February 14, 2016
The Suffers are frequently called a throwback act. Nearly every time that label is applied to Houston’s hottest band, it’s a commentary on their sound. But there’s something else about the group that recalls past Houston glories. Their trajectory into music’s stratosphere is all Space City in its heyday. With every new milestone NASA reached, there seemed to be a more exciting one in the offing. That is what it’s like to witness the trailblazing spectacle that is The Suffers.
Your favorite Gulf Coast soul band’s week stretched the limits of mission control. The past seven days included an appearance on The Daily Show, features about the band on NPR and in USA Today, performances on Great Day Houston and at Cactus Music, a pair of sold-out shows at Continental Club, and the release of the band’s eponymous and crowdfunded debut album.
Houston, you just witnessed liftoff. The Suffers have successfully cleared the launch pad and are now winging skyward. That made being in the audience at Sunday night’s show – billed as "The Suffers Valentine’s Day Booty Shake" — a little like standing at Cape Canaveral. We oohed and aahed at the marvel of this vehicle, built surely and steadily, now soaring in its awesome power.
The stage was crowded with polished talent all night, starting with opener SoulDig. La Mafia’s David DeLaGarza plays front man here, offering sweet renditions of big hits, like Marvin Gaye’s high-note tester “Got to Give It Up” and deeper cuts, like Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America.” Their set was a full-on party-starter that closed with guitarist/vocalist John Calderon capably at the helm for Hendrix’s “Fire.” Whatever they played mattered a lot less than how they played it. And every person onstage was another living reminder of the brilliant musical talent we live right next door to.
Ahead of the show, we sat out on Pachinko Hut’s benches for the cool breeze when Kam Franklin emerged with a photographer in tow. The band was less than ten minutes away from opener “Make Some Room,” so it was a frenzied moment, with The Suffers’ vocalist quickly posing for professional photos while a small group of fans followed with smartphones in hand hoping for a quick selfie. That was an indication some new fans, who had missed hundreds of previous opportunities to get up close and personal, were abundant. Later, our suspicions were confirmed when Franklin asked how many people were seeing their first Suffers set to a louder than expected roar from the crowd. That drew a trademark smile across Franklin’s face.
If any of the uninitiated came just because The Suffers are “the new thing,” they’re likely to remain because of the band’s vast, collective experience in music; the years of work that preceded The Suffers have now turned them into a sensation. Franklin showed her command of the stage from the first song, when she asked who hadn’t eaten and then shared a sandwich with a hungry fan. Symbolically, we were being told we’d be nourished all night. Judging by ovations to offerings like “Peanuts,” “Giver” and “Midtown,” everyone was happily fed. What remains remarkable about watching her perform live is how effortless she makes it all seem. Franklin’s vocals are booming but not histrionic. That she’s able to belt the way she does without breaking a sweat is something to behold.
On their Daily Show turn earlier in the week, host Trevor Noah made note of the band’s size. Like some people at Sunday’s show, he was getting a first taste. What he and they now know is how every band member is crucial to the sound. The work of their brilliant horn section brings to mind everyone from Jr. Walker and the All Stars and the Memphis Horns to tons of Tejano bands toiling in anonymity in conjunto halls everywhere. There’s Chapy Luna, the animated percussionist who occasionally steals a fragment of Franklin’s spotlight. There’s “The Boss,” as Luna referred to Pat Kelly, who looms over The Suffers in height and in the breadth of his years in music. Before the set, we stopped and congratulated him and drummer Nick Zamora on an incredible week. Zamora mentioned how nice it was to have so much “Houston momentum.”
It must have been like that back in NASA’s early days, when Houstonians scrambled for their Polaroids if an astronaut happened to be at the grocery store or gas station. The thing about those long-ago space missions is they weren’t just rockets fired into the awaiting sky for show. Each one had an objective to accomplish. Looking back at the fire, the furious thrust into the starry skies and the cheers of amazed onlookers Sunday at the Continental, the real work of the mission begins now. The building upon the success and the paving of the way for more Houston-based missions to follow. It’s an important mission, but The Suffers were designed to handle it. Godspeed.
Personal Bias: "Gwan" and "Giver" back to back nearly threw my central nervous system into shock. Also, all week, can't shake "Peanuts" outta my head.
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The Crowd: Diverse. Houston Proud.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Thanks for letting me hang out with you on Valentine's Day" — an apparently single woman to her apparently coupled-up friends.
When DeLaGarza was pumping the crowd up for the headliner, he said, "I'm waiting for us to get the fuck off the stage so The Suffers can come on," to which the fella next to me quipped, "So, we're gonna play three more songs."
Random Notebook Dump: I will never grow tired of sold-out Sunday night shows featuring local acts. Let's have a lot more.