When the four-piece country-roots-rock band Houndmouth struck up the opening bars of “Penitentiary” at the Grey Eagle Music Hall in Asheville, NC, last Sunday (Nov 10th), the middle-aged woman standing next to me turned and said, “I’m attracted to men; men are who I think about, but I’m ready to sleep with that keyboardist.” She was talking about Houndmouth’s Katie Toupin.
I completely understood, because here’s the thing: Toupin is gorgeous. On this night, her silver-studded shorts and black shirt knotted above her navel showed off her long legs and a flat belly and a cascade of brown hair that could star in its own shampoo commercial. She is animated on stage, moving to the downbeat or musical crescendo, and her hair whips around her, strands splay across her face, and she beams a bright white smile at her bandmates as the songs move along. No doubt it’s alluring. Toward the end of their set, Toupin slid behind drummer Shane Cody’s kit to play one of the band’s new songs and then picked up Zak Appleby’s bass to cover Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” That same woman standing next to me was about to speak, but she didn’t need to. Katie Toupin is not a sex symbol, but as a symbol of allure and feminine sensuality, as a woman who tosses her hair in pleasure at the keyboard and who sits comfortably behind the drum kit and pulls the bass guitar strap over her head easily, she is every Rock and Roll fanboy’s wet dream.
Lest one think that Toupin’s three bandmates formed a band, felt the need for a keyboard player, posted an ad on Craigslist, then licked their chops when they saw her walk through the door, it was Toupin and guitarist Matt Myers who started out playing acoustically at local restaurants. Myers had also teamed up with Appleby to busk on the streets of New Albany, Indiana, but they were busted a few times for lacking a permit. All four have known each other since their childhood in southern Indiana, but Cody had been in New York interning in sound engineering. When he heeded Myers’ request to return home, the four friends worked out the song “Penitentiary” (which Myers and Toupin had begun in their restaurant days). Recording one night in Cody’s basement, the band were unable to remove the sound of the neighbor’s barking dogs from the track. Cody said the recording was useless because it contained too much Houndmouth. The band name was born, as was the descriptor of their sound. Cody put a cleaner version of Penitentiary on SoundCloud, and Houndmouth were picked up quickly by Rough Trade records, home of Alabama Shakes, the Decemberists, and Yim Yames. Restaurant work and busking gave way to a full-time gig, and Houndmouth, after honing their sound on the summer festival circuit, have been headlining their own tour across the Midwest, the Southeast, and New England this fall.
As the foursome, they have become a compelling live act. Houndmouth are four people who balance each other really well on stage. Their collaboration seems effortless, their banter is natural – they genuinely seem to like each other and like being in front of an audience. Toupin is set up parallel with Myers and Appleby on stage. Credit must be given to the band for not exploiting Toupin’s allure, putting her at center stage or renaming themselves Katie and the Houndmouths. She is one member of a band that plays together as a band, sharing roles equally. All four members are mic-ed for interstitial banter and song introductions. Toupin takes lead vocals on a few songs, duets with Myers on a few others, sings harmonies and backing vocals on the rest. As a vocalist, she does not blow anyone away; she is no Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes), for example. But she’s got just a touch of Emmylou Harris’ southern twang in her, so when she sings that she’s “got my gin tucked in my purse/I keep my heart locked in gold/So I won’t ever get hurt,” you tend to believe her. When she’s placing backing harmonies sporadically through a tune, she complements lead singer Matt Myers’ squeaky tenor well. Her keyboard chords do the same. All four members, in fact – none necessarily masters of their instruments – are integral to the band’s sound without being dominating. Matt Myers is able, as the only guitar in the band, to fill the speakers with that Stratocaster sound; Appleby and Cody use their bass and drums respectively to keep the songs on track; Toupin uses her keyboard as a tonal instruments that helps anchor the songs. Added together, these components make for some really catchy tunes – impressive for such a young band – as evidenced on such crowd pleasers as “Come on, Illinois” and “Ludlow.”
Look, Rock and Roll is sexy (thank you very much, Rolling Stones). Women have been swooning over preening men for decades. But in the twenty-first century rock has become more introverted, more intellectual, and, quite frankly, less sexy. It is not a common present-day occurrence to be turned on by an alluring presence on stage – particularly a compelling female one. Sure, there are plenty of beautiful women making music these days, but they are usually the face of the band (Sharon Jones) or they are an entity unto themselves (Neko Case) or they are entrapped in the very unsexy folk world (c.f. The Civil Wars) – or, worse, they are part of the Pop Machine (whose examples are too numerous to count), which is not sexy but instead sexist, voyeuristic, and exploitative. An attractive and talented female who is just one of the guys is, in the Rock and Roll world, extremely rare.
Which is why Houndmouth could be the next great rock band. But without Toupin at the keys, Houndmouth are just another band, and bearded musicians and young guys with skinny arms and a Fender Strat are playing clubs and bars in every town in America on every night of the year. Look, it’s not lost on me that Houndmouth’s unique make-up is an indictment of the music industry’s phallocentrism, and so I understand I’m being hypocritical in promoting Houndmouth as possibly the next great rock band partly because of Toupin’s holding her own with the guys. And I know that even saying “holding her own” is confirmation of my chauvinism and my implication that it’s a surprise a woman can hold her own. I agree that it says a lot about the state of women in rock music and the state of the larger culture that Toupin’s presence in the band is an anomaly and not the norm. If it were more common, though, I don’t think I’d be so fast to anoint them. It’s true, these guys (all four of them) have songwriting chops and a great presence live; but unlike most of their contemporaries, they also have on stage someone who is going to draw the ear – and the eye – of the casual listener.
As Houndmouth’s set at the Grey Eagle was coming to a close, that woman in her forties stood swaying to their music. As a casual fan of music who had never heard of Houndmouth before that night, she had been pulled in from the opening song and her attention to the music – though she didn’t know a single song – had not wavered through their set. This is the mark of a great live band – that they can engage a casual listener so fully in their music. If Houndmouth make it big (and I hope for all the right reasons that they do) they might be able to pull rock back from its present brooding state. Because Rock and Roll is sexy, and even sexier when a band like Houndmouth – and someone like Toupin – is a part of it.