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Knock on Wood

How an old toolshed became a hippie haven

This past July 21 marked the end of an era, but perhaps the advent of another. Around 1 a.m., three police cars arrived outside an unassuming house in the Heights, responding to a neighbor's noise complaint. It wasn't the first time.

Clad in a sparkly disco-ball shirt and a black cape, resident Dave Nelson stopped dancing when he learned of the cops' arrival. A friend ripped the blue headband from his head, but failed to remove any more of his bizarre costume.

Zilla's Jamie Janover, a frequent Jellyphish performer.
Dave Nelson
Zilla's Jamie Janover, a frequent Jellyphish performer.
Jellyphish Lounge: From woodworking to jam bands.
August West
Jellyphish Lounge: From woodworking to jam bands.

"They can't arrest me for wearing a cape!" Nelson declared, and marched down his driveway to meet the cops.

From 2003 until that midsummer night, a conveniently hidden toolshed near White Oak Bayou known as the Jelly­phish Lounge hosted crowds of up to 250 and several leading local and national jam bands. Names like New Monsoon, Hot Buttered Rum, Raq and Psychedelic Breakfast may not ring a bell, but the String Cheese Incident probably does.

SCI side projects Zilla, Eoto and Honky­tonk Homeslice all played the Jellyphish, as did Houston bands Plump, the Hightailers and Moses Guest. In all, there were 27 Lounge concerts, which came and went without most Houstonians ever noticing. (Their neighbors did, though: one set called in about 20 noise complaints in four years, while others invited their friends over to sit outside and enjoy the music.)

In 1938, Lester and Leigh Pickles, who both taught at Reagan High School, built the house they would occupy for the next 51 years. "Wonderful people," says current landlord Steve Dukes.

"In the woodshop," he notes, "Lester did lots of woodworking projects for his church." That woodshop, which Pickles built circa World War II, is situated on the banks of the bayou, at the back of the property Dukes now owns and manages.

Three living areas comprise this "Compound," as residents call it: east and west garage apartments, and the two-bed/two-bath house. Whoever rents the house pays the woodshop's electric bill, and thus gets primary jurisdiction. Nelson and partner August West moved into the house, along with West's daughter Destiny, in summer 2001. Gradually, they converted the woodshop from a storage shack full of junk to a party room they dubbed the Jellyphish Lounge.

Musicians loved to play there. "The first time we walked in, we were like, 'Man, this place is badass,'" says Plump drummer Doug Payne. "Sometimes you walk into a place, and you just know it's gonna sound good."

Payne thinks Plump was louder than other Jellyphish bands, but the unofficial noise-complaint record goes to the Hightailers, who performed four times since 2005 and were responsible for that final police intervention July 21.

"We kind of looked at it as putting a period on the ending of the sentence there," reflects drummer Randy ­Woodard.

Part of what made the Lounge so "magical" (Payne's term) was the neo-hippie subculture fostered by Last Concert Café regulars and fueled by August West's creativity. Her decorations were part ever-evolving art installation, part ­performance-specific motif.

When Zilla, String Cheese drummer Michael Travis's side band, played the Lounge, West organized the creation of a Godzilla-themed city complete with giant lizard; other themes included a Greek bacchanalia and '70s glam-rock prom.

On normal days, Mardi Gras beads dangled from trees lining the path to the Jellyphish entrance. Pinwheels and tiki lamps abounded, and a permanent sign read, "Hippies use side door." There was only one door.

Inside, posters from past concerts covered the walls. Mismatched chairs, paintings and sculptures defying description were scattered among an array of artistic clutter. "Bare feet and whispers only, please," requested another sign, this one tacked to the wall.

On a broken refrigerator, a sticker displayed the house creed: "Shut up and dance."

That was one of three rules at Jellyphish Lounge intended to uphold the sanctity of the atmosphere. No one talked while the band played, and audience members were welcome to dance like the apocalypse was imminent, but not to interrupt the music. The other two rules, "Quit acting a fool" and "Hey, you, get off my cloud," were only half tongue-in-cheek.

"You had to be brought there," explains frequent partygoer Austin Vernon. In other words, the Lounge survived primarily via word of mouth, and people who found themselves there typically understood what was expected. Those who didn't were quickly shown the door.

"If no one knows you, you'll be welcomed," says Nelson. "But if you can't integrate, you might be asked to leave." Only once or twice was a guest unable to integrate and duly expelled, he adds.

"The vibe got really thick and dense in there," offers Jamie Janover, world-renowned dulcimer musician and member of Zilla. Both the space and the crowd affected Zilla's predominantly electronic, completely improvised performances, he says: "The music was influenced by the current."

Janover likens the effect to a vortex whereby the band sent energy to the audience, which returned it, which in turn shaped the music, and so forth. Jellyphish was "one of those magic portals where you can transport people," he says. Zilla's concerts there usually ended with what he calls the "'Grateful Dead on New Year's Eve' look."

But what happens now that such a powerful space loses its benefactors? The answer is still being worked out. Last month, Nelson and West moved to Colorado. The Jellyphish name went with them, but "it will never be used as a storage room again," says Nelson, who hopes to join Colorado's festival scene and host large-scale music events as Jellyphish Productions.

The noise-tolerance levels of the Compound's neighbors have likewise probably reached their limit, Nelson adds, but he still thinks the converted woodshop will "evolve into the next thing it's supposed to be."

Whatever that is. It might be the quieter but no less artistic brainchild of Austin Vernon and Mark Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux, Production Manager for Opera in the Heights, lives in the western garage apartment and has used the Lounge for post-show cast parties. He and Vernon want to open the space for people to use as a studio for any type of art.

Thibodeaux has already arranged to paint set pieces in the Lounge during the Opera's upcoming season. He's considering changing its name to Mr. Pickle's Workshop, in honor of its architect and hopeful future function as a creative workplace.

"There's no way I'm gonna live here and let it just sit there and rot," Thibodeaux vows. "It already has a life of its own. As an artist, I feel obligated to make sure it's being used."

All proceeds from Jellyphish shows went straight to the bands, and every guest or musician who visited the Lounge felt a deep appreciation for Nelson and West's generosity.

"They're all about the love, and that's the way to be," offers Janover.

And now, though Nelson and West have moved on, perhaps that vibe will remain somewhere in the old woodshop's walls and floorboards.

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