I have this to say about 2014: it’s been a hard year. I lost a few family members and left a job while trying to understand and escape terrifying reports of the violence that consumes modern life, so my consumption of music has been much more about finding comfort than exploring new territory.
In describing a few of the most memorable moments in my consumption of local music in 2014, I present to you a partial map to a life lived in proximity to your own. An assortment of snippets of the way life gets translated into and out of music by some of us. Maybe you’ll recognize parts of yourself, maybe not. But we’re out there. Houston claims to be a wonderful paradise of urbanity and civilization these days, and if there’s anything that can make me stop rolling my eyes at that sort of talk, it’s this community of local musicians and fans who help support me and accept what I have to give, so I can live at least part of my life proud and self-assured. I hope this doesn’t come off as bragging, because I’d be the first to admit that I have huge amounts of work left to do. Instead, I mean it as a reminder: we’re out at the show tonight, and we want you there too. It’s gonna be great.
5. Yellow Ostrich/Brand New Hearts
Yellow Ostrich: I’m sorry I didn’t stay for your show, guys. Honestly, I am. I loved your first album, and your second one was great, and I didn’t hear much of the third, but I saw you play at least three or four shows all the way out here in Texas and I still wear my Elephant King shirt regularly. I biked down to your show at Fitzgerald’s, but the first band’s soundcheck was running 45 minutes behind and my friends were all abuzz about some new local band playing a few miles away. I loved the Eastern-sounding influence at your previous Fitzgerald’s show and hoped you’d explore it further, but I realized then that I had a job to do. I’d heard that “local supergroup” Brand New Hearts were playing out that night, and that conferred on me a grave responsibility: to go find out what our hometown boys are up to.
The Brand New Hearts were opening alongside Poor Pilate at Walter’s for Florida power-poppers The Cold Start, and I realized as soon as I got there that I was one of the only people who took the social media bat-signal seriously. Maybe five other non-band audience members paced the cavernous venue, until singer Nathan Parsons urged us to gather close to the stage and imagine ourselves at the front of a large, excited crowd. And you know what? I got there. For the rest of the night, although we were the only ones there, we performed our little private homage to the deities who dictate whether the crowds will come.
When I left the house that night I’d imagined myself as part of a stop on a nationwide tour, a small fabric swatch in a young musician’s flashes of forgotten faces from his tour. Instead, I was more. I was the audience for a group of Houstonians who are still playing shows. They’re still making the noises they want to hear. That night I admitted to myself that I wasn’t just in this to show up where I think I’m supposed to be. I’m here to find out what people are up to. I’m here to make friends, and then push those friends further into their own ideas.
I’ll be the only guy in your audience. I might even dance.
4. Madness On Main Street Festival
Madness on Main Street was exactly what I’ve always wished music festivals could be. Forget the drugs and dehydration of Free Press Summer Fest or Bonnaroo, the endless crowds and the obnoxious branding and the kids everywhere. You couldn’t pay me to be hip enough (although you’re welcome to try). No, I’d rather be thankful that one of my fellow music-obsessive friends Jason Smith (a musician and music photographer in his own right) decided to just put on his own event, with the bands he could cull from Houston and nearby cities.
Madness On Main Street managed to get over 30 bands like Purapharm, Chase Hamblin, The Wheel Workers, and Electric Attitude together into the endlessly promoted Mid-Main block and have an all-day, four-stage house party. The whole event was an impressive feat of teamwork and a delightful overindulgence in a silly hobby. I left that night with a handful of CDs, a couple more favorite bands, and a pretty smile that I haven’t gotten out of my head since.
It’s impressive to see the plethora of great performers making things in Houston these days. It’s emboldening to see what the organizing force of one person’s vision can bring about. It’s an incredible treat to be given such shining examples within my own community. But mostly, it’s just really awesome to be part of something that has such great parties.
That’s what’s really special to me about being a (admittedly unproductive) part of the Houston music scene: so many people are working so hard at helping their friends have a good time, and everyone’s invited. We want everyone else to get in on this. The music is for everyone we can get in the door to enjoy, even if it means having most shows in the free to $5 range. We’re not in this for the money (although the money would be nice, if anyone out there has it) – we’re in this because there’s work to be done and things to be said, and it’s hard to do it alone.
3. Deep Cuts
When I bought the Love Grows EP’s “overwhelming superfan” bundle that included lyric sheets with handwritten notes (hand-delivered by singer Chase Harris himself), it was because I figured believing in the guys from around the corner could be informative. Don’t you want to know what you’d sound like if you had to live here? Deep Cuts lives down the street from me, makes Cormac McCarthy references, and loves the same late-night Tex-Mex I do. Yet somehow I put on their album for the first time and thought, Boy, this reminds me of Vampire Weekend, and there was no trace of irony in my belief that they’re just as good as that other group of kids who have dominated the airwaves and played for audiences of thousands.
Yet there’s a lightheartedness that Deep Cuts still brings into their performances. There’s artful subtlety and youthful exuberance side by side, and drummer Zach Alderman even made two bowls of guacamole (spicy and mild) for the audience to eat at the merch table between sets while playing the guys’ SNES. Yeah, it’s a gimmick, but so are the silly outfits and facial hair and drink choices you guys are all making. There’s a charm to the whole proceedings. It’s a silly joke that no one will stop making even though we’ve heard it all before, but at the same time it’s a dream of our collective voices growing stronger through individual people who can find the right words and sounds for it. Deep Cuts is a joke you need to take seriously.
I admire what Deep Cuts is doing, and this concert was a chance to see them glow in their own light, and to see other local musicians like LIMB, The Caldwell, and Mikey and the Drags – all great in their own respects – shine with them. Standing upstairs at Fitzgerald’s, where so many of my larger-than-life heroes have stood, a bunch of kids proved that though they may not get the same time on stage as bands with full-time publicists, they’d created something that can serve the same function: to melt with us in the same streets we walk and bike and drive, and give convenient shape to feelings and memories that happen for us all. Support local musicians. They know what they’re talking about, and sometimes what they’re talking about is you and me.
2. Wild Moccasins/Lost In The Trees
I’ve seen Wild Moccasins so many times, it’d be easy for me to write them off as the house band for a particularly social couple of years in my life. But nights like this one (of which there are so few) do more than just cement a feeling that something important happened. It gave me a thing that’s far rarer than that – the feeling that I’m not alone here. That someone got hit by this thing as hard as I did, except they had the tools at their disposal to do something about it. The proof that night came in the form of singer Zahira Gutierrez’s performance during “Sponge Won’t Soak.”
I watched (and I admit, mimicked as best as I could) the way she thrashed out the seething agitation of the song (one of the best from my favorite album of this year, the Wild Moccasins’ 88 92) the way someone only can when they really mean it. Have you seen your friends angry and spiteful? Would you let yourself be the things you don’t want to be in front of a room full of friends and acquaintances? I thought it only happened on TV or in someone else’s probably apocryphal account of the thing, and yet on April 29, 2014, Wild Moccasins did it.
I’d seen them perform the song a half-dozen times – at free shows at Discovery Green, at off-nights supporting their friends’ bands at Mango’s, at their album release events at Cactus Music and Numbers. You get to know a band when they live near you. You know the names of the guys in the rhythm section and you can sing along to the songs before the albums come out and then one evening you’re downstairs at Fitzgerald’s and you’re in a crowd of 30 or 40 people and something real and frightening is happening in front of you and you’re there to witness it. It’s there, with nothing between you and the spectacle and the people who found it and dragged it up on stage and spent the last who-knows-how-many months preparing to do this. You can’t pay for an experience like that with anything except love and support for the people doing it, because it’s not going to come at a festival or at the Toyota Center. It’s going to be an opening act on a Tuesday at the place down the street. And maaaaan, you should’ve been there.
1. Robert Ellis
I know Robert’s not a hometown boy anymore, but I think I’ve seen more of him this year than I have in some previous ones. The Lights From The Chemical Plant is one of the best albums that I’ve heard this year and I'm not the only one who thinks so, and every one of us who likes it needs to give Robert Ellis our money so he can keep putting a voice to our world. I think we can stand to spend a little time together.
Two times, to be precise. The first one was December 27, 2013. I know it’s not quite this year, but it’s been on my mind every day since. My older sister Cara, who was 29, was on her way back home to Colorado from Christmas in New Orleans when she was killed in a car wreck that afternoon. I was already back at work in Houston that day, and knew I couldn’t handle the long drive back home so soon. Instead, I walked down the street to Fitzgerald’s. I went to see my friends: my guitar teacher, a few photographers, insistent fans like myself, and, of course, Robert Ellis. I’d written right here in Houstonia that everyone should be there. The only thing I knew how to do when my whole mind wanted to be blank was: go to the show.
I’m glad I went. I needed to drown in something more intoxicating than drugs and alcohol, and having a place to belong is one of the strongest draughts there is. A fan (and I am proud to call myself a fan) has a job to do, and people to do it for. So the next time I saw Robert Ellis – on April 3, the night my grandmother passed away in the hospital just a few blocks from my office – I was there to buy a copy of his album as a way of saying thank you for showing me a safe harbor in the storm. I like to think that I got to go backstage and thank Mr. Ellis personally because my heart is pure, but the truth is I’m just lucky to have great friends, and lucky to have found a group I could belong in. To all the musicians, fans, photographers, venues, promoters, sound guys, editors, and everyone else keeping Houston music strong – thank you so much. You’re all famous where I’m from.