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He's the reason rock and roll works: an earnest young man with a three-day-old beard, carefully cultivated windswept hair and closed eyes, standing on a makeshift stage with a well-loved guitar in his hands, singing meaningfully into a mike. Tonight it's sometime musician and full-time social studies teacher Dave Ransom on the Mojo Risin' Coffee House (1600 Shepherd, 713-426-1505) stage. Tomorrow night it will be some other earnest young singer/songwriter.
The crowd out front will be the same -- leftover hippies and baby boomers who grew up listening to classic rock before it got classic, along with Radioville dropouts who like their music live and their musicians local. Everyone's wearing natural fibers and there's a decided lack of mascara in the room.
Mojo's is happily shabby, with just a tiny dose of chic. The tables and chairs are all hand-painted with black, white and red splashes and streaks; it looks like the inside of Jackson Pollock's head exploded all over the place. On the wall behind the stage, there's a giant peace sign adorned with a few olive branches; next to it is a portrait of Janis Joplin in full cackle. From where I'm sitting, I can see red hearts, a string of lit-up St. Patrick's Day clovers, icicles and Christmas lights hanging over the cash register, like a floating ad for chintzy holiday decorations. On the far wall there's a giant old icebox that looks like it was taken right out of granny's kitchen, rumbling motor and all.
Onstage, Ransom and his partner Chenoa Farrell are done. "Thank you, thank you," they both nod.
Up next is Abi Tapia, an Austinite who comes to Houston to perform (who knew Highway 290 worked going east?). Tapia is a singer/songwriter who also pulls producing and publishing duties. Her all-female Firecrackers Festival in early July will come through Houston on its four-city tour (get it, firecrackers in July?), but tonight she's just singing and playing guitar. Oh, and playing harmonica, too. Tapia starts her mike check. "Check, check, ah woo, woooo, wooooooo," she goes into a vocalizing exercise. It sounds beautiful.
I watch customers pull their own beer out of the icebox while Tapia is singing. Most tables have a couple of corked bottles of wine sitting on them. It's all very down-home and friendly.
Owner Jack Mullen sees me writing notes. I'm busted. "Are you doing a story about this place?" he asks incredulously.
"Yes," I answer, bracing myself for the onslaught of the "aren't we wonderful" banter most barkeeps give me.
"Well, we don't want too many people knowing about us," he tells me straight-faced.
"Yeah, we're trying to keep it on the lowdown," chimes in wife and partner Terri.
"Ah, okay," I stammer. "I'll do my best."
Onstage, Tapia is singing." Lucky for me Tapia's a bustling ball of energy; she's captured everyone's attention, and I'm back to being invisible.
Later on, I'm settling up my tab at the register with Jack and Terri. "So you have music here four or five nights a week?" I ask.
"Four, just four nights," says Terri. "We're pretty much booked from now up to June. That's our official calendar," she says, pointing to a generic wall calendar to the side of the register and laughing. "Oh, look, there's a Tuesday open; I'm sure that will get filled up fast."
The couple opened Mojo Risin' a year and a half ago. He was a massage therapist working in the same space that became the coffee shop. She was a nurse. They both started to hate those jobs, so they started the business. Originally the plan was to have a regular coffeehouse with just an occasional night of live music, but local musicians started coming out of the woodwork, and Jack and Terri soon found they had a very full entertainment schedule. The artists play for whatever is collected in cover charge. Could be $10, could be $400. Tonight, I figure Tapia will get gas money. There are only 20 or so of us in the audience, and there are four musicians on the bill.
"You'd never run out of musicians to play, even if we had music seven nights a week," Terri chatters to me.
"There's so much talent in this town," adds Jack. "These days I'd say probably 40 percent of the musicians that play here come from Austin and 40 percent are from Houston; the other 20 percent are from everywhere else. We have musicians from Tennessee, Chicago, L.A., New York, everywhere. It just took a couple of people on tour coming through here, and they all went home, told their friends and now those musicians are coming here."
"Really, it's just all word of mouth," says Terri.
"Now we're starting to make contacts in the UK and Scotland, Paris," Jack tells me. "With just word of mouth, it's a nice gradual increase to [the business], so we can adjust to it. If we put out a huge ad campaign and a whole bunch of people showed up, it would just piss everybody off because we couldn't handle it."
"Yeah, we don't want to grow too fast," Terri says. "The customers we have already are getting very picky about, well, actually, the crowds."
For more information about Mojo Risin' Coffee House, visit www.myspace.com/mojorisincoffee.
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