Live: Buxton/Dignan/The Church of Philadelphia/Hollywood Black

Hollywood Black pic #1
Photo by Marc Brubaker.

THE PROLETARIAT -- 9/2/2007: First off, I'm no pro reviewer or anything. I'm just an average guy who has always liked going to see bands. And I'm always disappointed that more shows don't get reviewed -- if I can't make it to a show, I would like to read about it. Just a note on my musical tastes: I like local bands that are indie or no label, that are artistic, thoughtful, and creative. I wanted to go to this particular show after reading about the bands on Space City Rock (my favorite Website) [Ed.: We didn't pay him to say that, seriously.] and the Houston Chronicle's Handstamp. And I've never met a person in any of these bands, so I've got no agenda. I'm an older guy now that can't go to shows very often (I got some rugrats). So when I go to a show, I do my research on the Web. I listened to all the bands' Myspace songs and downloaded some songs from iTunes. This show was a great chance to see four bands that I'm really interested in.
The show was at the Proletariat, which was the Blue Iguana last time I was there. Is that showing my age? Not much has changed at the club; basically, it's gone from Blue to Red. It's a good place to see bands, always has been. I've seen some classic shows there. The only thing that stunk on this night is they made us wait an hour before opening the doors. Flyers and the website said 8:00, but doors didn't open till 9:00. I just felt bad for my buddy (who was nice enough to go with me to the show), because we had to stand around and "enjoy" the Houston humidity with about 20 other early birds.
The opening band was Hollywood Black, and they were the band I most wanted to see. I haven't heard a bad song by this band. To me they're straightforward, emotional rock music with an agenda. The songs have good musical changes, allowing space and time to breathe but then coming back together to drive the song home. Despite that, though, everything is centered around the message...angry, heart-wrenching, screaming out. No meaningless solos here; the whole band is together.
And I love the message and passion they have. This was the first time I caught them live, and I found a very tight and together band, just like their recordings. They have a great live approach; they talk to the crowd quickly in between songs but really keep it rolling. The sound was right on. The bass and drums had surprising punch, and the band has an incredibly full sound, yet they're only a three-piece -- guitar, bass, and drums. The band had plenty of energy and passion. I read they're going on tour, and these guys are ready. I looked over at my buddy, who hadn't heard any of the bands playing tonight, and he was totally impressed.
Some of the lyrics had us talking on the drive home. The lyrics deal a lot with how the church is totally missing and misrepresenting the whole Christian message. They are angry lyrics...and they need to be. This band reminds me a bit of Houston's legendary punk band 30footFALL in ways, though not as punky and humorous, but with the great musical changes, the moral message (though coming from a spiritual source rather than a humanistic angle), and a charismatic front man.
The Church of Philadelphia pic #1
Photo by Jamie Kutter.

Next, the show changed gears to something more melodic and laid-back when The Church of Philadelphia took the stage armed with their harp, organ, pedal steel, bass, drums, guitars, and more! How often do you see that at a small local bar? Cool. I was interested to see how the band recreated their complex and soulful sound in a live setting, and they did it perfectly. I was amazed. I expected that they would sound much different and more stripped-down than their recordings, but I underestimated them. The lead singer's voice is smoky and distinctive, it really grabs your attention -- it's unlike any voice I've heard in a long time. Plus, they also have beautiful backing harmonies and energy.
After every song they seem to do "musical chairs" with the instruments, which is cool that they are good musicians and all, but it can make a set flow sort of awkwardly, especially on nights when banter with the audience isn't working. The only drawback to me was that they started with their strongest songs first, which left the end of the set sort of anti-climactic. But man, the song "This Time Around" is so moving, that revolving organ sound and harp plucking gets you going. Also I liked that the The Church of Philadelphia played all their songs they are promoting on their Website and Myspace site -- which seems logical, but some bands don't update their sites -- so you listen to their old stuff, and then they hit you with all new stuff. But that's typical of their whole approach. I'm also impressed with their graphic design work; someone has some skills.
Dignan pic #1
Photo by Hector Perez.

All right -- so far, so good. The third band was Dignan, reportedly on tour from McAllen, TX. I had listened to three songs by this band and I liked them, but they were the farthest from my own personal musical taste. My friend asked what the next band would sound like (I guess he asked because the first two bands were different in styles). I struggled for a description using words like "ethereal," "clanging," and "moody," and he looked at me like, "what?" Then I said, "kind of like Radiohead," and he got it. The band came on, and both me and my friend were impressed, standing up once again and craning our necks to see what was making this sound.
Dignan had an awesome sound and energy. Sometimes they were just a light xylophone or distant keys or melodic humming, but then they would work up to a roar with swirling guitars and the drummer ready to come out of his seat. Then it was back to an odd clapping or more soft singing and nice backing melodies. Trumpets coming in for parts. And an accordion fitting right in, somehow? Just creating cool textures and atmosphere. This band grabbed everyone's' attention -- it was just something you wanted to study. They had an amp go out during the set, but borrowed one mid-song and kept going like an experienced band does.
The lead guitarist sort of twisted around and sang even though he didn't have a mic; guess he was just into it. The songs were creative and went from a quiet hush to screaming with intensity. Occasionally between songs, the lead singer kind of shyly addressed the audience in an odd manner, which fit in with the band's distant persona. Their sound is not instantly accessible to me, but they won me and my friend over as fans, and I've got to get the whole CD now. As an endnote, I like the creative art on their T-shirts and album...it all fit together well.
Buxton pic #1

Okay, now, one more band to go. The final band was Buxton, and I was really looking forward to seeing them. I had heard about six of their songs off the 'net and loved them, but sadly, I didn't get to hear any of those songs. The songs on the Internet are right up my alley: stripped down and sort of folksy, quirky, and emotional, with great songwriting, minimal percussion, acoustical, raw, and the vocals very up-front. Buxton's set, unfortunately, had some pretty bad technical difficulties -- it happens; sometimes it's just not your night. Who can control a cable going bad?
Still, the band was game and passionate and courteous to the sound guy even when the sound problems lingered. Now, it's just my opinion, but the vocals and acoustic guitar need to be out front with this band. What's the use of great songwriting if you can't hear it? The rest of the band was just way too loud. Don't get me wrong -- the band has talented musicians, but they need to give the songs some space, and you can mix yourselves a bit on stage by not always playing full on. I liked the mandolin, but just turn it down and let the vocals come through first and foremost.
Granted, this is a tough thing to pull off at clubs, especially since most soundmen are just "rock dudes" by nature...all they know is level 11, just like most musicians. I felt like I didn't really get to see the band I heard on the 'net, however, and I was disappointed I didn't get to hear songs like "Same Mistakes," "Noncommittal Blues," "Bad Penny," "Tired and Torn," and a "Guy Walks Into a Bar." My friend and I both thought the best song of the set was when the technical difficulties got so bad the lead guitarist turned to cable testing so then the acoustic guitar and lead vocals got to come through and we got to hear a good new song. I need to check this band out again and I guess get up-to-date on their new material.
For the show as a whole, mind you, the sound guy did well. It wasn't an easy night for him, with all the varying instruments and multi-vocal groups. This was not a "set-it and forget-it" night. The overall volume was not totally outrageous, and the lyrics could be heard for the most part. During Buxton's set, things got pretty bad, but hey, that's live entertainment. I think sometimes it would be helpful to a band to have a friend around who knows the band's sound to say, "hey, things are out of whack," and help the sound guy get it right. But you do run the risk of pissing the sound guy off, and then it doesn't matter.
In closing, I have to say I really enjoyed the show -- I chose wisely on this one. These are four good, creative, and smart bands. This was what a local show should be. To me, this is what art is about. The crowd of about 50 to 70 people was great -- everyone was courteous, getting out of each other's way, always saying "excuse me" after bumping into you. It was funny; the bar area was almost completely empty, not sure if it was an underage thing or a moral thing. The people were into the music. And all the bands hung around and supported each other. That's the way it should be done. I was totally uplifted by the evening, and would encourage everyone to check out this scene. END

Buxton and The Church of Philadelphia play Friday, September 21st at the La Porte Fall Back Festival (300 West Main, La Porte), along with B., Goodnight Belle, The Sam Dinkins III Quintet, Wilfred Chevis, & more.
Hollywood Black plays Saturday, September 22nd at the La Porte Fall Back Festival (300 West Main, La Porte), along with Science Monsters Galore, Papermoons, Listen Listen, The Western Civilization, Keaton Branch, The Alsace Lorraine, Roly's Vaudeville Review, & more. The band also plays Friday, September 28th at Walter's on Washington, along with The Western Civlization, Papermoons, & Elbows as Weapons.