Here’s what the Houston Press Music Awards must look like to downtown’s club owners and merchants: The most dreaded of plagues, a horde of drunk, smelly, and sweaty musicians and their fans heeding the call of beer and loud amplification. Let’s not kid ourselves; this really isn’t about who is going to win best Skiffle Band! Fuck that! It’s just an excuse for a party. You come out, you support your friends, listen to great music, drink like a horse and pay for it the next day with a raging hangover at your 9-to-5. In fact, recovering from the HPMA showcase has become an annual ritual for most of us. This year I’m opting to nurse my hangover with a Miller and Popul Vuh. (You handle it your way and I’ll handle it mine.)
While you were at home watching Hannah Montana in your air-conditioned comfort, we were busy getting our stink on in downtown’s steambath. One rule of thumb for this event is that the sooner you get over the fact that you would eventually be sweaty and stinky the better off you’d be.
Now me, I hit the ground running because my first stop (I missed Poor Dumb Bastards and Dizzy Pilot due to Astros traffic) was to catch Whorehound and then run from Main all the way over to the Hard Rock to see the Jonx. A seemingly impossible task but this is a Music a-la-carte event, where you want to sample and not feast.
Whorehound pounded their audience with a slow dirge that crushed all attendees with the deliberate brutality of a Ray Harryhausen Kraken. Jon Black and Corey Jackson play some mean guitar and drums but Trevi Biles wields the pulverizing two-ton mace in this band – his dirty bass tone is as distinctive as it is punishing. I came, I saw, I was crushed -- but next on the buffet was the Jonx. A sweat inducing run to the Hard Rock got me there just in time to see them close with “The Scent of Earth” from their recent album. That tune is built around a relentless bass riff that just keeps pummeling you; no matter how many times you try to get up it just keeps coming back and knocking you down. The Jonx don’t mess around; drummer (and Press contributor) Danny Mee whips out some massive skills behind the kit, Trey Lavigne’s bass runs you ragged, and Stuart Smith’s sonic guitar combines technique and power like a punch-drunk Van Gogh. The Jonx are worth breaking into a sweat over.
Now, I’ll admit, one thing that really bugged me this year was that Houston’s experimental scene wasn’t represented. Thankfully Insect Warfare decided to forego their standard set, added Concrete Violin’s Austin Caustic and proceeded to do in about six to seven minutes what nobody else could pull off – get shut down by a sound guy. The band made the most sonically dense wall of noise to be heard that day. As Austin Caustic and Beau Beasley contructed a wash of sound, the singer practically devoured the microphone as he flung himself and his long dark locks of hair into the audience and a not particularly amused sound guy. It was only a few minutes but it was likely the most inspired show since it took some chances, challenged both the audience and the club, and eventually self-immolated under its own ambition. If that isn’t rock and roll, then put a fork in the whole genre.
The final two hours would prove the most challenging as I had four bands on my list for each hour. This meant 1 song per band then hit the road. So I raced down to catch O Pioneers!, a duo that proves that drums and guitar are all you need. Eric’s aggressive and hoarse vocals demanded attention as they shredded over his ragged guitar and the pulsing throb of drummer Chris Ryan. Great fun but I had to dash.
Across the way was Satin Hooks and amen, they finally found a drummer who not only had chops but also could propel the music by sheer force. It’s been very disappointing to see this band recently as they struggled to find a new drummer but goddamn, they are back and in full force. Kerry’s rhythm guitar was sweet and Lucas’s bass was thumpin’ but drummer Nick (ex-Gay Marriage) was as unstoppable as a freight train. Kudos indeed.
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On to the next band. I’d heard goods things about Ragged Hearts, who were playing across the street, and I was not disappointed. The band played a jangly, rootsy style of rock with solid harmonies, lovely dual guitar work, and sharp catchy songs that caught your attention. Glad I stopped by, I’ll have to see a full set sometime soon. Yet, no rest for the wicked for just down the street was Drop Trio. I heard keyboardist Ian got himself a Keytar – yikes. I rolled in and the band was doing its funky smooth thing. The bass and drummer laid down some sweet grooves while the keys hopped and bopped. If anything, this is probably the most lighthearted performance I’d seen from these guys. They seemed to be having fun and when Ian whipped out the infamous Keytar, all bets were off. Yet, as playful and crazy as they may have gone, they always brought it back to a solid groove. When you’ve got it, why not be a little cocky and silly?
That rolls us into the last hour of hit and runs. First stop was Sharks and Sailors, one of my favorite bands in Houston. They combine excellent musicianship, sonic precision, and sharp-as-a-katana songcraft. Mike and Al’s dual guitars are frighteningly precise, Melissa’s bass is as limber as it is heavy, and Phil’s percussion is the stuff of madmen. They are a four-ring circus of music, where each member is always doing something interesting but never hogging the spotlight. I’ve never seen them play a bad show and tonight was no different. I really had to work hard to pull away from Sharks and Sailors.
But I had to catch Bring Back the Guns, as their shows are always inspired and infectious. Singer Matt Brownlie has a habit of doing whatever it takes to get your attention but it’s never obnoxious like an attention-starved child. It comes across instead almost like an invitation. Unfortunately, the club’s set-up made that intimacy a bit hard to attain as the band was relegated to a perch behind a railing above the audience. The band was working it but being so high up seemed to hold them at bay. No matter, Matt tempted fate and slid down the railing of the stairs while playing his guitar. To bring it on home, you have to do what you have to do. When the stage is too small you just make it bigger. Well-played guys!
From there it was off to the Verizon to try to catch the Dimes (local badasses that they are), but given the over-the-top security, I skipped it and headed over a bit earlier than I expected to see the Sideshow Tramps lunacy over at the Hard Rock. What better way to close the night than with a bunch of degenerate riff raff singing the songs that brought you down in the gutter with them? Here was my kind of crowd -- a sea of drunken revelers bathed in each other’s sweat, spilling beer as they sang along and danced. This was music and a performance that simply grabbed everyone and shouted, “Hey! This is life, remember? You’re supposed to enjoy it! Now throw that booze down your gullet and c’mon!” That, my friends, is how it’s done! – Ramon Medina