Bruno Mars live at Club Nomadic
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott on the red carpet at Club Nomadic Friday, February 3. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
John Legend. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Houston native Michael Strahan. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Cee-Lo Green. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
The calm before the Bruno Mars storm. (Photo Matthew Ramirez)
Club Nomadic at full tilt
A packed house for DJ Khaled's after-party. (Photo Matthew Ramirez)
We love brands. LIFEWTR is a brand we love. (Photo Matthew Ramirez)
An outside sign for Club Nomadic, after the crowds left the venue Friday night. (Photo Matthew Ramirez)
Don’t be fooled: Houston is a music city. It may not have the reputation of Austin or Nashville, but that’s because the most famous and influential music of Houston historically has represented the under-privileged and lesser-known, starting from blues legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins, to the street corner R&B of Archie Bell, to DJ Screw, to a little girl from Third Ward named Beyonce Knowles.
With fellow music city Atlanta headed to Houston to gear up for Super Bowl LI, what better way to experience the world’s biggest sporting event than through music?
I would be remiss not to start with Bruno Mars at the pop-up venue Club Nomadic, nestled on Edwards Street near the site of Silver Street Studios, the Silos at Sawyer Yards, and a handful of other sprawling, eccentric, arty spaces located off Washington in First Ward. The beautiful venue, constructed by Nomadic Entertainment, the first of a proposed series of traveling pop-up clubs from the company, housed about 9,000 people.
It was a staggering accomplishment considering the city did not give the OK to Nomadic to open its doors until six hours before kickoff Thursday night, ahead of a Sam Hunt/Chainsmokers bill. Encased in beautiful aqua and purple lighting, Club Nomadic had all the trappings of a nightclub but with a handmade feel. Yet to stand on the third level and overlook the stage, nothing about it felt temporal.
The large stage was impressive and looked as sturdy and monolithic as the stage at White Oak Music Hall, except bigger, shinier, and in the middle of a venue that holds about three times as many people. On the winding first floor, art installations from MOMO, Craig & Karl, and Jason Woodside rounded out the warehouse-party-in-downtown-L.A. feel, complete with fully stocked bars serving liquor alongside PepsiCo products, tying in with LIFEWTR, the soda conglomerate’s new water brand and corporate sponsor of Bruno Mars’ Friday night takeover.
Bruno Mars has come a long way since he sang the hook on a number of regrettable B.o.B. songs and the disposability of solo hits like “Billionaire” and “Just the Way You Are.” He’s ditched the corny fedora and “aww shucks” appeal of a vanilla singer/songwriter like Ed Sheeran for an exciting mash-up of funk-inspired pop that caters to both moms and discerning pop music fans alike.
Mars, part-Filipino, part-Puerto Rican, performs with an all-black band, an illustrative move that gently reminds the audience all current forms of pop music, from rap to rock to funk to dance music, was built by African-Americans in this country at the start of the last century. (Mars just stated in an interview with Latina magazine.) But since Bruno Mars is a pop star aiming for transcendent fame on the level of Michael Jackson, he knows beyond the optics he has to bring the hooks and the songs.
Since 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, he’s done this, capping it off with 2016’s 24K Magic, which made the funk inspirations in his music more prominent, aligning with Mars’ new goal of attaining MJ-status.
Sure enough, he brings it—he sings, dances, plays the guitar; he caters to the home crowd in a George Springer Houston Astros jersey and a band all wearing Astros/Texans/Rockets jerseys, which are impossible to take your eyes off of, especially considering how impressive the band dances in lockstep (all while continuing to play their instruments). His voice is pure, the band is impeccable (Club Nomadic’s pristine sound system was wonderful), and the songwriting is there, from the hip-hop-inspired sample on his latest smash “24K Magic” to the spruced up disco-flavored hit “Treasure.”
It was hard to come away denying the talent and showmanship of Mars, a clear student of pop music, as he teased covers of “Pony” (Ginuwine), “Rock the Boat” (Aaliyah), and of course, MJ himself, with “Rock With You.” The gentle piano ballad “When I Was Your Man” translated well in this setting, a moment of catharsis amid a bombastic performance.
When confetti rained onto the crowd during finale “Locked Out of Heaven,” it was a deserving and earned celebration after a tireless and energetic concert, a crowning moment during the hoopla of Super Bowl week. At one point, looking for interaction from a notoriously fidgety Houston crowd that typically couldn’t give Mars what he wanted, he remarked, “I thought this was Super Bowl Friday in Houston, Texas.” The crowd roared — finally, they gave him the amount of love he deserved.
After a man with a fire hydrant (don’t worry, it was part of the act) came and extinguished the raucous Bruno Mars performance, not even a few minutes passed before DJ Khaled, the famous Miami DJ who’s leased a new life for himself off the strength of becoming the first genuine Snapchat star, took the corner second-floor stage to turn the “Club” in Club Nomadic into a reality.
He started with a run of hits produced by himself, from “All I Do is Win” with T-Pain, Ludacris, and Snoop Dogg, to “I’m On One” with Drake, Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne, to the most recent, “For Free,” a Drake one-off. (Unfortunately, none of the above artists were in attendance, as Lil Wayne was off Gulfgate at the Ayva Center, Ludacris was jet-setting all over town, and Snoop Dogg was at a celebrity basketball game.)
Khaled played music all the way until 2 am, crafting a long, breathless Friday night. And of course he put the whole thing on Snapchat, finally crossing off my “appear on Khaled’s Snapchat story” bullet point on my bucket list.
Thursday night, as part of the Super Bowl Live! experience at Discovery Green, Solange took the main stage in a rare public appearance. Solange memorably tweeted she would not tour behind her universally acclaimed album, A Seat at the Table, due to her son’s basketball schedule, and aside from a smattering of late-night performances, has kept true to her word — which made the opportunity to see her all the more special and urgent.
Perched atop the eighth floor pool balcony at One Park Place, it was easier to hear Solange than see her, although a friend did jokingly remark that perhaps we should queue the album on our phones to fill out the experience. She hit all the high marks of the record (“Cranes in the Sky,” “F.U.B.U.,” “Mad”) and threw it back to her True EP with “Losing You,” and even went all the way back to Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams with “T.O.N.Y.”
With the stage cloaked in sharp red and blue lighting and Solange and her dancers’ poised, statuesque dance moves, even from a few-football-fields distance away, the show was memorable, even more so when she brought out S.U.C. (Screwed Up Click, a Houston rap crew) member Yungstar to perform his iconic banger “Knocking Pictures Off Da Wall,” a moment that wafted across the fair grounds and was instantly a “you had to be there” memory.
Someone on the balcony dismissively remarked “that’s Beyonce’s sister” and everyone corrected him. Matthew Knowles was spotted by the pool. Even in the shadow of Beyonce’s eccentric underwater pregnancy announcement earlier in the week, Solange is more her own artist right now than ever before. Her performance, a 45-minute, painstakingly patient set headlining a night during Super Bowl week, was a masterfully orchestrated and confident show that left many nationwide jealous of Houston’s special peek at one of our finest (even if she’s now based in New Orleans).
On Notorious B.I.G.’s classic origin story “Juicy,” he raps, “peace to Ron G, Brucey B, Kid Capri/Funkmaster Flex, Lovebug Starski,” and when an unexpected chance to see DJ Kid Capri inside of the Houston Museum of Natural Science was presented to me, I took it. In Houston, unless it’s a “throwback” night, you don’t hear a lot of Biggie or Tupac or Wu-Tang at hip-hop clubs, but every single night I went out I heard “Juicy” (and “California Love”) which was odd for me.
I don’t know a lot about the historical contributions guys like Brucey B or Kid Capri made to the origin of rap music, but I know not to miss a chance to see a living legend if I happen upon one. The Houston Power Party, presented by the Santana Dotson Foundation, the Moran Norris Foundation, and Houston City Council Member Larry Green, took over HMNS, across multiple rooms with a variety of DJs, and special appearances by Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston rap legend Scarface.
The expanse of the Houston Power Party was amazing, the chic, grown-and-sexy night at the museum I’ve always dreamed about, soundtracked by nothing but the best soul, R&B, disco, new jack swing, and quiet storm hits. But tucked in the new Morian Hall of Paleontology amidst massive dinosaur dioramas, Kid Capri played a DJ set for the appropriate grown-and-sexy crowd, full of the classic music that laid the groundwork for the early days of hip-hop, when DJs and MCs raided their parents’ record collections for samples.
He built to a crescendo of a set that paced through a history of hip-hop before arriving at a delirious final 20 minutes that started with ratchet hit “Circle” and made stops at Future, “Gas Pedal,” Migos, and every other contemporary rap anthem. It was a nice acknowledgment from an old head that the new kids are all right — especially considering how much of the week was spent at clubs playing a ton of hoary, predictable hip-hop staples.
The Rolling Stone: Live bash, memorably recapped here by PaperCity’s Anne Lee Phillips, was an eccentric night that felt more idiosyncratic than the rowdy Super Bowl party that you would dream up if you put Nas, Big Sean, DJ Cassidy (who’s performed at such small gigs like Barack Obama’s inauguration and Beyonce and Jay Z’s wedding), and Diplo on the same bill.
Unfortunately we missed Big Sean and therefore my opportunity to hear “Bounce Back” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. But the rest of the acts did not disappoint: it was a thrill to hear Nas classics like “The World is Yours,” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” and “Made You Look” live, and the surprise appearance by Busta Rhymes during Diplo’s set was enough to remind you that “Look at Me Now” is a classic song and Chris Brown’s best musical achievement.
While it was frustrating the party ended precisely at 2 am, with security firmly telling everyone, “GET OUT, PARTY’S OVER” like a mad parent, who could be disappointed at catching such disparate acts under the Rolling Stone imprimatur on Super Bowl eve?
Although it was not billed as a Super Bowl event, it should not need to be spelled out that any official celebration of Houston, such as the city hosting the Super Bowl, is not complete without something Pimp C related occurring. Such was the case Tuesday night at Rice University, as 97.9 The Box’s Mad Hatta hosted Pimp C: A Trill Legacy, a panel celebrating the life and death of Pimp C, aka Chad Butler, one half of legendary Port Arthur duo UGK, in observation of his life’s art, lyrics, notes, and other ephemera moving into Rice’s Fondren Library.
Luminaries of southern hip-hop such as David Banner, Lil Keke, E.S.G., Michael “5000” Watts, producer Mr. Lee, and, of course, the other half of UGK, Bun B, along with Chinara Butler, the late Pimp C’s wife, formed a panel of those who knew the man best wishing to discuss his life.
Pimp C is a Houston legend name-checked and respected by everyone who wishes to be taken seriously as a rapper, regardless if they’re from the south or not. (A video intro featuring Juicy J, A$AP Ferg, Lil Boosie, Curren$y, and others confirmed this.) His recent biography spanned 726 pages, a staggering tome about the life of a man who died at the young age of 33.
As panelist after panelist shared an anecdote about Butler, the thought dawned on me that Pimp C might be not just Houston’s, but rap’s version of Prince — a larger-than-life musical figure who touched everyone he knew, even if it was just for a fleeting moment, and left them with a funny or insightful story to share. Nothing about Butler was regular: he worked hard, and was equally adept a producer as he was a rapper, something frequently overlooked when discussing his legacy. (It wasn’t just his rapping that helped coined the term “country rap tunes,” but his trademark mix of simmering church organs and wah-wah guitar tones.)
He could hit you with a cutting remark or joke, electrify you with a heartfelt rant (Mad Hatta spoke about the many times Butler would call the station to speak for a few minutes about whatever was on his mind), or leave you with a lesson learned. (Bun B told a story about how Pimp C always encouraged young rappers, even if he personally did not like their music. Bun: “These guys are talented, but they’re not gonna go anywhere.” Pimp: “That’s what they said about us.”)
His relentless positivity and ability to keep it real at all times defines the attitude of Houstonians who are accepting of you unless you disrespect their agency. It was a reminder of the potency of Butler’s life and music, and a reminder that for all the fuss over the Super Bowl in Houston, the fourth largest city in the country, the city’s cultural capital and soul was built on the backs of guys like Pimp C, a special person who could come up from no other place than southeast Texas and proudly put on for his city.
Friday night on my way to see Bruno Mars in the backseat of the Uber, as we passed Aqua Hand Car Wash & Detail, the sign outside shaded in purple lights said “RIP DJ Screw and Pimp C.” It hit me that while I find this sign slightly corny, this boujee Montrose business that caters to yuppies shouting out our two most famous deceased contributions to hip-hop is the kind of thing people visit Houston to see. Their legacy speaks to all walks of Houston life.
You could imagine an out-of-towner saying, “oh, even their car washes are trill.” This is a music city; Super Bowl week proved it.