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Racket

Local music goes unnoticed in the Bayou City

In 1993 Racket was with his girlfriend (now Mrs. Racket) knocking back a few Pilsner Urquells in a Prague cafe on a gray winter's day. We fell into conversation with a fortysomething Dutch couple who told us that they had an American vacation planned. I asked where they were going, and the wife replied in a buttery Dutch accent, "Houston."

Asked why, they replied, "For the music." They planned a trip to coincide with the then-flourishing Juneteenth Blues Festival and had plotted around that event an itinerary of juke joints and parish hall zydecos. And why not? For lovers of blues and zydeco, Houston is the only city in the world where there is as much of one as the other.

But virtually nobody outside Houston knows about this, or any other of our city's musical charms. To Joe and Jane Tourist, Austin is the Texas music capital, and save for scattered Hill Country locales like Gruene Hall, there is little else of musical interest in the Lone Star State. It's sad that nobody in Houston with the wherewithal to change these misperceptions is willing to do so, least of all, apparently, our Leading Information Source.

Let's face it. Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth cream Houston in media coverage of their respective local music scenes. In Austin, the American-Statesman's Michael Corcoran is the star in a city full of critics, some great, some so-so and some abysmal. The weekly Austin Chronicle makes up with numbers what it doesn't have in quality, for no one on their staff can rival Corcoran. But suffice to say, no band goes unheard in the capital city for long.

Much the same can be said for DFW, where the Dallas Morning News, Dallas Observer and Ft. Worth Star-Telegrameach employ as many as three music critics. While DFW's music doesn't enjoy the same kind of national name recognition that Austin's does, Dallas kicked Houston's tail and ran neck-and-neck with Austin in terms of sheer numbers of local bands signed to majors in the 1990s.

The Bayou City's situation couldn't be more different. Since Rick Mitchell's departure from the Houston Chronicle, the Chron has mostly turned a deaf ear toward local music that hasn't already been discovered by bigwigs in Nashville, Los Angeles or New York. (The odd exception is the Chron's Business section, which time and time again shames the Houston section's coverage of the local scene.) Lead Chron music writer Michael D. Clark seldom ventures beyond the Aerial and the Woodlands Pavilion, and it seems that the only local band that impresses him is Destiny's Child, whose every batted eyelash he duly reports at length.

The subtext of the Chron's coverage is that Houston music doesn't matter unless it's already been discovered and approved by A&R men. In Clark's defense, his is an impossible job. One critic can't be expected to cover the scene in a city of 3.5 million people, and the emphasis on major-label concert reviews may not be his decision. But thus far, the buzz he has created for this city's indigenous, undiscovered music has been close to zilch.

Contrast today's Houston music coverage with that of a decade or so ago. The Post and Public News are gone, bought and folded by the Chron and the Press, respectively. Today there are but two full-time print music critics in Houston, yours truly and Clark. In 1990 there were four or five at the dailies alone, not to mention those (including Corcoran) at the fledgling Press and the then-flourishing Public News. There was a scene, and it got covered, and there was a buzz. It wasn't perfect, of course; it wasn't as if Houston's live music scene rivaled New York's. But there was…something. Something that seems to be if not quite gone, then certainly slipping away.

I've always thought that old, ahem, saw about trees falling in the forest and whether or not they make sounds is quite stupid. And in its literal sense, it is. The squirrel family that lived in the tree certainly heard it, as did the doodlebug it landed on, however briefly. As Scotty would tell you, the laws of physics don't suspend operations merely because they are uncollected by human ears.

But in the figurative sense, the saying does cut some ice. There are lots of trees falling in the forest that is Houston's music scene, but none of them are making sounds in the Chron. The Chron can't see that forest for the one big bootylicious tree. While yours truly certainly tries to give locals their due, without mainstream daily coverage, it's doubtful many more music-minded Dutch couples will be catching that KLM nonstop from Schiphol to Bush.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Big Roger Collins, Houston blues DJ, musician and frequent benefit organizer, passed away of a heart attack October 2. Collins was born and raised in the tiny Cajun/Creole crossroads community of Bayou Chicot, Louisiana, not far from Ville Platte and Opelousas. What's not surprising, Collins got his start in music as a drummer in zydeco bands. After moving to Berkeley, California, in the 1950s, Collins stepped out from behind the traps and started belting out his straight-ahead, take-no-prisoners, Chicago-style blues. Houston blues historian and Press contributor Roger Wood says that, as a musician, Collins was unusual for a number of reasons. First was his aforementioned allegiance to the stripped-down Chicago style of blues. Second, Collins never learned to play either the guitar or the accordion. Very few male vocalists in Houston are not also instrumentalists. But it was more than musical quirks that set Collins apart. It was also his generosity. Wood says that he can recall "literally scores" of benefits hosted by Collins. Some helped down-and-out or ailing musicians, while his semiannual Blues for Food concerts at the Shakespeare Pub (14129 Memorial) harvested several tons of food every year for the Houston Food Bank. In fact, this year's Blues for Food drive on November 11 will be the last to go by that name. From now on, it will be known as the Big Roger Collins Blues for Food Drive…Houston's Filipino-American cocktail-jazz rockers Phuz will appear with seven ethnically similar bands on the Pinoy Rock Stage at the 22nd Annual Asian American Festival. The fest takes place in and around Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park on Saturday and Sunday, October 20 and 21. While this year's festival spotlights the Philippines, the event also offers Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Polynesian, Laotian, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese and Indian music, dance, cuisine and martial arts -- not to mention an Asian bazaar…Veteran folk bluesman John Hammondwill grace Anderson Fair's famed red brick floor on October 27. Hammond is currently touring on Wicked Grin.Expect plenty of Tom Waits material from Hammond, as that album was produced by the woozy maestro and featured 12 of his songs…In case you're in need of one, here are two good band names up for grabs: Godless (insert bandleader's name here) & the Global Arrogance, and the Nonsense Donkies.

 
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