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Homeward Bound

Houston's lack of zoning has long been a source of both comfort and consternation for many round these parts. But as far as we can tell, no one has ever found musical inspiration in the fact that a day-care center and a bar can coexist peacefully within projectile-vomiting range of each other. Yet Keith Grendel says the city's Twilight Zone-ish land-use laws, or lack thereof, are some of the things that inspired him as a budding musician growing up here, and continue to influence him now as a bassist and singer in joyous pop merchants Papas Fritas, a band that appeals to tiny tots and boozehounds alike.

"It's affected me," says Grendel from band headquarters near Boston. "It's just a laid-back place. But there's a lot of energy, and you learn anything can happen there. Houston has no zoning laws. I think that's affected me. You know, in Houston you can kinda set your place there and do what you want. That rubbed off on meŠ.It's capitalism run amok. But sometimes that's inspiring."

Native Houstonian Keith Grendel, the crazy-haired guy in the picture, returns home with his band Papas Fritas this week.
Native Houstonian Keith Grendel, the crazy-haired guy in the picture, returns home with his band Papas Fritas this week.

Grendel's carefree attitude is certainly compatible with the work of Papas Fritas, a trio that values uniqueness and fun in a world of Korn soundalikes. Formed in 1992, the band, which includes Shivika Asthana on drums and vocals and Tony Goddess on guitar and vocals, has dedicated itself to radio-friendly power pop of the variety the Beach Boys and Monkees made so special three decades previous. The Papas Fritas sound is buoyed by steady three-part harmonies, aggressive hooks and unsophisticated yet quirky lyrical content. Grendel, pencil-thin with a tuft of shaggy hair, seems himself a constant reminder of the band's fancy-free-for-all image.

Reared in the burbs off Chimney Rock, Grendel says music was integral to family living. His grandfather played violin in the Houston Symphony, and being encouraged to learn and enjoy music was always part of his upbringing. Grendel played clarinet from fifth grade through his senior year at The Kinkaid School, where he tooted and tweeted with the marching band, an irreverent bunch modeled after Rice University's MOB. "We'd make fun of the football players," says Grendel. "And I'm sure they made fun of us."

After graduating in 1990, he left for Tufts University, where he majored in bio-psychology. Grendel met his future bandmates there and began pursuing music as a hobby. Five albums later, things have gotten serious enough that daytime jobs have become the hobbies. When not touring, Goddess runs a record store and studio, and Grendel and Asthana are both Web designers. ("There's a connection between music and Web design," confides Grendel. "I think [that in] making music and doing computer graphics you use the same part of the brain. I know a lot of musicians who are Web designersŠ.It's relatively easy to learn, and there's a big market for it.")

But it wasn't the clarinet or even Houston radio's bland palette ("Led Zeppelin, Rush, ZZ Top, you know, those bands") that stuck with Grendel. It was Houston's lack of a musical identity and centralized scene, circa 1987. "Because the scene is so isolated, there aren't many bands who've made it," says Grendel. "The concept of a rock and roll band was far away to me. There weren't a lot of role models, and I was not aware of a club scene. It's also possible I couldn't get in the clubs, really, butŠ" His voice trails off into a laugh.

Hanging out at downtown coffee-cum-freak-shop No tsu oH, the picture of corporate independence in Grendel's opinion, was one of the things he did as an underager that fuels his artistic aspirations to this day. "It's one of the most inspiring places I've ever been," he says. "How someone can buy an old, beautiful building and not tear it out but recognize that beauty and try to preserve it is inspiring."

When Papas Fritas performs this week, Grendel will be home for what has become a yearly visit. (His parents still live here.) Papas Fritas will perform Thursday, March 16, at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh. For more information, call (713)521-0521.

He's Fallen... And He Can't Get Up!

After a gig in Galveston at the Old Quarter last month, Neural Nectar's lead singer and guitarist Bobby G. was helping load equipment when he broke his right arm. One-hundred-fifty-pound Bobby G. was on his band's truck, shifting around a 65-pound monitor, when he lost his footing and crashed to the pavement below. The monitor followed, landing on his appendage and crushing it.

With no health insurance and no blood ties to anyone with the surname Kennedy or Trump, Bobby G. continues to get by with odd jobs at the Aerial Theater, where he -- when healthy-armed -- has been bartending the past three years. Whatever change he's accumulating there, though, still hasn't been enough to begin chipping away at the $1,600 bill hanging over his head. Up until now, Bobby G. says, he has just been putting off paying up.

This weekend Christmas might come early for Bobby G. Some of his friends and business associates will be holding a benefit fund-raiser at Sidecar Pub, 11202 Huffmeister. On Sunday, March 19, five bands, including Carolyn Wonderland & The Imperial Monkeys, Crash Comfort, Simpleton, Redline 7 and Deep Ella, will play from 2 p.m. till close, around 10 or 11 p.m., in the pub parking lot. Cover charge is $5. Most of the proceeds will go toward the help-Bobby-G.-pay-his-hospital-bills fund, and the rest will go to the winner of a scheduled 50-50 raffle.

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