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I'm at Helios on a sweltering Monday night, and the funky old lower Westheimer mansion is packed. Old punks next to young punks, black guys with scraggly beards and dreads tucked into doo-rags, white girls who look like they got lost on their way home from The Social, a wine-sipping Kelsey Grammer look-alike, East Asians, South Asians, Hispanics, you name it. And for the sausagefest that is all too often the Houston live music scene, there are as many women in the house as men. All of this on a Monday, mind you.
And dozens of them are crammed as tight as a can of smoked oysters right in front of the stage, where they're trying their best to dance to music performed by four or five young guys who look like the crew of a Missouri River whiskey boat, circa 1851. In some cases, the music played by these guys (multi-instrumentalists Geoffrey "Uncle Tick" Muller, Craig "The Reverend" Kinsey, Scott "Rag Tag" McNeil, Shane "Coach" Lauder and occasionally two-time Press Best Guitarist winner Kelly Doyle) is also that old, while in other cases, it originated from the hands and vocal cords of people like Bill Monroe, Django Reinhardt, Jimmie Rodgers, Cab Calloway and the Louvin Brothers.
And in some cases, from the Medicine Show itself, the band responsible for this scrum. Right now, the band is singing -- screaming, really -- an original tune about vodka. "That's one of the songs the Reverend kinda wrote spontaneously on stage," says Rag Tag the next day. "A lot of our songs are like that."
At any rate, it has sent Josie the Incredible Bartender into a wild-eyed frenzy. "All right, who wants some vodka?" she screams, brandishing a fancy bottle of imported grain spirits. ("Vodka!" the band hollers.) "Line up for your shots! You want some?" she asks, pointing the bottle at a twentysomething blond. ("Vodka!") "How about you? Vodka, on the house!" (Rag Tag says she's been known to jump on stage and pour the stuff in their mouths.)
Down the hatch. "Vodka!" indeed. The bar is also doing a roaring trade in Shiner Bock on tap, big cans of Lone Star and aquamarine-colored shots called, if the chalkboard over the bar is to be believed, Blue Smurf Shits. The whole evening is like one of those Blue Monday jams in the Third Ward -- you take the lemon that is the worst day of the week and squeeze that sucker until it turns into lemonade.
And then you pour in the vodka.
And, as it turns out, this is musically like a Blue Monday as well, for Little Joe Washington drops in to perform an opening three-song mini-set (backed by the Medicine Show's Coach on drums and Uncle Tick on bass) that comprises "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and a slow blues or two. Washington has traded in his battered cowboy hat for a floppy camouflage lid, but he's still sporting the battered blue coat and the same blistering, jazzy and occasionally dissonant blues licks he learned over on Velasco Street near the train tracks in the Trey.
And the tricks: He wails a line or two about "great big titties" and scrapes the guitar's strings over the back of his head. He wraps up his set the same way he always does: "I'm gonna pass the hat now," he says. When he works his way over to me, I hand him $3, and he is clearly enthused, more by his playing and the packed house than by my donation. "You don't play all night on somebody else's job," he says, smiling, knowing that he could do just that if he wanted. "That's the truth. Hey, man, wanna buy a T-shirt?"
Scenes like this remind me of just how much like Lightnin' Hopkins Washington has become. No, I'm not referring here to Washington's demeanor or stage antics; instead, it's his role. Just as Hopkins was the face of the local blues scene to thousands of white hippies in the '60s and '70s, so is Washington to the hipsters of today. (Hell, he has been since the '90s.) Except for Etta's Lounge, most hipster kids have never been to the jukes in the Third and Fifth wards, and they see the Big Easy and the other westside blues haunts as old man bars. Washington, on the other hand, gets on his Schwinn and comes to them.
And that's vital. Cite magazine called Houston an "ephemeral city," one marked by "rapid change, built-in obsolescence, indeterminacy, media orientation, a culture of style, and instant gratification." We lack zoning, the population doubles every generation, and it seems that any building that reaches the age of 30 is torn down so the yuppies can have a new place to play, shop or sleep.
None of which is to say that this city does not have some eternal truths. And the blues is a huge part of H-town's DNA. In the '40s and '50s, tens of thousands of rural black people came to Houston from places like Marshall, Centerville and Newton.
Washington is transmitting the city's genetic musical code to a whole new generation, and seeing him up there with the Medicine Show reminds me of how some of the 13th Floor Elevators used to sit in with and even record with Lightnin'.
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