Holiday Hangover Hell Yeah Feat. Los Skarnales, Tontons, the Suffers, Quiet Company, Wild Child, Bagheera, Ishi & Featherface Warehouse Live December 28, 2013
One of the most insufferable things about being a Houstonian for the past year or so has been the never-ending parade of people telling us how great we are. It doesn't matter if it's Cosmopolitan naming us one of the best cities to meet single men or the awkward if well-meaning "Fuck You, Houston's Awesome" campaign, this relentless back-patting is starting to make some of us uncomfortable.
Then there's our music scene, which has so far managed to escape all this attention. Never mind national recognition or regional acknowledgement -- a couple of high-profile, relatively young media sites here claim to be all about Houston but apparently don't think our own musicians are worth covering. Some of us who have been around for a while are of two minds about the subject: of course we would like to see these talented performers get more attention, but the last place we want is for Houston to become another Austin. One of those is plenty, thanks.
But we could keep preaching about this until we're blue in the face; in fact, it feels like we have. Mark Austin has done something about it.
About a year ago, maybe a little more, Austin went all in and started a managment and promotions company called the Convoy Group. Anyone who has met the thirtysomething ex-accountant and freelance photographer (including for the Press) knows he has been one of the local music scene's biggest supporters since long before he staked his career on it. This "Holiday Hangover" bill of Convoy clients and a few guests from around Texas, Austin explained to us earlier Saturday at Cactus Music, was his way of thanking the performers for various favors they had done for him -- hopefully with a full house.
He got what he asked for. The crowd gradually filed in as Featherface opened the evening in the Ballroom, and kept coming through the Suffers' sultry set; more than an hour later, most of them were still there to either join or dodge the second of Los Skarnales' two circle pits.
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Back to Featherface for a second. The four-piece has a warm and lovely sound, a mooning indie-soul hybrid that frankly might be a little too soft-focus. What they're missing is a song or two that's a real grabber or otherwise goes for the throat, but the potential is there in smoldering tunes like new single "Ourselves Together."
Also helping warm up the crowd was young electronica duo Bagheera, who may turn out to be the biggest breakout of the entire evening -- according to Austin, they have captured the favor of Twin Shadow and have even bigger plans in the works. By the time they were through molesting Chris Brown's "Run It" with some pretty obtrusive bass, more than a few people down front were feeling their bumping but mellow house(ish) beats.
In retrospect, Saturday's show played out as an amiable but fairly heated competition between the Houston acts and their Dallas and Austin rivals. The bands from elsewhere in Texas came off quite a bit more stylish (or stylized), while the H-towners were mainly concerned with playing their asses off. But hey, we're all friends here.
Consider Austin's Wild Child, which brought a keyboard, violin, cello and handlebar mustache onstage for a set of folky but non-hippie-ish pop tunes. It was a little precious, to be sure, but the songs were well put-together, well-rehearsed and dramatic, betraying some pretty obvious training in the theatrical arts. Overall Wild Child came in just on the right side of twee. Much later Dallas' Ishi would step right over that line, only in a much more M83 kind of way, as a kind of electro-shaman in neon shades and matching metallic fez and dinner jacket. Kids.
Quiet Company, meanwhile, were almost too big for the small Studio room. The dapper five-piece had already opened for Blue October's sold-out House of Blues show earlier Saturday, and fought their monitors their entire 40-minute set. But it was hard not to get swept up in their symphonic rock in the grand tradition of The Who or ...Trail of Dead ("You, Me & the Boatman"), cut with power-pop and a little humor when front man Taylor Muse broke into the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
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Quiet Company is an unusually dynamic band, and they sounded terrific, which made it a little puzzling that the Studio wasn't even halfway full -- until it turned out that Rocks Off's own advice man Willie D, who had already made one cameo at Warehouse Friday night during Public Enemy's set, was making another one to introduce the Suffers as "the best Houston music has to offer."
It's getting harder and harder to disagree with him, which is not something anyone would want to do lightly anyway. Still rolling out songs from their upcoming debut album, the plus-size ensemble has a lot going on. And a lot to recommend them, but the bottom line is it takes as much personnel as the band can muster (which felt like more than usual Saturday) to match the sheer force of Kam Franklin's vocals. Slowly working up the crowd through some mellow reggae and lush Chicago-style R&B (think the Chi-Lites), soon enough she had them going as crazy as a church service. And the Suffers keep right on picking up steam.
They'd have to in order to even think about following the Suffers, but the Tontons have also tightened their screws. From the first jangly notes of "Magic Hour," a cut from their album due in February, through "Golden" (still their best rocker), they've matured into a much more cohesive band. Before they could be almost too abstract, almost swallowed by their shimmering, ghostly aesthetics, but trimming some of that back has given the sound an extra kick that makes it even prettier.
Asli Omar still acts out the songs as much as she sings them, but for such a tiny frame she can sure belt, and shimmy, and sound a little vengeful once in a while. Meanwhile the rest of the band looked like each member was in his own trance; locked in a collective hivemind. Whatever they're doing, it's working. The Studio was packed, and the people who weren't dancing in place or waving their arms were just standing there spellbound.
That calm lasted all of about three seconds when Los Skarnales got going. That was enough to whip up a full-on circle pit, as ringleaders Felipe Galvan and Nestor Aguilar stalked back and forth like Chuck D and Flavor Flav had done Friday as the horn players do-si-doed with other, drummer Chapy Luna ran up front to commandeer Galvan's timbales, and other general insanity ensued that made even rank gringos feel like the biggest pachucos that ever lived.
Skarnales put some real stank on it that didn't let up for a second. They barely even paused to let the crowd stop dancing (or moshing) and applaud. Joe Strummer was smiling down from heaven, Kam Franklin was boogieing just offstage, and another couple -- no, two -- was dancing on the other side of the stage. Soon enough Serrano's shirt was soaked completely through, Luna took a deep swig of water that nearly drained his bottle, and Galvan (finally) paused to take requests. Then the second pit broke out.
When I moved to Houston six years ago, I wasn't sure I'd ever see a show of mostly local acts almost fill up a venue the size of Warehouse. The talent was certainly there, but the scene seemed to suffer (no pun intended) from a serious lack of faith in itself -- but not anymore. According to Austin, around 1,200 or 1,300 people came through Saturday.
At between 10 and 15 bucks a head, the math adds up to a significant payout for all parties involved. But that's almost beside the point.
Personal Bias: Keep Houston weird.
The Crowd: More than a few Duck Dynasty beards. Many more who have yet to see their 30th birthday. A Monsters Inc. spirit hood or two.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Do you sell earplugs?"
Random Notebook Dump: Borracho! Borracho!
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