpret the label's signing these three bands and hirsute Georgia rockers Ponderosa - particularly so quickly, and virtually all at once - as anything but insurance against the day current flagship artists like Steve Earle (who plays Cactus May 3, the day his new album I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive comes out), Delbert McClinton and the Old 97's reach the point of diminishing returns. Those are mighty big boots to fill.

Furthermore, the label's sending Buxton to L.A. to mix their upcoming album Nothing Here Seems Strange with Jim Scott (Wilco, Son Volt, Sting), as well as signing the more pop-oriented Moccasins at all, suggests that not only would New West like to move some units but eventually move beyond its own roots-rock-centered cocoon. The day is coming when these three bands will have to leave the nest both Houston and now New West have created for them, but that day was not Saturday.

Instead, each stuck to what they're good at, mostly, with half-hour-ish sets that delighted the adoring hometown crowd but still managed to throw in a twist or two. Buxton stripped down to an acoustic bluegrass ensemble reminiscent of their A Family Light days, which robbed the group of some of the electric muscle they've been building up, but highlighted what skilled players they've become. The keen vocal interplay between Sergio Trevino and new addition Haley Barnes is now something to watch, no matter how loud or soft their bandmates are playing.

Ellis & the Boys, meanwhile, continue attempting to move out of the shadow of the vintage honky-tonk covers that have made the group's Whiskey Wednesday nights such a smashing, and surprising, success. Since Ellis' solo work is both more subdued and reflective than his cover choices, a noisy, crowded record store isn't the best place to get a bead on his progress, but at least a couple of his new songs are definitely worth revisiting in a quieter atmosphere.

How easy that will be to come by in Houston is no guarantee, but with some of the city's finest instrumentalists behind him, Ellis has surrounded himself with players who can't help but push him toward his goal. And when you can nail a difficult old standard to the wall like he did with the Stanley Brothers' "Rank Stranger" Saturday - which brought the room to a standstill - that creates an even bigger cushion.

Just back from more than a month in Europe with the road-seasoned chops to go with it - bassist Nick Cody said he hadn't even told his day job he was back in town - the Wild Moccasins closed with a set that betrayed not a hint of fatigue. Familiar fizzy favorites like "Spanish and Jazz" were present and accounted for, but the most impressive song was the last one we heard, a slower, more radiant new number that allowed drummer John Baldwin to mine some of the reggae and soul grooves he spins every month at A Fistful of Soul.

The Moccasins never seem to stand still, but they have learned to stretch out. There's a lesson there, not only for the three bands that Houston has invested so much of its hopes and post-ZZ Top/DJ Screw musical image in, but also for the label that has now taken them under its wing.

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