This past Saturday, the 20th of February, I travelled to Houston for an event hosted by Wonky Power Records called The American Showdown. In addition to being good friends with the members of Handsomebeast, one of the performing acts, I have been a follower of both Muddy Belle and Satellite D’Homme (two of the others) for some time now; and Rex Hudson, the opener, provided just the right blend of mellow notes and engaging melodies for an introduction to what would be one of the best live shows I’ve seen this year.
Walter’s Downtown was the venue, and a fitting one, at that. The building itself is a simple warehouse connected to an equally simple record shop, but the barebones nature of it provided apt contrast to the warm, inviting one of the sizable turnout. Bands turned up early for soundcheck and setup, but also to mingle with the fans. Many of those who came out were friends of the acts, but I got the impression there was rather more to the dynamic besides. The vibe at Walter’s was one of devotion to supporting local musicians in a local scene growing with steady, undeniable momentum.
On to the showcase: Rex Hudson’s music is based discernibly in chillwave. The set featured a blend of electro groove and beach rock that gets the crowd loose without asking too much energy of them early on, which was fortunate, because each of the powerhouse acts to come would require an abundance of exactly that.
Next came Muddy Belle, a band which brings out the best of the old blues/Southern rock sound with a new twist and unparalleled degree of technical skill and showmanship. The drummer and frontman, Jerry “Junior” Gonzalez, leads the pack, who are dressed in all black shirts, slacks, skinny ties and wayfarers. The quartet are bathed in blue light, giving the effect of a stage underwater, hosting men who’ve been around the musical block.
Ben Rowe shreds on the guitar like I’ve never seen, switching from tasteful riffs and harmonies to peerless solos which succeed in being elaborate without indulgence. Phil “Bassman” Pep lights up with inexhaustible energy, jumping around and rocking the bass like he’s got it and knows it. And the percussionist/backing vocalist, Moskie, slides around in a black hat such that his supporting role becomes an integral one.
After the rousing set comes the headliner, Handsomebeast — one word! — my personal favorite band in Texas, and arguably the best in Houston. They take the stage by storm, dressed in everything from a train conductor’s outfit (yes, acid washed denim overalls, whistle and all), to a Native American poncho vest (no shirt underneath), and all black ensemble branded with golden roses that looks like something MC Hammer would’ve crashed a wedding in.
They open with Bill Murray, a track on their forthcoming album which leaves everyone sort of baffled, taken aback. The song features every member collectively chanting its title between verses, coupled with an onslaught of old school funk and futuristic rock. Nobody really knew what they just saw or heard, but they knew it was good. A bold start, to say the least.
It’s beyond apparent that Handsomebeast has put in their 10,000 hours. The muscle memory with which Peewee Ruiz (lead guitar) plays every chord, along with that of Nick Serena’s lead vocals and Jacob Rodriguez’s bass means that they can dance all hell on stage with manic confidence, popping collars, flailing hair, and stomping around like the Chili Peppers circa Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The Beast showcased its technical skill with a degree of wackiness and fervor that ensures they will be making waves in the coming months.
Satellite D’Homme, the final act, are a band just as hard to classify as they are not to immediately love. It behooves me as a fashion junkie to shout out their collective style from the start. Wil Wayne, the frontman, walks up on stage in a get-up that merges Andre 3000’s crisp swag with the colorful variety of a Bollywood film star’s (take my word for it, because that’s the only way it can be described). Oh, the man’s singing and rapping can bring down the house, too.
Satellite’s music is ridiculously catchy, boasting irresistible pop hooks with a sound that is soulful in spite of not being soul music. Their guitarists, Mario Rodriguez and Alan Garza, join the drummer, Adrian Graniel, in playing the sharp, frenetic style of early 2000’s indie rock. Gio Chamba — who is their bassist, a renowned Houston solo act pioneering “Digital Cumbia”, and a phenomenal human being — provides a grooved heartbeat for the set throughout. Everyone excels in their vocal duties individually and in harmonies. They are a sight to behold.
After the last set, people flock to the merch tables to purchase CD’s, t-shirts, stickers and the like. I couldn’t resist buying a Muddy Belle EP, and there was none of the usual apprehension in spending money at a gig. I found myself wanting to support these artists, not only because they put on a truly epic show, but because it’s so obvious how much they care about their craft and love sharing it. Too, it’s important to recognize that, while every band commanded the spotlight, they also shouted out the others in an effort to bolster morale.
The Houston love was strong at Walter’s that night; and that’s refreshing to see in an industry which can often be elitist, exclusionary, even cutthroat. Experiences like The American Showdown can’t really be replaced in their unique sense of community and devotion to the arts. I can only hope that Wonky Power continues to create and foster the sort of ingenuity I saw that night. Austin has long claimed the title of Live Music Capital of the World, and it may very well be, but H-Town is making a case for itself as the freshest, grittiest new addition to the Texas scene, one that can hang with the best of them.
Check out more from Wonky Power and the bands at: