Home for the Holidays

Eleanor laughs.

"We've done some duo shows, but we've decided not to use a band name," Masterson goes on. "We're side people as it is, so if we picked a band name and then one of us was unavailable to do a show, then we'd have a whole 'nother organization to dig ourselves out of. We really don't need any other parenthetical qualifiers. We kinda need to get our own names."

"Actually," he adds. "We kinda thought of calling the band the Parenthetical ­Qualifiers."

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.

Masterson says that the anonymous band does already have its pithy critical description, courtesy of an attendee at their day party show at this past South By Southwest.

"It was fun — Steve Earle came and watched," he remembers. "But anyway, somebody said, 'Oh I get it, they are the hipster Buddy and Julie Miller.' I've been called far worse than that. They can make music together or apart. I respect Buddy a lot — he's a great writer, producer and he gets to go play guitar all over the place."

And so has Masterson. In addition to the Rudyard's show, the "Parenthetical Qualifiers" will be playing in Denton and Austin, and then shortly after that, he and Whitmore plan to move again, this time to New York.

"As side people, this is one of the only times we can do our own shows," he says. "The holidays are one of the only times we can get off. Son Volt's done for the year — we'll be dark until around South By, when the music business starts back up. So we're doing these shows and then we're moving to New York."

"This is our going-away party," adds Whitmore.

Masterson says he is thankful to Houston for the blues education — "blues infusion" might be more accurate — he was able to get here as a kid.

"I still pull from the blues really heavily," he said. "That's the thing about growing up here when I did — you got to see Albert Collins every Christmas at Rockefeller's" — this stream-of-­prodigals-­returning-at-Christmas thing has been going on a long time — "and I got to hang out with Joe Hughes. Me and my dad would go over to Big Walter's apartment and hang out with him and he would cook us biscuits. Even now if I'm looking at a seemingly Britpop kinda song, it's not too uncommon for me to hit some kinda angular guitar licks that harken back to T-Bone [Walker] or Goree Carter."

Masterson felt stifled by the strictures of the blues scene, the demands of the blues purists. "I showed up at Gary Primich's memorial service in Austin a while back, and because I've written a few pop songs, some of the blues people are like, 'He doesn't really play blues anymore.' Bands like that kind of drove me away from blues. I'm just a disciple of music, you know?"

Masterson says that he still gets MySpace pleas from people begging him to come back to the blues. He doesn't see that he ever left. "It's all blues," he says. "Take the Hank Williams box set and the Robert Johnson box set and put 'em side by side and look for the similarities instead of the differences. You've got a Fedora, a small-bodied Gibson, a cigarette and some songs."

I asked him what he thought of Houston today, whether he thought the music scene was better or worse than the one he left behind in the 1990s, and he said he didn't know and put the question to ­Valdez.

"Probably worse," Valdez replies. "I noticed this year that things had finally gotten better for me, and then I sat and thought about it and realized that I spent about 60 percent of this year on the road."

Masterson and Whitmore say Austin was a decent move for them, even if the city has a vastly inflated sense of its own worth.

"Austin kind of reminds me of Denton in the sense that Denton has this great jazz school at the University of North Texas, and then no jazz clubs," says Whitmore. "In Austin, they call themselves the Live Music Capital of the World, and there's not that much music on Sixth Street."

"The thing about Austin is that it can be a velvet-lined coffin," Masterson says. "The quality of life is great. I do enjoy living there and supporting mom-and-pop businesses. I like the ethic there."

"But the slacker thing...," puts in ­Valdez.

"The slacker thing is so prevalent," Masterson continues. "It's like, 'Yeah, we'll get some breakfast tacos, smoke a jammer and go down to the Springs and we might play some music today.' We're going to New York because we want to feel the pressure again."

But in the meantime, Masterson, along with many others, is coming back home to remind us of what kind of music town this could be, if only every month were ­December.

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