The Spirit of the Scabs

This past Thanksgiving Day, while the usual narcissistic suspects who bemoan Houston's alleged lack of a music scene lounged on the sofa, barely able to budge from the overdose of tryptophan coursing through their veins, a near-capacity college-age crowd at the Continental Club had other ideas.

They were getting their groove on to the Handsomes, arguably the hottest local band in the city. Heads were bopping to the group's soulful, funky rock; pockets of fans were singing along to every word; and the distinct odor of pheromone-laced sweat hung in the air.

A pack of nubile young women led by a lady in a red dress and fake tiara went toe to toe in a dirty dancing contest. The women stared fixedly at frenetic lead singer Jordon Blackwell and guitarist David Nachtigall and ground their hips to the tight foundation laid down by bassist Ben Stark and drummer Andy Morris. Later the dance contest moved on stage, as the most uninhibited women in the crowd joined the group to hump along to an R. Kelly cover. The young men in attendance pressed toward the stage to salivate and revel in the wondrous sexiness of the moment.

It's damn near astounding that this bacchanalian celebration took place on Thanksgiving Day, a guaranteed dead zone in any city's music scene, one almost as moribund as Christmas Day -- which the band will take on with their next gig. But then, this is the Handsomes we're talking about, a group that is generating the same kind of buzz here that the Scabs drummed up in Austin before Bob Schneider met Sandra Bullock.

Mark our words: If the Handsomes manage to score a slot at the 2004 South By Southwest music industry schmoozefest in Austin, the group will turn some heads. Not bad for a band that had its first practice in May, came up with its name as a joke, has played fewer than 20 gigs and still makes up its set list a few minutes before hitting the stage.

What makes the group's quick rise to the top of Houston's pecking order most rewarding is that it has been done strictly on the strength of its live show -- the band has neither a manager nor a publicist breathing down the necks of music writers or radio stations. And the whole thing still mystifies bassist/manager Stark.

"To have this kind of exponential growth in our fan base is inexplicable," said Stark, a polysyllabic former New York investment banker who looked resplendent in a white Saturday Night Fever two-piece suit during a pregig interview. "Our first show at the Rhythm Room had like 50 people, but then 150 were there for the next gig, then 200. It was crazy. We just were thinking we'd form the band to have a bit of fun over the summer."

Blackwell and Nachtigall, both 25 and friends since the seventh grade at Lanier Middle School, are the band's nucleus. Their first band, Three Legged Fish, performed its initial two-chord ditty, titled "The Talent Show Song," at Lanier in 1991.

In high school the pair broke into the local club scene with ska bands the Mod Squad and Half Loaded, but college interrupted. Blackwell went on to get a broadcast journalism degree at what was then Southwest Texas State, while Nachtigall earned a business degree at the University of Texas, though he sporadically gigged with Morris along the way. (Rounding out the highly educated quartet's educational pedigree is Stark's double-major psychology/economics degree from UT and Morris's fine arts degree from Southwest).

"Hey, I'm into Uncle Sam for like $30,000," said Blackwell of his student-loan badge of honor, a sum that continues to grow since he is now a second-year law student at the University of Houston. Nachtigall, meanwhile, enrolled in law at UT this fall. With plans over the Christmas break to begin recording a follow-up to a hook-laden, three-song EP released in the late summer (it contains three of the band's most popular songs: "Souls' Pretending," "Perfect Cure" and "Wake Up") and a growing following in Houston, plus more gigs being scheduled in Austin, those lawyerly skills may just come in handy sooner rather than later.

Though the flow of the group's show is still raw, and Blackwell's spontaneous white-dopes-on-punk leaps and spins often detract from the fact that he has a pretty decent set of pipes, the group's sound and kinetic stage presence offer a combination that's compelling, if somewhat inexplicable. For those of you who absolutely insist on a name to form an aural picture here, think Sublime.

"I always thought ska was limited as a genre. Boring as hell, in fact," said Nachtigall, whose funky chords and blistering lead solos bind the band's sound together. "There's something about the dynamics we have here that I can't put my finger on. Jordon and I worked on the original songs this summer, and we all clicked when we got together to work on them."

Stark noticed the ska influence at the very beginning of the group's practice sessions, but says it's since been diffused into the current blend of pop-rock, funk and more. "We never wanted to cater to any particular crowd, not wanting to be too abstract or too cutesy," he said. "But I think more than anything, we give people what they want to see in a band. We're entertainers just as much as musicians. Jordon has that onstage charisma, and so does David."

Indeed, if the Thanksgiving Day gig is any indication, Blackwell certainly can check off the "get to meet lots of chicks" box from his why-I-wanna-be-a-rock-star list. "I wonder how many of my ex-girlfriends are going to be at this show," he asked, tongue not quite firmly planted in cheek.

Meanwhile, the band is still evolving. Certainly it has the pop-rock radio-hook thing down, but when the band was joined on stage for a couple of songs by emerging local rapper REG, Blackwell seemed genuinely thrilled with the notion of adding still more flair to the Handsomes' sound. Also bubbling under the surface is a neo-soul undercurrent -- the Handsomes' straight-up covers of R. Kelly, George Michael's "Faith" and Grover Washington's "Just the Two of Us" go just as far to stamp out the band's musical turf as do its taut, original shake-a-thons.

"Sure, we dig all kinds of music," says Nachtigall. "But it's the energy of the shows and our enthusiasm that gives us what a lot of bands would really like to have: fans that come back for more."

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr