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Back to basics with The Houstons

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It was one of those nights you just can't forget. When you watch someone accomplish something that initially didn't seem so unusual, but in the end you realize it was, in fact, extraordinary.

It was a good while ago, so long ago I can't exactly recall the year, much less the month. It was one of the first times I'd had the chance to meet with Justin Faircloth, and he was playing a triple bill. And when I say he was playing a triple bill, I mean there were three bands performing and he was a member of all three.

Not being a musician, I hadn't a clue of the magnitude of taking on such feat. To me, it was easier to recognize the convenience of the situation. Here he was, playing in three different groups, each with its own distinct sound so, why not book 'em all on the same night at the same club?

But as the hours of music winded down and the smoke began to filter out the door with the crowd that'd brought it in, I realized that I'd just witnessed something amazingly unique in the talent of this Faircloth fella, although I'd probably never fully understand the amount of dexterity required of him on this particular night. I also discovered an appreciation for a musician that I'd certainly have respect for as long as I'm writing about music.

So here we are, probably close to a decade after the fact. The other two groups, Les Dirt Clods and The Goldenrods, have long been dissolved. But Justin and his brother and musical partner, Matt, are embarking on another new year as The Houstons and as a two-piece band once again, although don't let the sparseness of the lineup fool you -- live Justin simultaneously plays keys, drums and sings while Matt handles harmonies, the guitar and bass pedal. They've been through a lot of changes -- both professionally and personally -- since first coming together on the premise of recording a musical project for a friend's stage production.

In addition to officially forming what they originally called The Houston Brothers, they've experimented with their original concept of being a two-piece band, expanding to a trio and beyond (up to six members) at certain times. The brothers also spent a couple of years behind the boards recording a slew of local and regional acts at their own Cougar Camp recording studio. And while Justin expanded his family from three to four, Matt made things official with his longtime girlfriend. But despite the occasional hiatus for lifestyle adjustments and such, The Houstons are back at it, focused and energized for the year that lies ahead.

"We've certainly never aligned ourselves with commercial interests first," Justin Faircloth explains. "We've always felt that we have something interesting to say and we've wanted to do it our way. After the release of the self-titled record [in 2003], we took about a year off. Then we decided to really test our limitations. I felt like creatively, we had something in our sophomore effort to prove.

"We wanted to reach a new level in being able to be dynamic and loud -- and to just rock," he adds. "We wanted to be able to experiment with a lot of the layers that we had done in the recordings where it was just Matt and I. We were fortunate enough to play with some really great string players and multi-instrumentalists, and great rhythm sections as well. In retrospect, I think it was a process we had to go through to really learn how to be a two-piece again."

As one might imagine, there's obviously an enormous distinction in performing as a two-piece and playing in a band.

"There's a huge difference," Faircloth affirms, "and that's what I think we both love about doing this thing as a two-piece band.

"I always call it 'freedom through bondage musically' because it confines us so much. But yet when you're playing in a band with people, you're always dependent on everyone's influence to sort of create this common sound, and for Matt and I it's so pure that it opens up a lot and it really allows us to get depth for what we're trying to create and what we're thinking."

He continues, "It's definitely cool. It allows us to execute a vision in something that to us is special, because we understand each other so well. We've taken a lot of time to cultivate this sensibility of what we want to sound like and what we want to say."

Faircloth admits the duo didn't necessarily intend on shrinking back to its original configuration. It's just how the cards fell more or less.

"As we toured around, we kept getting a lot of feedback, that that's what people wanted from us," he explains. "Some of our great friends and musical peers would say, 'you guys really need to do this again.'

"So, we gave it a lot of thought, and that combined with what I see as it being harder than ever to keep together a big band these days, we felt like it was where we needed to be. You talk to anybody who tries to hold together a big band, even if it's some of our friends who are on a higher level and touring nationally, and you see it can be very difficult.

"I think a lot of things are shifting for touring bands right now. It's hard to sell tickets; it's hard to drive everywhere. But it's just become so easy for Matt and I to pack up our stuff in the pickup and go," he says.

"That's our design; the next step for us in '09 is to try and find some tours with larger acts so it's in our best interest to be as mobile as possible."

With a new booking agent recently secured and dates already scheduled regionally through the first half of the year, The Houstons are set to become very mobile in the days ahead.

The Houstons will perform at 11 p.m. at Snug Harbor on Jan. 17. Jule Brown will also perform.

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