It’s been a while since I attended the Houston Press Music Awards showcase and it was an interesting contrast from those years I have attended previously to what I experienced this year. I’m not going to go into a straight comparison but it was largely a much more tepid showcase this year. A fellow writer I spoke with suggested some reasons for the lack of enthusiasm. Weather kept folks away. Sure, lots of rain on Sunday likely thew off attendance but given the largely centralized location this was not really an issue once you arrived. 2012 was a tepid year for Houston Music. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that as there were some good releases but the argument made was that a lot of the veterans weren’t doing anything new and there weren’t any particularly exciting new bands stepping up. The big Houston bands had better and more important things than to “get out the vote” on social media and that’s a good thing. I heard this from one other person when I brought up some conspicuous oversights in the nominations. I don’t entirely agree with those thoughts but I think there is a level of truth in it. Unlike other years where there seemed to be some wave people were riding, this just seemed a mish mash of bands and I didn’t see a lot of folks jumping from venue to venue as much as in prior years. It seemed a lot of folks were there to see their band or bands and that was that.
Still, I did get a nice smorgasbord of local bands which is a nice way to spend an afternoon and there were some highlights. Here are some of the bands I saw with brief notebook dumps below each.
Miss Leslie and Her Juke Jointers. Good solid stuff and one of the main reasons I made a point to head out to the showcase early. Miss Leslie has a phenomenally expressive voice, her pedals steel player is a hoot to watch in action, and her songwriting is top notch. A solid nominee if you dig that Country thang.
Glasnost. Not much I can say here. Not bad for what they do and the audience dug them.
Love their records but something was off here. Not an awful performance but just nothing seemed to really drive it and I think that had largely to do with the backing tracks being so far back in the mix which is hardly HISDs fault. ( Turn it up would seem to be a recurring theme this evening.)
In contrast to HISD, Female Demand was all volume, noise, and this unrestrained frenetic bolt of energy. If there was one band that seemed to be unconcerned with riding right up to the edge of the cliff at the HPMAs, it was Female Demand. The beautiful thing about the band is that for all the noise and cacophony the whole thing holds together in this rhythmic pounding and catchy way that keeps it all surprisingly as accessible as it is engaging to watch.
In sharp contrast, singer songwriter couldn’t have given two shits about putting on a performance. In place of Female Demand’s sweat and thrashing about, Stinson just stood there just delivered his songs. The guy’s got a good voice, he clearly is confident on each song’s ability to carry the performance byitself, and he was happy to let his guitarist lay out some sweet burning solos during his songs. If that is your kind of thing, then Stinson is your man as the cheering crowd could attest. If you need anything further to to hold your attention, you are S.O.L., my friend!
Alkari’s new album has some really awesome production, the songs sound big with a capitol B so it took me a minute to adjust to the more stripped down live sound. Not too long though, as they started with “Crazy Truck” – the best song from their new album – and let’s just say that when they hit their stride on that track, it’s pretty ass-whoopin’. The room was kind of tiny and I really would have liked the guitar to have been as loud as the drums and the bass (again folks, turn that shit up – this ain’t no library!) but the crowd certainly didn’t care as they hooted and hollered along to every song. Also, kudos on guitarist Jason Smith for utilizing the most varied guitar sounds of the evening – it was a lot of fun nerding out to his collection of guitars and pedals and seeing what he’d do on each song. Note: Apparently there is a group called Houston Free Thinkers and they will remind you of their existence as many times during an Alkari show as possible.
Second Lovers follow in the indie/folk/americana tradition as bands like Buxton. They have some good musicians, varied intrumentation, great vocals, and some solid songs that feel both rustic and new. They are young players to be sure and if they are hitting their business this good at this early a stage, we can only imagine what they will do in the future. One note though guys, if you are going to rock it out for the last song, for goodness sake turn up the guitars – the drum and fiddle mix is all cool and everything but, don’t be shy, you gotta turn that stuff up to rock.
Caretta Bell was one of the most fun performances to watch. Sound guy issues? She’ll crack a joke. The keyboardist is AWOL? No problem, she’ll lead the crowd into backing her up for an A Capella number. It’s like nothing can phase the woman; she’s having too good a time and it carries straight through from her to the audience. And what’s great is that her stage presence isn’t anything showy or excessive, it’s just this smooth, homey, and charming thing that seems to say, “Yeah, I do have the voice and I did bring the tunes, so let’s just have fun.” And everyone there did. Good stuff!
This group kind of perplexed me. They played well, don’t get me wrong but I kept wondering, “Are they a kids band?” That is what they sounded like and I don’t mean that as a put down – there is some great kids music out there – but you can’t judge kids music in the same manner you judge adult music so I made a note to do a web search and see if my hunch was right. The result? She won a Nickelodeon Parent’s Choice Award – kids music! That makes a lot more sense to me now. So yeah, as a kid’s band they are cool. The band sounds good and with some force and White’s style of songwriting has just enough age appropriate-sass to rile the kids up. Hearing this in a bar? Kind of weird but, the more I think about it, kind of awesome.
The Niceguys seem to have been the first band to have understood the idea of volume. Yes, they actually instructed the sound man to turn it up! Thank you! The result is that their performance was a blast. They were funny, energetic, they had some sweet hooks, they got the crowd hopping like fools, and likely had one of the smartest performances of the night. That’s the way you fuckin’ do it! Kudos!
Bang Bangz’s music is pretty dense and I was wondering how they’d pull it off live and they did so beautifully. Of course, they also had the wherewithal to tell the sound engineer to turn it up as well. One bonus of them playing live is drummer Vik Montemayor – that dude really isn’t afraid to bash the crap out of his drums and when he hits them, it gives those tunes an extra kick in the pants that you’d never have expected from the recordings.
Last up was thelastpalceyoulook. I’d been pretty disinterested with them for a while but I kind of wanted to give them a fair shake as a live band. There is a reason for my not being into this band that is not their fault – I simply abhor “Modern Rock”. The aesthetic of the way those types of bands record their music is something I find to be so perfectly produced as to suck any real energy out of the music. It always comes across to me as some kind of plastic representation of the real thing. If Rock is the working class urban grit of the MC5 and Black Sabbath, Modern Rock is an attempt at achieving that rebellious angry angst through the local suburban shopping mall. I like rough edges and “Modern Rock” has no taste for imperfections but given that, I kind of had a feeling that some of those rough edges would show through in a live performance and perhaps something more engaging might present itself that was missing from those recordings. So as much fun as it is to mess with Nava, I can say that live the band does deliver. Still not my bag mind you, but you can’t deny that the band puts on a fun show, they know how to engage the audience without seeming calculated, they have a good sense of presentation (their homemade light boxes for the band to stand over were a clever stage gimmick), and most importantly, the band had enough rawness to where you could forget about those soulless recordings, smile, and say, “Not bad Mr. Nava. Not bad at all.”