Home for the Holidays

Ah, December, a most bittersweet time of year for the Houston music scene. In most cities, it's a slack time for gigs, both local and national. Not so in Houston. Sure, the big touring acts don't come around, but as for the locals, it's another story. This is the month when many of the richly talented musicians who left town come back home. While they're mainly here to visit relatives, many of them find the time to squeeze in a gig or two.

Here's a short, incomplete rundown. Tom Carter/Charalambides and Greg Ashley/the Mirrors have already passed through town.

Singer Butch Klotz is coming home from the East Coast, and 30footFall is playing its annual reunion gig Christmas Day at Fitz's. Drummer Claudio Depujadas is coming in from Philly to back the temporarily reunited Suspects on December 21 at the Continental. Carolyn Wonderland (paired with Guy Forsyth) comes home to Dan Electro's on New Year's Eve.

Steve Christiansen (left) and Houston expats Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore and Paul Valdez relax at Under the Volcano.
John Nova Lomax
Steve Christiansen (left) and Houston expats Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore and Paul Valdez relax at Under the Volcano.

The Mucky Duck's calendar this month is positively peppered with prodigal pickers and players. Early '90s pop-rock royals Trish and Darin played there Tuesday (December 18), and upcoming shows include partially or totally relocated former scene stalwarts such as Sisters Morales (December 28) and Clandestine (December 27).

Yet another homecoming show will be at Rudyard's on December 21. This one features Arthur Yoria opening for an as-yet unnamed band comprised of nationally renowned side players including top-shelf local drummer Paul Valdez, bassist John Michael Schoepf of Jack Ingram's band, Kelly Willis/Bruce Robison band member Eleanor Whitmore on violin/miscellaneous strings and vocals, single-­monikered Willis/Robison keyboardist Sweney, and guitarist Chris Masterson.

Three-fifths of that band — Valdez, Whitmore and Masterson — are sitting with me in a corner booth at Under the Volcano, along with local recording engineer Steve Christiansen. Christiansen, Masterson and Whitmore (the last two are partners offstage as well as on) are headed to the studio to do some mixing after a quick drink and bite to eat, but they've found the time to talk about their memories of Houston and plans for the future.

Those of you with long memories will recall Masterson as a teenage blues shredder — he started playing out in 1989, when he was all of 13 years old — and as one of the leaders of the blues jams at the Big Easy in the late 1990s. (He says he founded that gathering as a teenager.)

Back then, Masterson's resemblance to the pre-stardom, pre-hippie Johnny Winter was uncanny. If Winter had been dead, you would have thought Masterson was his reincarnation. Each of them is a slightly built guy with milk-white skin, and Masterson also sported the same white pompadour and thick black spectacles that Winter had circa 1965. (Like Winter, Masterson is an albino and legally blind.) And both could absolutely wreck shop on a six-string.

Since his proto-Johnny Winter days, Masterson has undergone a near-­complete transformation. He has dyed his hair jet-black and doesn't much play the blues anymore, at least not as such. The vibe he sports on the demos on his MySpace and in his debut solo EP, The Late Great Chris Masterson, finds him serving up twangy roots-pop in the vein of latter-day Steve Earle, the Replacements and Big Star.

Masterson headed to Austin about seven years ago, and with stints backing Bare Jr., Wayne Hancock and Hank III, it has been onward and upward ever since. From 2003 until earlier this year, he toured as Jack Ingram's lead guitarist, riding along as Ingram attempted the transition from Texas music top gun to Nashville superstar.

"I was doing what a lot of people dream of doing," he says. "I was getting a fairly good salary, riding around in a tour bus, and..."

"Playing for the people," chimes in Whitmore.

"Yeah," agrees Masterson. "But at some point, it started feeling like the path of least resistance."

In February, Masterson had enough and took a pay cut to jump ship to Son Volt. "I'm not trying to belittle anything Jack's doing," says Masterson. "But he was a psychology major in college and he knows what he's doing, and we used to talk about this on the bus all the time. He wants to be a superstar, and I want to be a critic's darling. Neither approach is right or wrong, but they are entirely different. But make no mistake about it — he doesn't want to be me, and I don't want to be him. I added a lot of uncertainty to my life, but it was for the sake of music."

Masterson and Whitmore — a ­scarlet-haired singer and classically trained string-instrument master who was raised in Denton as the daughter of a folk-singing dad and opera-singing mom — also found time to work on their solo careers and a duo project.

The Late Great Chris Masterson, his EP, sparked a rivalry between the two. "Eleanor was getting kinda jealous of all the songs I was writing," he says, to a frown from Eleanor. Masterson carries on ­oblivious.

"So I went out for the first Son Volt tour, and then when I came home she had five or so new songs written. I think she tried to see and raise me."

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