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It's not just local, he adds. "I used to blame people for not going to shows, but I don't do that anymore," he says. "I don't think there's a whole ton to be excited about right now. I think the pool of musicians and bands right now is so bad. There are so few great musicians in the world right now."
As for the locals, Chavez agrees with the assessment of Houston as a town of a thousand "side projects" and about five (if that) really good bands. Part of the problem, Chavez believes, is that too many local groups are focused on getting out of town and touring. "I personally used to be one of them — all I wanted to do was get out on the road and tour, tour, tour and be a band for real, but you know, you're from Houston. You've got a lot more to work on besides getting out of here, like writing great songs, and practicing, recording more than one album every four years. Be a good band. Make it in Houston first."
And then there are the venues. For years, Houston lacked adequate mid-capacity clubs, but when the Meridian and Warehouse Live opened, that void was filled. Today, the shortage is at the small club level.
"In Chicago, something can be happening at any number of bars that all have a good vibe; all of your friends want to be there," says Chavez. "There's just not that kind of venue here. I guess some people like going to the Mink, but I don't care. I like the Mink as much as I like Walter's, and I still don't go to Walter's unless it's a show that I am doing. All they are is bars with stages, and that's all there is in this town."
Walker, Chavez's old Hands Up cohort who is living in New York and working on a book about the early days of Houston's rap scene, thinks Houston's age-old, bigger-is-better attitude is to blame. "I think the mentality in Houston has always been for big clubs," he says. "Houston is big. Texas is big. That's always been the thing. It's not a quaint little town."
Erik Carter, the Kork Agency booker, agrees with Chavez about the substandard venues. "I quit drinking and now I barely go out," he says. "I'm married and I don't drink. Why would I want to go stand up for seven hours so I can see a poorly mixed garage band, let alone one that I've never heard of?"
Many would say "passion for live music."
"My passion leads me to buy the record and stay in my air-conditioned home and listen to it," Carter retorts.
Chavez will second Carter's contention about poor mixes. "I'm aware of most of the house sound guys in Houston, and man, some of 'em are total train wrecks," he says, "The second any feedback comes up, they just freak out and can't fix it. A bunch of them here have been doing it wrong so long that their ears are destroyed. There were any number of bad ones that came and went through Mary Jane's, and then there was one guy who was great, and then he died."
Carter also cites the cliquishness of Houston's Montrose-oriented bohemian set. "I think there's such a Main Street mentality where the only place that matters is the Montrose. As soon as something is Outer Loop or not specifically within your music clique...People don't really market to everybody."
And that's important, Carter believes, because shows with a critical mass of nothing other than music fanatics can be utterly dreary. "I was just talking to Larry Pirkle and he said he was DJing downtown and the people there didn't know what song he was playing, but those people were on the dance floor dancing and having fun," he says. "They weren't sitting by the turntable trying to see which pressing of the 12-inch he had like a bunch of indie rockers would, and not dancing. As a DJ you've got your regular people and your regular music scene people, and the regular people are actually a lot more fun."
Which speaks to another concern. Sure, our local bands, venues and sound men are not the greatest, true enough, and cliques can be off-putting to newcomers and less trendy music fans. And perhaps the smoking ban has taken a bite out of the draw too, and other factors to consider include Houston's ridiculous sprawl, woeful nocturnal public transit and relative shortage of traditional college students. And then there is the puzzling culture some clubs have here of starting weeknight shows at 11 with an interminable sound-check and one or two opening bands.
Maybe the problem goes deeper than that — to the heart of Houston's multiethnic soul. In 2006, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam, the author of 2000's well-received cultural study Bowling Alone, published a paper called "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in 21st Century America." Putnam examined 41 American sites, ranging from rural areas in Washington state and North Dakota to big cities such as Los Angeles and Houston, on the benefits and drawbacks of cultural diversity. Putnam's findings were disheartening to all lovers of diversity, Putnam included. People in diverse communities, he found, lose trust in everybody, not just people from other racial groups but also from within their own kind. They disbelieve their local newspapers, the mayor, their neighbors, everybody.
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