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Welcome to the Neighborhood

An iconic Houston music venue settles into new digs amid a hint of controversy.

Ash Kay is confused.

"I'm not drunk..." she says. "Yes I am."

The crowd gives a small laugh.

Hints of its old life as a car showroom surface here and there at the new Walter's.
Photos by Larami Culbertson
Hints of its old life as a car showroom surface here and there at the new Walter's.
Local band the Freakouts play a vigorous brand of glam-rock.
Photos by Larami Culbertson
Local band the Freakouts play a vigorous brand of glam-rock.

Kay is onstage at the new Walter's (1120 Naylor), located on the industrial northern edge of downtown behind Diverse­Works (1117 East Fwy.) and a few paces over from the University of Houston-Downtown (320 N. Main). She is performing with her local five-piece punk-rock band, The Freakouts. Kay's hair, pink in the front and what appears to be blond in the back, shines brightly under the stage lights.

The room, essentially one large open space with a stage butted up against a rear wall, is filling up. By way of soundproofing, the windows have been covered, the rear garage door has been sealed shut and the ceiling has been redone. But a cursory glance around is all that's required to tell that the space used to be a classic-car showroom.

"Are you ready?" asks Kay.

"1-2-3-4!"

And then the fury.

Suddenly the drummer is apoplectic, while the guitarists remain relatively nonchalant and the bass player (the band's other female) as sturdy as she is diminutive. The Freakouts rip through their brand of vigorous glam-rock, vibrant and energetic, yet tempered enough to somehow stay cool within the storm.

This contrast turns out to be appropriate. For what felt like 100 years (and was actually closer to 12), Walter's existed as Walter's on Washington. During its tenure on the avenue, it was considered by many to be one of the city's best places to see live music, an equal-rights rock and roll venue that treated local bands like Grammy winners and Grammy winners like local bands.

It won awards and the hearts of local music fans, and brought indie artist after artist to Houston, many for the first time [see "Ghosts of Washington Avenue," September 10, 2009]. Then, after years of struggling as the Washington Corridor became the city's premiere clubbing destination, Walter's closed last summer.

The venue's new iteration, which celebrated its soft opening Christmas night, feels just about perfect. There is the same no-pomp, no-frills attitude the original Walter's had, from way back before Washington became Washington. There isn't even a sign out front yet.

At the center of it all is affable owner Pam Robinson, accidental archbishop of hip. Once known as the "Mayor of Pamland," Robinson owned several Washington bars — perhaps most notably Mary Jane's Fat Cat (now Pearl Bar, 4216 Washington) — and opened the original Walter's in 2000.

Aesthetically, the new Walter's is slightly nicer than the first one, which would not have won any design awards (it was basically an old garage). The new venue already possesses the inherent coolness of its ramshackle ancestor, though it's not without the odd shortcoming.

"They need more beer," laughs Jeff Greer, a 31-year-old poker dealer. "But other than that, I like this place better than the original. It doesn't seem to be surrounded by cops."

Unfortunately, the new Walter's has not been as well-received by its neighbors. Both Reader's Wholesale Distribution (1201 Naylor) and UH-Downtown are located on or near Naylor and have filed protests against the club with TABC.

UHD Vice President for Advancement and External Affairs Johanna Wolfe says her fellow official, VP for Administration and Finance David Bradley, filed a petition with TABC against the club December 14. His complaint claims Walter's will bring additional congestion to the neighborhood's already-narrow streets and construction zones; the agency's ruling could take weeks or even months.

"The university is concerned that this would cause problems for the School of Business, which is located in close proximity to Walter's," says Wolfe.

Bradley was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Walter's neighbors have also been grumbling about possible noise issues and — shades of the 1950s — the club attracting a "bad element" to the area. Robinson asked not to be quoted on the matter until after it had been fully settled. She did, however, offer a jovially diplomatic statement.

"They said they don't want a Walter's on Washington in that area," she says.

"I told them, 'I don't want a Walter's on Washington,' that's why we moved," Robinson adds with a laugh. "Hopefully, at the end of this, everyone will see that we can all coexist professionally. That's all that we want."

Robinson says she's prepping to build a proper parking lot for the venue, which should alleviate most of the stress.

In the meantime, everything should continue as normal. The world will continue to spin, and Ash Kay and her bandmates will continue rocking nuts.
_____________________

LAST CALL

Yes, The Freakouts put on a thoroughly entertaining show. As soon as it was over, we wandered up over to the stage, made conversation with one of their guitarists (a bleached-blond tornado named Porter Smith) and set up an interview. Look for the band to be featured this coming Wednesday on blogs.houstonpress.com/rocks. Also, at press time, Walter's did not have a fully functional Web site, but Robinson says it will be ready shortly. In the meantime, you can get the necessary information from the club's Facebook page.

Local band the Freakouts play a vigorous brand of glam-rock.

 
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