THE MERIDIAN -- 9/19/2006: In the end, it felt more like we were witnessing a social experiment of some kind, albeit from the inside. We'd gone to see Kings Of Leon and the Stills downtown at the usually-very-comfortable Meridian, and worked our way through security, surprised to see so many people coming out to a show on a Tuesday night.
I figured it was just a sold-out show, although given the bands that was in itself kind of strange. We Houstonians ain't always the hippest lot, particularly en masse. A check in Ticketmaster had turned up no available tickets, and a fellow SCR writer had mentioned that he'd gotten a couple of giveaway tickets from a Camel salesguy at Cecil's, down in Montrose. Added up, it made sense: a fair pile of tickets sold, plus some freebies, and sure, the Meridian could probably get a decent crowd to come out.
Then we walked inside to find the club more crowded than I've ever seen it. One glance around the place, and Realization #1 dawned on me: these people were all there because they'd gotten free tickets with their Camels at some sports bar or pool hall. Camel paraphernalia was everywhere -- on the walls, hanging from the rafters, incorporated into the lighting, all over the place. Booths manned by chipper-looking Camel reps were strategically placed in both of the main rooms of the club, and people were lined up to sign up for their free smokes.
Beyond my initial kneejerk disgust for the invasiveness of the advertising, however, I found that I didn't really mind at first. Marketing's marketing, after all, and hey, if it gets people to the shows, why the hell not? Camel had managed to pack a fairly large venue on a weeknight when a half-dozen other decent bands were playing around town, which is no mean feat.
As we walked into the main room of the club, however, Realization #2 hit and any goodwill towards the Camel people evaporated: if a cigarette company sponsors a show, hands out tickets to people, and then gives away free cigarettes at the show itself, they're basically setting the stage for an insanely smoke-filled, asthma attack-inducing, eye-watering environment. Everyone at the show seemed to be smoking but us. People were frantically chain-smoking whatever brand they happened to have so they could line up for more.
Now, I don't smoke, but the person I was with does, and even she was overwhelmed by the thick haze inside the club. It felt like we were walking through some early Industrial Age factory or smelting plant or something. And best of all, our eyes started to burn almost immediately -- by the end of the second set, we were in agony.
Which was a shame, really, because it detracted from what would've been a really good show sans the smoke. Local noise-rockers Satin Hooks were starting up when we arrived, and while the first song (or two?) they played seemed to drone on and on without much in the way of a change, I enjoy how the band always seems ready to attack the audience once they get onstage. (And no, I can't get over how much singer/guitarist/turntablist Kerry Melonson reminds me of CSI's Gary Dourdan. It's weird, I tell you...)
Sadly, the flow of people drifted mostly through the outer room where Satin Hooks were doing their thing and on into the main room of the club, and we flowed right along with them so that we could find a decent vantage point for the Stills.
Once they meandered onstage, the band nonchalantly blazed through their set, splitting time between their 2003 debut, Logic Will Break Your Heart, and this year's Without Feathers. I had worried somewhat that the Stills' laid-back, at times practically hypnotic, sound might not work live but was happily proven wrong -- if anything, the more repetitive, longer, more jam-like songs seemed to work better than the shorter rock stuff, particularly "Helicopters." The epic majesty of songs like "Lola Stars and Stripes" and "The Mountain" came off nicely, as well, both steadily building to a thundering, churning roar of sound. It was fantastic, and well worth the wait (especially considering the band had never been to Houston before).
At least, that's what I thought. Much I as enjoyed their set, it seemed that most of the crowd wasn't into it, probably due in part to singer/guitarists Tim Fletcher and Dave Hamelin's guitars being turned down so low that keyboardist Liam O'Neil's organ stylings effectively drowned them out (not something I'd ever seen/heard before at a rock concert, by the way). It didn't detract all that much from the music, assuming one was a little familiar with it, but from the befuddled looks on the faces of my fellow show-goers, they were expecting a bit more guitar rock to go with their smokes. When the Stills charged into the New Wave electro-drama of "Still in Love Song," people seemed to have no clue what to think.
That's when Realization #3 hit: most of the people at the Meridian that night had no fucking idea who was playing. None, nada. Zero. Aside from your humble writer and a few diehards (Exuberantly Dancing Man Who's Probably Out of His Head on X, I love your moves; Terrifying Blond Viking Guy Who Looked Ready to Kill Somebody But Knew All the Words, you rock), the bulk of the crowd had pretty much just showed up 'cause, hey: free music and free cigarettes. We Houstonians are all about the free shit.
And really, there's nothing inherently wrong with that situation. So what if only a handful of people in the whole jam-packed club had probably heard more than a song or two by the band before that night? This is Houston, proud home of the lamest, blandest, least interesting rock radio in Texas (seriously, outside of KPFT's apolitical hours and KTRU's lovable mix of weirdness and strangeness, San Antonio has better radio stations), so who can blame them for their ignorance? Some of the more perturbed-looking fratboy types who came out looked like they couldn't believe there was a band making music that didn't sound like some amalgam of Korn, Staind, or Creed, and given the usual lack of opportunity in this city for musical exploration, I almost felt bad for them. (The sympathy ended when they began booing, mind you.)
The most entertaining part of the night, however, came when headliners Kings Of Leon hit the stage. Things started off weird and got weirder -- seeing a bunch of long-haired, scraggly guys in denim pick up their guitars and get ready to play, the crowd seemed to perk up, maybe figuring they were finally in for something louder, faster, and heavier. And they got their wish. Kind of. The four members of the Followill clan (brothers Caleb on vocals and guitars, Nathan on drums, and Jared on bass, plus cousin Matthew) did turn up the volume on their amps and honky-tonked their way through garage-y, raw rockers like "Pistol of Fire" and "Spiral Staircase," but they also scattered weird (and long) bits of trippy, backwoods psychedelia throughout their set.
The effect was impressive, even for a non-fan like myself. The Kings managed to graft shoots of Roky Erickson's acid-rock shrub onto the rugged, deep roots of Southern rock and succeeded a lot more than they realistically had any right to. Songs like the droning "Slow Night, So Long" and the almost Stills-ish "Milk" really turned the band's image on its collective head, but did it with such conviction that it seemed to mesh together into one very odd whole. Caleb Followill's vocals, one part Jagger, one part Bon Scott, and one part Britt Daniels, helped to glue things together nicely.
It's funny, really, because while I'd first shaken my head at the thought of a more "polished" act like the Stills sharing the stage with a bunch of Pentecostal boys with grimy guitars, it all made more sense after the fact. On Without Feathers, Montreal natives the Stills consciously tried to distance themselves from the whole electro-pop scene, aiming instead to reconnect with their own rock roots, while Kings Of Leon are a crew of good ol' boys reaching for a stranger, more urban sound than their obvious influences suggests. The pairing's a lot more apt than it seemed at first glance.
Sadly, as we left the thick haze of the Meridian behind, the crowd looked more confused than ever. When the Lynyrd Skynyrd licks kicked off, the fists went up in the air...and then faltered, lost, as the guitars surged into something like Neil Young interpreting "Welcome to the Machine." Ah, well -- even if a few audience members ended up confused as hell and the cigarette smoke shortened our collective lives, hopefully both bands made some new fans by the end of the night. END