Mrs. Howl, 502 Bar, and all that we could be
Published: January 25, 2012
You know you're in a venue that takes its commitment to music seriously when you see Jack Saenz, winner of a Grammy and a Latin Grammy for his work with Mexican norteña legends Intocable, running the soundboard. I had come to 502 Bar with my ears ringing with praise of local musicians for its sound and lights, but I found more than I expected after I entered on Saturday night.
First, there was Saenz, prepping for Phonolux, the opening act on a bill including Fort Worth's Darstar, Ledaswan, and the band I came to see: Mrs. Howl.
And while the 300-capacity state-of-the-art bar sounded and looked great, there was something else evoking smiles among the bands involved — the place has great vibes. It seems everyone at 502 is rooting for these groups. Co-owner Derek Wynne, in charge of booking at the bar, was always there to make sure the transitions were smooth. By the time Mrs. Howl hits the stage, the trio (Chelsea on vocals, Laurel on guitar, Alfonso on drums) was relaxed and ready to rock. They were releasing their debut CD Lovie and a Yellow Lamp, which was co-produced by Girl in a Coma's Nina Díaz and Phonolux's Art Guillermo Jr., who also mixed and engineered.
Alfonso hit with the precision of a Swiss watch; Laurel ain't no Hendrix, but she was solid and played with conviction, while Chelsea — a slow starter — gradually took charge. The band is raw but never loses its melodic sense. They go through the whole album and have time to crank out two covers: a visceral version of the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" and a guitar-attack take on Suzie Q's "Two of Hearts." And at that moment, with Laurel killing us with her riff machine (her merciless right hand) and invisible bass (she has a POG octave pedal that makes her guitar sound like a bass), I could feel San Antonio as a vibrant music capital packed with exciting bands and musician-friendly venues willing to go the extra mile to produce stellar performances. You know, the way things should be.
I've been covering shows for 33 years, and I've never seen so much all-around excitement before, during, and after a concert. Was it my imagination? Was my sheer desire for a San Anto musical explosion messing with me? "You're not exaggerating," Phonolux's Buddy Calvo told me after his band's set. "Not only are [the folks at 502] friendly, but they are very professional and know their craft. We plan to have our CD release here now."
"The club's production values, the sound and the lights, it all made everyone feel ten times better than they actually were," Phonolux's Art Guillermo Jr. said. "The energy was amazing."
"With us,  was a 10," Laurel told me. "They made us feel they gave a shit about the success of our show."
When I share these comments to Wynne, he's as ecstatic as the bands.
"I used to play in bands a lot and one of the things I disliked is that I felt many times the clubs didn't do as much to help the bands out," said Wynne, who works with the bands to promote their show with flyers and posters. "The bands and the clubs must work together to have a great music scene. And we're very dedicated to doing that."
I couldn't believe my ears. Yet that was nothing compared to the bomb Mrs. Howl — who moved to SA from Dallas in May — were about to throw. Besides a refreshing, visceral musical performance (imagine a happy version of Elastica's first album), Mrs. Howl brings an optimistic outsider's perspective on the scene; while many of us bitch about it, they couldn't be more thrilled. "The music scene here is great," Laurel said, minutes before hitting the stage. "Compared to Dallas, the music scene here is 100 times better. Absolutely. Hands down."
"In Dallas, you pay ten dollars to park and ten dollars to get in," added Chelsea. "Here, we live off St. Mary's and there's free or almost-free shows everywhere, everyday, and free parking. That's freaking amazing."
If only SA could believe it. •
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