Saturday Night: The Tontons at Warehouse Live
It's hard to put my finger on why, but Saturday felt like the most important night for local music since at least Friday's Grandfather Child hoedown at Fitz. I'm not joking, completely. Time was, local shows this charged with interest -- let alone crowded -- were a lot fewer and further between than 24 hours.
Why did it feel so important? The Press can write about the Tontons until we're blue in the face (and almost has), but as you can see by the above link, other people have started to take notice too. In Saturday's case, it was a going-away party of sorts for the local quartet before they play PopMontreal later this month.
PopMontreal appears to be Quebec's answer to SXSW, and the Tontons are somewhat further down the bill than headliners David Byrne & St. Vincent, Big K.R.I.T., Gotye and Grizzly Bear, but it's still pretty cool. Hell, it's Canada. Another country. For once that familiar axe about quality Houston music being ignored anywhere beyond Beltway 8 (dammit) felt like it got ground a little bit.
Another reason to celebrate may have been lost on the audience. At one point singer Asli Omar mentioned that the band has now been playing five years. I forget the exact words, and she didn't make any kind of big deal about it; it was almost offhand, like, "hey, by the way, we're half a decade old." But that one comment is this band in a nutshell: Low-key, under the radar, but built to last. Underestimate them at your peril.
Still, the idea of the Tontons being buzzworthy anywhere is a little strange because there's so little pop in their sound. Their music is legitimately bizarre: Atmospheric, mystical, off-center, but in some inexplicable way engrossing.
Most of the songs consist of thickets of Adam Martinez's guitar, splayed across a musical spectrum from watercolor jazz to bubbly New Wave, bolted to the burly but supple hard-rock rhythm section of bassist Tom Nguyen and Adam's brother Justin on drums. It's better suited to the soundtrack of a European art film than anything on even college radio, let alone an advertiser-supported station.
The only thing remotely pop about the band is that the songs are short, and Omar is so compelling. The singer is such a magnetic stage presence the crowd finds itself hanging on every word whether or not they can understand what she's singing (no fault of her own Saturday, more the PA and the bunker-like Studio's less than wonderful acoustics).
But even a single syllable like "oh" sounds seductive and alluring, drawn out and delivered in a breathy purr like a higher-pitched Eartha Kitt, then once in a while she lets out a yelp that makes your hair stand on end. And her hand motions seem like some kind of private sign language; it's hard to look away.
So what will PopMontreal make of the Tontons? Who knows? Who cares? If the band radiates the same kind of bohemian confidence and unique chemistry they did Saturday, the Canadians will eat them up with an ice-cream spoon.
Of course we wish them all the best, but some of us are just hoping they hurry home to keep working on their next record. In five years, the Tontons have released two EPs and one ten-song LP. For a band this beguiling, that's not nearly enough.