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Texas Johnny Brown is playing the shit out of a bluesy guitar solo. If that's not impressive enough, he's decided to go on a walk right smack in the middle of it.
The local blues legend, who has played with everyone from B.B. King to Bobby "Blue" Bland, has stepped offstage and is strumming the life out of his guitar as he seemingly glides across the crowded dance floor and through the bar area of The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club (5731 Kirby). The sizable Saturday-night crowd is not without enthusiasm.
Great blues musicians can temporarily transform their audiences. As Brown, who will observe his 80th birthday on February 22 on this same stage, soulfully marches on, the transformations occur: Insecure guys become confident, homely girls become sexy, boring and lifeless marriages become exciting again, and skinny white men and large black women dance together without prejudice. Owner Tom McLendon wouldn't have it any other way.
"Music is the only thing I can really believe anymore," says McLendon, who has 40-plus years experience as a harp player himself. "Our society has just turned into a hollow shell of greed and hypocrisy, and to me the music is a spiritual voice. I'm going broke here, but at least I'm doing something important. People come up to me and thank me for this place."
Indeed they do.
University of Houston graduate and ten-year visitor Amy East says it's the "only place in Houston you can get real blues without going to a Ward," while complimentary wordsmith Mike Marsh thinks Brown is "the baddest motherfucker around."
The Big Easy, which originally opened adjacent to blues and zydeco record store Yeah You Right records, looks straight out of blues-bar central casting. Wobbly barstools and the occasional white lawn chair offer what little seating there is; the jukebox is wondrously stocked with artists like John Lee Hooker, Earl Gilliam and Muddy Waters; the walls are adorned with countless framed posters and signed pictures; and it's frequented by characters with nicknames like Bug Daddy and Sheriff.
This Sheriff, born Robert Motal, is typically the first person patrons see upon entering the dress-code-free establishment. Thin, pony-tailed and peaceful, Motal is not an actual officer of the law, but has worked the door at The Big Easy for more than 13 years. He serves more as a diplomat than a bouncer, and is as much a part of The Big Easy's ambience as anyone onstage.
Asked how he earned the name Sheriff, Motal smiles and replies, "Maybe it's because of this..." He peels back his black jacket to reveal a brown leather vest and sheriff-like security badge affixed over his heart. Apparently, even nonelected Sheriffs wear brown leather vests with badges on them. That's The Big Easy: short on seating, long on character.
The Big Easy has stood proudly on Kirby since opening in February 1994, practically qualifying it for veteran status in Houston's often-fickle nightlife clubscape. Over those 14 years, McLendon has attracted many of the South's leading blues figures, including Trudy Lynn, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Kenny Neal and noted Jimi Hendrix inspiration Guitar Shorty. Current regulars include The Mighty Orq (Mondays), Jeremiah Johnson (Tuesdays), Luther and the Healers (Thursdays) and a Wednesday no-cover open mike for budding bluesmen and -women.
"We get the guys to play here that do because of Tom," says bartender Fred Carrier. "They love him. Whether he makes money or not, he tries to throw the artists some bones. I've never seen that before. He really loves the music."Last Call
Few things in this world are cooler than an old man in a nifty hat playing the blues. So here's some advice, straight from the mouth of Texas Johnny Brown himself, to help you go from whatever boring job it is you have to kick-ass blues musician in three simple steps:
Step 1: Be born with the blues latent in your soul.
Step 2: Purchase a nifty hat.
Step 3: Let your spirit bleed through your guitar for everyone to see.
Sounds easy enough, right? You're probably naturally good enough to perform the blues without any real practice, so go ahead and grace everyone with your not-terrible-at-all crooning at these venues that offer either karaoke or open-mike: Genji Japanese Restaurant (7964 Westheimer) — You're encouraged to sing from your booth, so this place is perfect for those who are a little shy (or a little lazy). 702 (702 W. Dallas) — Free karaoke and silent judgment from the audience after 10 p.m. Tuesdays. Big Woodrow's (3111 Chimney Rock) — Open mike on Fridays.