Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, yet the independent music scene is not even a tenth of the size of Austin's. I called Houston home from March 2002 until July of this year. It was a land of flat urban sprawl. Murky brown bayous snake through the subtropical foliage, the maze of roads and freeways congested with SUVs and trucks. Two-inch-long cockroaches fly into windows in the summer, and the air conditioner is in use nine months a year, but the rent is cheap.
Jana Hunter With Weird Weeds and the Dead Science. Sunset Tavern, 5433 Ballard Ave., 206-784-0627, www.sunsettavern.com. $7. 9 p.m. Tues., Dec. 5.
Yet despite the ugliness and lack of a thriving scene, I have never seen such a relentless passion filter through the musicians as in those from Houston. The sad truth, however, is for anyone to get noticed on a national level, many bands have had to move elsewhere, to places like Austin or New York. One of those happens to be songstress Jana Hunter.
Hunter was living in New York City when I moved to Houston, but I heard her name come up many times. Some acquaintances grew up with her in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and I had friends who were fans of her former band, Matty & Mossy, but I don't recall any instances from those first couple years of Hunter coming to town to play a show—most likely, I was drunk and not paying attention.
Regardless, in the time since I first saw Hunter two years ago, she has become Houston's ambassador of the growing freak-folk movement, in part because of her close association with Devendra Banhart. Hunter became the first to sign to Gnomonsong, the label co-owned by Banhart and Vetiver's Andy Cabic, which released her debut full-length Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom last fall.
I finally saw and heard Jana Hunter in the spring of 2004 at Rice University's KTRU Outdoor Festival. For much of the afternoon, I was drinking with friends under the warm Texas sun, eating hot dogs, watching young children frolic and dance on the lawn, and listening to experimental pop bands like Weird Weeds. Springtime in Houston is a rare time when you can be outside all day and not break a sweat, and at the KTRU Outdoor Festival, you can relish the good weather, hear music, and get turned on to some new bands in the process. When Jana took the stage, the sun had already set and the lights of the vast Texas Medical Center twinkled in the background under the darkening sky. Jana looked very small and vulnerable on the big, brightly lit stage, but when she struck the first chord on her guitar and began singing, that all changed. Her voice was commanding, yet frail and ghostly. I lay in the middle of the field, nursing a Lone Star tallboy, letting every note hit me like shrapnel. Despite being surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city, the only thing I could hear was Jana and her guitar. Jana not only silenced the audience, she silenced the city.
In the latter half of 2005, Jana's appearances in Houston became more frequent. I caught her twice in one week in June. The first was an in-store performance at Sound Exchange, a small but excellent record store in an old house. In-stores at Sound Exchange were always special because of the intimacy, and Jana's show was no exception. Friends and fans packed the shop to hear her and a Rhode Island guitarist who went by the name Deertick. Again, the crowd was absolutely silent, save the song breaks, when they would uproariously applaud, and shout requests. For over an hour, she tore through the material that eventually surfaced on Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom, including "Christmas," a Matty & Mossy song. Although the record had not yet come out, many people were familiar with the songs because Doom was a collection of songs she'd recorded on four-track over the previous 10 years.
Two nights later, she played the Orange Show, an outdoor folk/freak-art venue that was created as homage to the citrus fruit by a guy who would eventually make it a full-time obsession. I'd already been blown away at Sound Exchange, but I wanted to hear her outside, in the dark, once again. I arrived just as she began playing. She played inside the 2-foot-high cement circle, the same place where Daniel Johnston, Devendra Banhart, Will Oldham, and Brightblack played earlier that year. She commanded the audience's attention. People filmed her, sang along to the Matty & Mossy songs she covered, and gave her the attention she deserved. I closed my eyes, where I once again entered into her peculiar, fascinating, enigmatic world.