The Tontons trotted out the material on their brand-new album Make Out King and Other Stories of Love to great effect Saturday night, giving a comfortably half-full Warehouse Live a powerful and confident performance. With Houston folk-rock mainstay Buxton and the spaced-out sonic collage of Austin's The Octopus Project to back them up, The Tontons put on a show that perfectly exemplified our city’s diversity and expressive vibrancy.
I arrived at the show a few songs into opener Buxton's set, and I regretted my late entrance immediately. Though outwardly reminiscent of the brand of clean-cut Americana championed by professional milquetoasts like Dawes or Mumford & Sons, Buxton attacks their live material with muscle and vigor that put me more in mind of Neil Young's jagged guitar vamps mixed with Weezer's hard-rocking nebbishness. They ended with a Tontons cover too, showing off not only their close ties to the headlining act but their own versatility. Buxton celebrated their tenth anniversary as a band with a party at Fitzgerald's last November, and over the course of their decade-long career they've released three albums of increasingly accomplished folk rock.
Austin's The Octopus Project was a wildcard – I'd never seen them before, but their music is throbbing noise of a sort that recalls Animal Collective or Battles at their most accessible. The electronic quartet has played with the likes of Man or Astro-Man, Devo, and Explosions In The Sky in their 15 years, and are expert entertainers. They exhibited free-form adaptability, switching instruments and stations more times than I could count. Armed with projectors and a simple background of vertical white bars, they unleashed a barrage of cluttered visual metaphor and topical imagery that infused a surrealistic feel into their already-bustling show. Guitarist Josh Lambert thrashed about the stage with impressive abandon as Yvonne Lambert stood statuesque and nearly motionless at her beautiful Moog theremin, all while bizarre, looped movie clips and decontextualized images flowed unceasingly behind them. It was a strobe-lit, pounding, electric party, and any other night they’d have handled a headlining spot with ease.
Following an explosion like The Octopus Project is a daunting task, but Saturday night The Tontons were on home turf. A diverse audience of young hipsters and older music lovers were on hand to celebrate Make Out King’s February 18 release. Like it says in the title, the stories on Make Out King aren't love songs, they just take place in love. Accordingly, many of the sounds in their new album are of seduction: the slow, swooning guitars of "Kidd Cemetery," the breezy chillout "So Tired," the gossamer-with-distortion-pedals haze of "Wild Kind," and Asli Omar’s sultry voice cutting through it all.
Make Out King inhabits the world of love, but rather than exploring that love, it puts the contortions we go through in the name of love on display. The songs on this album are self-lacerating, full of vulnerability that begs for belief and clemency with equal fervor. Lines like "I'm the worst" ("Magic Hour"), "one of these days / I'll shape up" ("Bones 1"), "I'm ashamed of everything" ("Lonely") exhibit a pre-emptive self-deprecation that undercuts itself in order to beat criticism at its own game. Omar is willing to put her shame and her passion on display, and Saturday she matched her starkly honest vocal performance with a form-fitting white dress (crop tops ARE hot these days, aren't they?) that bared her body as well. She wants us to know that she has nothing to hide.
It’s difficult to be so open in a performance, though, and the anxiety that comes with vulnerability informs Omar’s idiosyncratic dancing. She freezes, twists, darts, and dips in precise movements, performing intricate hand movements and sudden, purposeful inflections. When I first watched her move this way, I saw the performance as unfinished, disconnected. However, after seeing The Tontons at the Paste Untapped Fest in November and the Holiday Hangover show in December (and after sitting down with the lyric sheet to Make Out King) I’ve come to see that her movement is anything but disjointed. What seems closer to the truth is that she’s bobbing and weaving like a boxer, gracefully inhabiting her defenses as she speaks bluntly about the mistakes she’s made, the hurts she’s caused, and the hopes that she doesn’t want crushed.
She’s bolstered as well by the capable musicianship of the rest of the band, which shifts effortlessly between the raunchy overdrive of lead single “Veida” and the soft shimmer of “Bones 2.” It was especially impressive to see them connect well given that drummer Justin Martinez has been laid up in a Dallas hospital for the last two weeks after his appendix burst during a show (which he then finished playing!). Thankfully, Sean Hart of Caddywhompus was on hand to fill in for the absent Martinez.
The Tontons have been playing together since they were teenagers, so performing a big show without one of their key members was a challenge. As they closed their two-song encore with a cover of Wings’s “Let Me Roll It” that included members of Buxton, the Wild Moccasins, and The Suffers’s Kam Franklin, The Tontons showed us that just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to make a band. Saturday’s show was a reminder that Houston has a lot to be proud of.