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Born in the USO

Created by the folks who provide "entertainment" to military bases, VQ Live hopes to keep the non-GI Joes happy

No one really hung back by the bar. Everybody was up at the front of the stage, where four scary-looking characters in leather and jeans and a banner bearing the name "L.A. Guns" -- printed inside a skeleton's head inside a police badge -- occupied the available spotlight. Back at the bar, about 40 yards from the stage, a tiny guy wearing a shiny gold sweater and with short curly midnight-black hair accidentally threw an elbow. "Excuse me," he said, before turning around to his plastic drink cups. He hoisted the precious cargo aloft, then ran toward the stage. In seconds, the guy popped up alongside the shady characters. The moment he strapped his bass around his shoulders, L.A. Guns began the first song of its hour-and-a-half-long set at VQ Live, a venue that hopes to have more success than the half-cocked band on stage.

VQ Live, located in the armpit of a strip mall on Scarsdale Boulevard alongside Hong Kong Food Market, Ngog Mai Jewelry and Hoàng Hoa Billiards, was probably the only place in town with a sound system substantial enough for a formidable yet largely forgotten band like L.A. Guns, and also the only place in town willing to host such an act, an '80s outfit whose crotch-rock appeal could practically be bottled and sold as an alternative to Drano.

Kitschy is probably the best way to describe the club and what it represents. Owned by Vision Quest Productions, an entertainment promotion and production company that is a subsidiary of Houston-based Entertainment Technologies & Programs Inc., VQ Live suffers from culture shock. For the past 17 years, ETPI has been producing less-than-marquee entertainment for USO tours, those events Bob Hope made famous in the '40s and that military personnel and brats overseas still look forward to as antidotes to homesickness. Thing is, flattops on military bases are not exactly picky. These captive crowds could be captivated by barking seals; you parade Loverboy, Cheap Trick or the Marshall Tucker Band in front of their malnourished ears, and suddenly these concertgoers are as rapt as New Jerseyans before Bruce Springsteen's scuffed Timberlands.

But in the real world, far away from fatigues and fatuous drill sergeants, Loverboy would have a hard time attracting a roomful of people to piss on them, let alone a club-ful of fans. The only real reason Houstonians would go see acts like these is for shits and giggles and infinite "remember when?" stories. A live venue that lives by nostalgia would seem destined to die by it; the spandex-and-eye-shadow crowd that followed Loverboy or Cheap Trick during their heydays now considers golf and martinis live entertainment, not some club with its roster of aging metal acts still screeching as if their balls just dropped.

So it seems only right that of all the clubs in Houston, L.A. Guns dragged its carcass to VQ Live, a venue smack-dab in the heart of a Vietnamese community and one with a kick-ass sound system yet a stunted estimation of quality -- which seemingly peaked around 1984.

Five years ago Vision Quest became a separate company under the ETPI umbrella. Last year that entity relocated from San Diego to Houston. The city, according to Vision Quest president Jeff Thornton, had all the right criteria: a state with no sales taxes, a nearby body of water, decent weather and a professional football team. (Until Bud Adams got in touch with his inner jerk.) The headquarters are in Clear Lake.

The space where VQ Live now sits was initially intended to be a VQ family entertainment center, replete with video games and other assorted distractions. Construction problems delayed, then killed, the project, according to Thornton. No one had any idea what would happen with the 6,000 square feet of homey interior until ETPI CEO Doug Butcher walked into Thornton's office, hugged him and essentially said, "Jeff, go for it." For months Thornton had been pushing for a live music venue. His $100,000 PA system had been sitting in a shed in San Diego for four years. To Thornton, Butcher's words were like fresh nuts to a barfly.

Last December, after about two months of preparation, VQ Live opened with a weekend of performances by Houston acts Zero Gravity, Face Plant, the Sheila Marshall Band and the now defunct Sonnier Brothers. The club's debut marked Vision Quest's first foray into continental U.S. entertainment. The groundbreaking, Thornton assures in an interview at the club, was not spurred on by the rash of recent military base closings overseas, even if, according to one corporate investor Web site, ETPI earned more than 64 percent of its total revenues in fiscal 1999 from "military entertainment." "It's had no impact," Thornton says. "If anything, it brought people from posts to bigger bases."

The club is band-friendly, and the sound is fantastic. VQ Live houses one of only a handful of major-league sound systems in the area, and the stage, at 16 feet by 32 feet, is roomier than a typical club's, even shouldering an eight-foot by eight-foot drum riser. "I built it with a touring national act in perspective," says Thornton, bright teeth shining, his blond hair in a ponytail. The only complaints, he says, have come from residential neighbors across the street, whose teacups have performed little spastic dances in their saucers from the reverberations.

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