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Houston Has a Bad Reputation with Touring Indie Bands

They'd just as soon give us a miss.

And yet none of that can fully explain what makes Houston the way that it is. "I've talked to so many people around the country and asked them, what do you think it is that your town has that my town doesn't have," Chavez says. "And no one ever really has an explanation, but usually the one that I come back to is that all these other cities have a decent history of really good local bands, local bands that make it onto the national spotlight, and Houston has never had that."
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In the early part of the decade, Chavez and friends Bucky Thuerwachter, Lance Scott Walker, Russell Etchen and Jason Colburn founded the Hands Up Houston show collective to bring to town the bands that had been skipping Houston. They would also see to it that the musicians were fed and housed while they were here, and see to it that the crowds were at least decent.

They already knew going in that radio would be of little help, so instead they relied on old-fashioned methods such as flyering clubs and telephone poles as well as the Internet, which they had more or less grown up with. From the beginning, Hands Up operated under strict "punk" dictates: None of the founders were to profit from these shows; instead, the excess cash was to be rolled back into the kitty, so that the others could both attract more and better shows and to subsidize the duds, of which, to be fair, there were more than a few.

Ryan Chavez was the promoter of the Two Gallants show which has entered into legend.
Aaron Sprecher
Ryan Chavez was the promoter of the Two Gallants show which has entered into legend.
Hot Water Music headlined Hands Up Houston's 100th show.
Hot Water Music headlined Hands Up Houston's 100th show.

"We kept it small at first, and looking back, that was pretty smart," says co-founder Lance Scott Walker, whose band Port Vale also played the very first Hands Up show. "In the beginning, what we did was for the city, and not for us."

As Jeremy Hart wrote in the Houston Press in late 2001, their hard work was paying off. "Some national bands are now skipping Austin completely in favor of Houston, believe it or not, and more good independent bands are coming to our fair city now than at any time since the early '90s," Hart enthused. "In just over a year and a half, Hands Up has managed to build a fan base that will go to just about any show the collective books. In essence, Hands Up has become a brand name and a focal point for the sprawling Houston music scene."

What's more, it gave Houston's indie music fans a focal point on the Web. Hands Up's online message board became the spot on the Internet for gossip, rants, ­consensus-forming and debate for indie kids from Lake Jackson to Katy and all points in between. Not to mention bringing people to shows — one of the staples of the board was (and is, as the board is today all that remains of Hands Up) a roll call of who was going to see what. In a city with conservative-to-the-point-of-idiotic commercial rock radio, Hands Up's Web site served as both Houston's Pitchfork and its de facto version of Seattle's influential radio station KEXP.

By 2004, Chavez's national reputation as a promoter was growing, as was his ambition. He felt like he had accomplished his goal of making Houston a viable market for touring bands. Why not make his living at it? Teaming up with Andrew Morgan, he formed Super Unison and junked the "no profits" rule. Hands Up ground to a halt a few months later, but Super Unison picked up where they left off, and yet, slowly but surely, both Morgan (who didn't want to speak for this article) and Chavez were souring on Houston. After too many months of taking baby steps forward with well-attended shows, followed by expensive debacles that nullified his gains, Chavez admits that he was starting to lose his edge as a super-aggressive promoter.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were almost the final straw. During the Rita scare, Morgan and Chavez headed to Austin, which was then in the throes of its annual Austin City Limits music festival. There, they made a joint decision. They would leave Houston: Morgan would head to Seattle, and Chavez to Philadelphia, where each had a job waiting for him. Morgan kept his word. He is now living in Seattle, working for booking agency Billions and, to hear Chavez tell it, is as happy as he can be.

But despite having a dream industry job waiting for him in Philly, an increasingly glum Chavez stayed put in Houston. The Two Gallants brouhaha came about a year after that decision, and today, Chavez sounds both far too bitter and far too wise for his 26 years. "I've started being a lot more realistic about putting in offers for bands, because Houston's just never gonna show the support that agents or managers would like to see."

One problem he sees is that there are too few great local bands. Local bands, he explains, are the gateway drug for local fans to get into the scene — at any rate, that was the way it worked for him when he first got involved. "I get the feeling these days that there is no local band that can draw a shit-ton of people on any given night," he says. "I'll help out bands with their CD release shows and it still won't do more than 200, 250 people."

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