Best intentions... Jake Van Mater is a man with a mission. It's just that, at the moment, he's not exactly sure what that mission is. Aside from being the brains behind the Houston rock trio Black Spot, Van Mater is a do-gooder with grand intentions. Supply this singer/guitarist enough cough drops, and he'd probably take it on himself to soothe every sore throat in the nation. Most likely, he'd manage to convince an army of volunteers to join him as well.
For now, though, Van Mater will have to settle for playing music, which has been known to have its own therapeutic benefits.
"People are bad and people are good, and you can bring out anything you want in them," Van Mater says. "If you choose to focus in on the negativity, it will eat you alive. People deserve to have great music in this town, and I'd love for Black Spot to be the band that sets the example of how it should be -- the ones who say, 'We're just not going to take it anymore.' "
"Not going to take what anymore?" I ask. As he tries to explain himself, Van Mater confesses that he's not too great at articulating his mission, especially after being jarred out of a sound sleep by my phone call. "I just think that ... that it's very early, and I just woke up and I need a drink of water."
Moments later, thirst quenched and mind in gear, Van Mater begins to make a little more sense. The "it" he'd referred to, he says, is the injustice many original-music bands suffer at the hands of frugal club owners ("Good groups bust their ass for a night, and they make $30; that's highway robbery"), and the poor self-image that comes with such penury. That subject addressed, Van Mater moves on to other business, namely trying to put to rest my contention that Black Spot is simply a Christian rock band in disguise.
"I think that Jesus, Muhammed, Buddha, Confucius -- everyone is a messenger of God," he says. "I'm very spiritual, but I don't really believe in one religion."
Instead, Van Mater says, Black Spot is his religion. He's been fronting various versions of the band since 1993, the year he returned to Houston after short stints in music school in New York City and college in Louisiana. A pianist by training, Van Mater discovered guitar in New Orleans, where he was halfheartedly pursuing an education degree at Loyola University. Practicing until he was passable on the instrument, Van Mater found work with a few Crescent City bands before dropping his teaching aspirations and heading home.
Black Spot began life with some rather distinct reggae/ska leanings. But as the lineup shifted and Van Mater's tastes changed, a more standard rock sound took hold. Still, Black Spot drummer Mace and bassist Jake Walker have little problem shifting into the occasional Two-Tone groove when called on to do so. In this flexible rhythm section, it seems, Van Mater has found the chemistry he was looking for.
If the latest incarnation of Black Spot is the best vehicle so far for Van Mater's vision of uplift, the trio's new, self-titled CD should have been its feel-good manifesto. Alas, it comes up at least a few epiphanies short. Van Mater's idealism has its juicy moments, but those experiences vanish almost as quickly as they appear. And it doesn't help that the disc's first cut, "It's Alright," with its well-articulated enthusiasm, clever retro-pop feel and infectious, ska-inspired bridge, buries everything else in its wake. The one worthy soul mate to "It's Alright" is "Pledge Allegiance to Love," which has a bouncy, white-funk groove, playful organ and tight female backing vocals. The song's unabashed love-heals-all optimism works surprisingly well.
But rock and roll can be a nasty business, one in which excessive positivity is often mocked. That might explain why Van Mater felt the need to toughen his stance on tunes such as "Sex Knife" and "Bigfoot." The latter is a particularly uncouth guitar instrumental built around a cheesy lick that could have been stolen from any number of '70s prog-metal embarrassments. Triumph is the first to spring to mind -- and God knows, there's nothing uplifting about that.
Friday, Black Spot will ring in the release of its debut CD with a show at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge.
River of bull... What's in a name? Apparently, not much when it comes to Riverfenix, the Houston hard-core outfit whose most winning attribute -- other than its talent for devising perfect sing-along choruses -- appears to be its lack of tasteful boundaries. The band claims they chose to name themselves after the dead movie star purely on a whim; Keanu Reeves was actually their first choice, but they liked the sound of his friend's name better. Did they ever stop to think that, given how Phoenix died, their choice might be a shade lacking in taste?
"Nah. I always thought he was pretty cool," says guitarist Damon Delapaz. "I liked the guy."
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And the laughs don't end there. The group's new Fuzzgun Records debut is called G.B.O.H., short for Gangster Bitches on Heroin. Don't go looking for any hidden meaning behind that title. The same goes for the majority of Riverfenix's lyrics.
"Our songs are about really stupid things," says Delapaz. "We've got one called 'Apple Pie Cowboy Toothpaste'; its chorus is about a dog peeing on the floor, and the rest of it's about a young girl."
Evidently, a few people outside Houston find Riverfenix's catchy-but-dimwitted routine funny. The guys were invited to play a showcase last weekend in Los Angeles, and at press time, there was a chance they might even snag a one-off gig with national-caliber ska/punkers Goldfinger. See Riverfenix live Thursday at Fitzgerald's, where they're opening for Schleprock.
-- Hobart Rowland