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Live at Liberty Hall

The short but storied past of Houston's legendary live music venue.

As the bloom fell off hippiedom, Houston's musical landscape continued to evolve. Although clubs like Love Street Light Circus and the Catacombs became legendary, the fact of the matter was they had short lifespans.

On March 4, 1971, Liberty Hall opened at 1610 Chenevert in a rapidly decaying area of downtown near where Toyota Center is today. While Liberty Hall would last only seven years, it became a storied venue.

According to Mike Condray, one of the original owners, "In the late '60s, George Banks and I opened a psychedelic music venue called Jubilee Hall. That morphed into the Family Hand, a restaurant with live entertainment.

"From there, Liberty Hall was founded in 1971 by Ryan Trimble, Lynda Herrera and I. It was Herrera who came up with the name."

Built in the 1940s, the building was originally a church, but later became American Legion Post 391.

"We opened with a rock 'opry' called The Earl of Rustin," Condray says, "an original stage show scripted by and starring Ragan and C.C. Courtney. It was a smash with Houston audiences and critics. It eventually garnered financing in Houston for a Broadway opening."

Then the Hall swerved into six weeks of blues shows with the likes of ­Freddie King, Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker.

"One of the Hall's historic moments occurred during that six-week blues series when we had the newly formed ZZ Top open for Willie Dixon and the Chess Records session band," Condray notes. "Billy Gibbons was so young and skinny, but he could already play."

Liberty Hall found its true niche shortly thereafter: Emerging national acts would become its bread and butter.

"Bruce Springsteen played his first Texas shows at the Hall in 1974," Condray recalls. "He sold out seven shows over four nights."

Springsteen would later commemorate the venue in "This Hard Land," which appears on his 1995 Greatest Hits CD and 1998 box set Tracks: "Hey Frank, won't you pack your bags and meet me tonight down at Liberty Hall?"

"The same thing happened with acts like Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffet and Jerry Jeff Walker," Condray notes. "We also booked Cheech & Chong, who sold out their four-night stand. Of course, tickets were only $2."

Cheech & Chong also paid homage to Liberty Hall during the encore of their recent show at Verizon Theater, saying they not only loved playing the club, but that it was instrumental in their early success.

Banks, who did the artwork for the 13th Floor Elevators album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, decided not to invest in Liberty Hall because he was returning to architecture studies at the University of Houston, but he did paint the club's sign and was involved in printing tickets.

"It was such a neat venue after our struggles operating Jubilee Hall and the Family Hand," Banks recalls. "We had people like Townes Van Zandt and Eric Taylor at Family Hand, but the space wasn't really made for music. Liberty Hall was proportioned just right and the stage and floors were wooden, so the sound was warm. It was a musician's dream."

KPFT partnered with Liberty Hall to broadcast a series of "Live at Liberty Hall" shows. Many were bootlegged and are now for sale on the Web, including one of the 1974 Springsteen show.

Liberty Hall seemed almost blind to genre, hosting acts like the Velvet Underground one week and Waylon Jennings the next. Ted Nugent, Tim Buckley, Roy Buchanan, Rory Gallagher and Bonnie Raitt all played the Hall; Jimmy Reed once joined Johnny Winter and his band for a show. Zydeco king Clifton Chenier played holiday dances and parties.

Condray recalls one particularly amazing night.

"In February 1973, the alt-country movement was very much in its infancy," he says. "It found some of its early roots at the Hall the night Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt sat in with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris."

During that engagement, local songwriter Larry Sepulvado and his band the Sin City Boys gave Parsons and Harris some Sin City patches they had designed. Ronstadt requested a jacket and eventually wore it in a famous Annie Leibovitz photograph for Rolling Stone.

"There were about 20 of us out there screaming in our Sin City jackets," recalls Sepulvado.

The Hall also became a focal point for local progressive politics, hosting fund-raisers for politicians like future mayor Fred Hofheinz.

"When the National Organization for Women held its first national convention at the old Rice Hotel, they chose Liberty Hall for a night out," Condray recalls. "Tracy Nelson sang, and leading feminists like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Sissy Farenthold also appeared onstage before network TV cameras that evening."

By 1975, Condray saw the end approaching and left the ownership group.

"We were in the low end of an increasingly competitive business and the neighborhood was just crumbling around us," he says. "I thought it was time to move on."

The struggling venue closed for good in 1978 with a final hurrah by Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters. The building was converted into a twin-screen movie theater featuring Chinese films, but the movie house failed and the building was eventually demolished.

Condray, though, is about to step back into the music business with a new venue off Highway 59 in Splendora. The name?

Liberty Ranch.

 
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