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Putnam contended that diverse cities like Houston were not marred by anything so dramatic as outright ethnic hostility. Instead, "inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television...Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us."
Despite his gloom, Putnam believes that over time, these distinctions disappear, noting that in the 1960s, a wedding of an Irish American and an Italian American was thought of as "a mixed marriage," and that even now in rural North Dakota, it's the height of cosmopolitanism to invite the Swedes to a Norwegian picnic.
"What we shouldn't do is to say that they should be more like us," Putnam later told the Financial Times. "We should construct a new us."
Sure, there are diverse cities with thriving music scenes — London, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles. But with the exception of sprawling L.A., which also just happens to be the world headquarters of the entertainment business, few of those cities heap on the rest of Houston's drawbacks: mediocre bands, terrible radio, second-rate venues, poor public transportation, killer sprawl and a diverse populace of mildly paranoid, cynical souls. Houston could be doing worse. Every show that has a good draw is a testament to the dedication of those who do turn up. And there are some shows that go off really, really well. Those are where the "new us" is being forged.
These would include the Starbucks Mixed Media series of concerts at the Museum of Fine Arts. The 2005 kickoff of this event, which featured Grandmaster Flash spinning records in front of the Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings his music helped inspire, hit Houston's indie scene like a double-jolt of espresso. Upwards of a thousand hip kids were dancing the night away in some of Houston's most well-appointed and cosmopolitan surroundings, dancing and drinking in cutting-edge sounds. This and the succeeding events in the still-running summer series give people the feeling that Houston can approach a New York State of Vibe.
"It works because it's an event," says Chavez. "It's something different — it's not just another show at another fucking bar."
Maybe that "same old shows in the same old bars" paradigm is dying alongside the rest of the old-school music business model. If people aren't willing to pay for recorded music, wouldn't it follow that many of them would turn up their noses at live music in its most humdrum form too, even if the live experience is, at least theoretically, much more visceral? In a day and age when far too many bands eschew showmanship, is it any wonder that the answer is yes?
Kids today have other priorities. "No matter what happens, it's never gonna be like pre-Internet days again, for touring or CD sales," says Brennan of Sound Exchange. "Music is now one notch of importance below where it was, especially for kids. My 14-year-old niece has to have a cell phone so she can text-message; she has to have a MySpace account. If you look back, kids were the number one demographic for buying music and going out for decades and decades, and I think now it's number four for sales."
Brennan confesses to a case of scene fatigue. "I'm kinda getting tired of going to the same places and seeing the same things. The bar scene is great for the social aspects, but not so much for the music."
Maybe the future lies in big events like Eric "Ceeplus" Castillo's Mixed Media series on one end and in more intimate and inexpensive house parties on the other. Or in other nontraditional venues: in Houston, NiaMoves, a yoga studio in the Heights, is hosting a Houston offshoot of Dallas's The Bend Studio series, offering up-close-and-personal evenings with Americana artists in an environment much more serene than a bar.
Houston abounds with odd places. Brennan thinks we should use them. "I went and saw that band Extra Golden at the Orange Show," Brennan says. "It's always great to be at the Orange Show, but it is just being in a different place, around people who are just there for the music, not to hang out and drink; it was so enjoyable."
Special places for special shows in a city that is, perhaps, "special" in the euphemistic sense of the word.
"Yeah, a little bit!" laughs Chavez. "[Houston is] the special child that, when they do something that's especially smart, you're like, 'Oh wow! Look at you!'"
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