The Other Night: The Concert for KTRU

It was a strange night. On the one hand, it felt like a full-on party, a wild, wide-grinning celebration of all things KTRU, but on the other, it felt somewhat like a wake. The fight to stop the sale of KTRU‘s definitely not over, but I think a lot of the attendees at this past Saturday’s Concert for KTRU at The Mink are steeling themselves to the idea that it soon might be.

Still, if this was how things would go out, in some folks’ minds, at least it would be a raucous, joyful New Orleans second-line funeral. For one thing, when I made my way ’round back of the Mink to the club’s Backroom entrance, I was stunned to see the sheer number of people who’d come out — the place was packed to the gills, to the point where it got hard to move around during some of the sets I happened to see.

Granted, not everybody there was a diehard KTRU supporter — it was a free show with a full slate of Houston’s best bands, after all — but quite a few were, as evidenced by the loud cheers and clapping any time one of the performers on stage mentioned the station. And the KTRU gang seemed to be selling a heck of a lot of those Uncle Charlie-designed “Save KTRU” shirts (including, yes, one to me), along with posters of the “Save KTRU” design and copies of both volumes of the KTRU Live comps.

Every time I entered a room where there wasn’t music drowning out the conversation, I caught snatches of conversation about the station’s sale, the university’s motivation behind it, and the possible chances of fighting it back. And when I ran into longtime scenester Ramon Medina, of Linus Pauling Quartet/{} fame and, like me, a former KTRU DJ, that’s pretty much exactly what we talked about.

At the time, I warned him that trying to pitch KTRU as a link between Rice and the larger world of Houston might not work; when I was a student, at least, the life within the hedges was mostly what mattered to everyone around me, the entirety of our little, insular world.

I remember trying in vain to cajole friends to venture off-campus with me to see bands and instead making the trek up to Emo’s or Rudz with just cohort Josh, watching and being blown away by folks like Seam, The Meices, Celindine, Don Caballero, Silkworm, or The Suspects. When I made the suggestion, people looked at me like I was nuts — why would I want to leave the campus? What would be the point, when all the fun’s right there?

Fittingly, it was KTRU itself that got me started down that road, ultimately leading to this little e-zine/Website right here. Without KTRU, I never would’ve heard Seam, or Superchunk, or Barkmarket, or The Grifters, or Silkworm, or Mineral, or Agent Orange, or Guided By Voices, or Bad Religion, or Jawbox, or The Mountain Goats, or Modest Mouse, or Silver Scooter, or Jawbreaker, or Belle & Sebastian, or Archers of Loaf, or Hüsker Dü, or My Bloody Valentine, or any of the host of bands that shaped a big, big chunk of what I think makes good music. If I hadn’t had KTRU to push me towards hearing music that wasn’t on MTV or one of Houston’s other lame-ass radio stations (which have always sucked, ever since I’ve lived here, with the exception of KPFT). I can remember listening to bands like the ones above and feeling sad for my friends, because they had no idea what they were missing.

Looking around the room after talking with Ramon, it struck me that maybe I was wrong. The students in the crowd weren’t wearing signs on their foreheads, no, but the audience was far, far younger in general than I’d initially expected them to be. I’d halfway anticipated a crowd made up of old, jaded ex-KTRU types like myself, but no, a lot of the folks watching and rocking out and buying t-shirts were kids. That realization made me feel a whole lot better about the night — even if this is a losing battle, at least the younger generation’s willing to fight, too.

(Hey, before I forget, I took a few more pics than what’re up here, even if they can’t compare to Ramon‘s massive pile of pics. Look on over here if you feel like it…)

I headed upstairs as quickly as I could when I got to the club — later than I’d hoped to be, as always — and arrived in time to catch the last few songs of Roky Moon & BOLT‘s set. And holy fucking wow, was it good. And I mean “good” as in “utterly badass”; I knew the band was good, of course, but this outstripped any previous show I’d seen by a mile. The BOLT crew had always felt like a work-in-progress before, something that was progressing towards a goal that promised to be amazing, and now, they’ve hit, at least in my book.

The band’s still got that retro-’70s glam thing going on, but they’ve amped up the theatricality of it by about twelve; no spaceman costumes or elaborate sets, don’t worry, but the new songs all have this rock opera-esque feel that makes me think of Queen or Meat Loaf as much as usual touchstone Bowie. Guitarist Aaron Echegaray, in particular, was in awesome form, trailing out these subtle, simple, un-flashy riffs that could’ve come off like boring retreads in somebody else’s hands but which sounded fucking perfect in his.

The kicker, though, was the band’s finale, a doo-wop(!) number with frontman Mike Hardin/Roky Moon and keyboardist Cassie Hargrove doing these jaw-dropping harmonies over a track that wouldn’t sound out of place wedged in-between Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” — halfway through, it hit me that my dad would probably really like the song, and weirdly enough, I was okay with that.

On the good-news side of things, by the way, drummer Jeoaf told me after their set that the band had finished recording their first full-length, due out at the end of November. Keep a look out…

It’s literally been an eon since I saw the Free Radicals last, I swear. (At least, it feels like an eon…) I’ve always liked ’em when I heard ’em, definitely, and 1998’s The Rising Tide Sinks All is an album I look back on fondly even now, 12 years on (sadly, it always breaks my CD player whenever I try to listen to it…), but they’re not a band I actually get to hear/see real often, y’know? The timing just never seems to work out.

So it was a nice change to be able to check out the band once again, after such a long damn time. The lineup’s mutated considerably in the intervening years, of course, enough that the only members I recognized were bandleader/drummer Nick Cooper and bassist Dug Falk (and I didn’t recognize him just from the Free Rads); the rest of the band’s been together several years, apparently, but were new to me, which shows you how long it’s really been…

I was surprised to hear a much, much bigger Latin influence than I’d heard before, way more than the old funk-/reggae-focused stuff I was expecting (although it is still there, and popped up more and more throughout the set). Some of the tracks the band played sounded like they came from the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack or a Grupo Fantasma album. Still damn good, though, either way.

Okay, so I couldn’t actually see Michelle Yom while she played, but at least I got to hear a bit of it. I headed down out of the steambath to catch her set, having heard her online but never in person, and was stunned to find the teeny-tiny room on the first floor crammed full of people. “Holy crap!,” I thought, “there’s this big a crowd to see her play? That’s awesome!”

It didn’t hit me ’til later that that particular room also happened to be the only room in the club with actual, functioning air-conditioning. So, given that, I’ll admit that there’s a chance that not everybody who’d wedged themselves in there was there to see/hear Michelle…something borne out, in fact, by the gaggle of post-teens standing right inside the door and talking very loudly to one another.

Which was fairly disconcerting to me, at least, since I was forced to stand in the hallway, with said post-teens between me & Ms. Yom, and since what I could hear of what Michelle was playing was extremely delicate and low-key. Just as I was getting frustrated at not being able to hear, this big, older guy who looked weirdly like M.C. Gainey (Tom Friendly from Lost) whirled around and yelled, “Shut the fuck up!” at the chatting kids. Which they immediately did. If he hadn’t been half a room and a dozen people away, I’d have high-fived him. (Apparently the guy’s actually some kind of poet who goes by the name “Plastic Clown”…)

Anyway, what I could hear of Michelle’s set, I liked. It was really, really gentle stuff, these washes of what I’m guessing were treated flutes; at one point, I swear the music was about to transmute into an ambient version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (which, yes, would’ve been pretty neat). Hopefully I’ll eventually get to hear more.

Wow. Another band I haven’t seen in far, far too long, The Tontons were, if anything, even tighter this time around than they were the last. The band’s sound hasn’t changed since I saw ’em (at The Mink, actually) a year or so ago — still lots of raw/melodic psych-rock guitars married to frontwoman Asli Omar‘s incredible, sultry voice and murky lyrics, all over a rhythm section that can jump between solid thundering one second and understated soul-jazz the next — but it’s obvious they’ve been honing things down to a fine, fine edge.

And yeah, I have to say it: Omar herself is definitely the focal point of it all. Without her, they’d be good, but… I dunno what it is, but the lady’s downright magnetic. These days she seems to be going more for a ’60s kind of thing than the more sleek, Billie Holiday-esque vibe she used to mine — I found myself thinking this time of Diana Ross and Erykah Badu, instead, but hey, it still worked just fine. Better, maybe, with the retro tinge to the music.

Omar also scored points with me by taking a minute to talk about KTRU directly, when she succinctly pointed out the big, big downside for local bands: “Where else are we going to get our music on the radio? KRBE?” [hysterical laughter from the crowd]

Every time I see these guys — and although I’ve rarely meant to see them specifically, it just seems to magically happen a lot — I become more and more convinced they’re one of the best things going in Houston. I initially had Giant Princess pegged as sort of a blues-rock band, like The White Stripes without the attitude and bombast, but I’ve since had to lay that impression by the wayside in favor of something a bit more complex.

I was near the mark, actually, with the overall Southern/rural feel of the music; it’s nowhere even remotely near country (thankfully), but singer/guitarist Collin‘s voice has that outer-reaches twang to it that makes it feel warm and rootsy, even when the music itself isn’t. The band’s hard to categorize, definitely, but lately I’m reminded more of early Modest Mouse than anything, or maybe of a bluesier, less arty Archers of Loaf. It’s just flat-out indie-rawk, y’know? And great for it, esp. the recent Mexican Easter tape/EP.

Collin spoke eloquently about KTRU, too, talking about growing up listening to KTRU — specifically, he told the crowd how he’d been listening to the Blues In Hi-Fi show since the age of 12. If that’s not a testament to the lasting power of music, I dunno what it.

Oh, and on a totally unrelated note, GP managed to inspire the cheerful, grinning crowd to start up a mosh pit right there on the rickety second floor of The Mink’s Backroom. It was bizarre and wonderful, the absolute friendliest pit — no assholes swinging fists or looking to stomp littler kids, thankfully — I’ve seen in at least a decade. Even still, though, I moved back towards the bar at one point because I thought the floor would give way.

I’m going to have to credit Joe Mathlete for this one. I was about to regretfully bow out and make my sleep-deprived, achy-old-man way home after Giant Princess finished up, but he badgered me into sticking around for what I think was all but one of the songs in the sIngs set. (Sorry, Buxton guys; I just couldn’t hold out any longer. Needed sleep…)

And y’know, I’m glad I did. I’d never seen/heard ’em live before, and what I saw was very cool. It’s indie-rock-like, for sure, with heavy doses of folk and psychedelic strangeness drifting in, up, and around it, and again, there’s a Modest Mouse-esque feel in that it all seems to just barely keep it together; it’s like there’s a manic, possibly-dangerous person peeking out from underneath.

The highlight for me was “The Hit,” in Joe’s words, “You’re,” which I’d hear previously on KTRU Live Vol. 2 — it’s murky and menacing, but still endearingly sweet and (faux?-)friendly enough to want to hug. It’s loose-limbed and swaying, moody but serene. In a universe where things are just and right, sIngs would already be on Saddle Creek Recs and would be relentlessly touring the universe.

That’s about it, I think; I can remember other bits & pieces of the rest of the night, but they’re a little blurry. I also got to talk to a few other folks, including Matthew Wettergreen, organizer Ian Wells, Marc Brubaker (off-duty for once, it seems), Chris Gray, Chris Wise, & Marcus Gausepohl, which was cool, was introduced to a member of a Houston roller derby team, and watched one of those Todo Moto guys try to roar off down Richmond…only to have his headlight somehow explode off his bike and land in the road. Whoops.

All in all, I had a blast. Of course, I’ll never give up on KTRU, at least not unless the student body of Rice stands up and says, “look, we no longer give a shit; get it out of here,” but if I did, well…this would’ve been one hell of a going-away party.

(And hey, don’t give up hope just yet; if nothing else, it looks like this won’t be the last “Concert for KTRU” — I’m told something’s in the works for September 24th up at Fitzgerald’s. Pencil it in there, people.)

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2 Responses to “The Other Night: The Concert for KTRU”

  1. Ramon LP4 on August 31st, 2010 at 6:25 am

    Nice review. Glad you pointed out about the age. I had the exact same expectations. :)
    Also, in case you didn’t know. They raised $1,200 that night which is impressive in my book.

    Surprised you didn’t go into why Plastic Clown’s bloody shirt was adorning the stage. I heard one of the Todo Moto people smashed a beer bottle on his head. Is that true?

    Kudos also on holding out later than I (Joe finished the 29-95 photo essay) it was a lot of fun but yeah we’re old men. ;).

  2. Jeremy Hart on August 31st, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Hey, Ramon — thanks kindly, sir. And yep, I heard from Ian about the $1200 and forgot to mention it; by the time I posted this, I was half-asleep… ;^) It’s *very* impressive that they were able to raise that much in one night — an awesome show of support.

    Somebody broke a bottle on Plastic Clown’s head? Holy crap, I didn’t see/hear anything about that at all… The only time I even saw the Todo Moto crew was when the guy’s bike broke as he tried to roar off dramatically down Richmond. I don’t think I’d have messed with Mr. PC, though; he was a big dude.

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