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Another Skate of Mind

The Jamail Skatepark ignites Houston's music culture.

William Michael Smith

Texas Johnny Brown, one of the classiest musicians in town and the author of Bobby "Blue" Bland's epic "Two Steps from the Blues," passed away the afternoon of July 1. Brown's son Shawn had been handling his father's care, and tweeted the news to members of the Houston Blues Society around 7 p.m.

According to one follow-up message received by the Houston Press, Brown passed in his sleep and without pain.

The diminutive, dapper bluesman had been a fixture on the Houston blues scene since arriving here from Mississippi at the tender age of ten with his father, who was a blind blues musician. Brown worked with his father for some time before beginning a successful solo career.

One of the most pleasant and affable men on the blues scene, Brown had been performing once a month at the Big Easy for years. The first hint of his health issue, which was quickly identified as liver cancer, came in May when he canceled his monthly gig at the Upper Kirby blues venue.

According to Press sources, Brown had declined chemotherapy, and hospice nurses were brought in to care for him full-time only a few days before he passed away.

A native of Ackerman, Mississippi, Brown was honored by the state of Mississippi with his own plaque on the Mississippi Blues Trail in September 2011. Brown and his Quality Blues Band attended the unveiling in Ackerman and played a concert celebrating the event, and he was a featured artist at the 2012 Chicago Blues Festival.

But Houston was Brown's adopted home, the place where he made his bones as a songwriter, arranger, guitarist and performer. Dr. Roger Wood, author of the definitive Houston blues history book Down in Houston, recently told us that contrary to other claims, Brown "wrote and came up with the arrangement for 'Two Steps from the Blues' all on his own." (Bland himself passed away at age 83 just over a week before Brown, on June 23.)

Wood also noted that Brown was typical of many Houston bluesmen in that he could read charts and that his musical ability went far beyond 12-bar blues. He was also well-known in Houston for another monumental blues classic, "There Goes the Blues."

"Like a lot of guys from Houston, Johnny could play with anyone," Wood said. "The blues was his first love, but he had a jazz sense and knew his way around a good pop tune."

Longtime Houston Chronicle music critic and former iFest entertainment coordinator Rick Mitchell recently noted that when he first came to town, "Marty Racine made sure two of the first people I met were I.J. Gosey and Texas Johnny Brown. I had no idea the talent and history those two men alone had behind them."
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Joyful Noise

Irresistible Bliss
Scientists investigate how music causes "brain orgasms."

Jesse Sendejas Jr.

I was especially bad at science in school. I failed chemistry twice and third-time-charmed my way to finally passing with a C.

So now, of course, I enjoy anything with a scientific bent and listen to excellent podcasts, like Radiolab and This American Life, that present the scientific world in a way even a dodo-brain like me can understand.

Recently I was listening to a piece by American Life contributor Andrea Seigel in which she related having a specific sensation in response to the sound of a whispering voice. She described it as "this tingling throughout my skull...it was like starbursts in my head, starbursts that open on the crown and then sparkle down to the nape, like this warm, glittering water rushing under your scalp."

As I listened, I learned there's a name for this feeling. It's called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, ASMR for short. It's a feeling I've experienced since youth, including one weekend last month while I was mowing the grass and listening to Justin Timberlake sing "Suit & Tie." That part where he's all like, "Lemme show you a few things...lemme show you a few things" sets a trillion tiny, euphoric, graceful-as-Fred-Astaire dancing ants in motion. My scalp is their happy dance floor.

Seigel's piece focuses on her particular ASMR "trigger," the gentle sounds of a soft voice. But my trigger has almost always been associated with singing voices. The better the voice, the stronger the feeling.

Turns out I'm not alone. People all over the world are submitting to, and even seeking out, ASMR triggers. A good portion of them have this sublime, relaxing and mysterious sensation induced by music. Many are trading notes and sharing stories on social media and through work done by the research organization asmr-research.org.

"ASMR is a response to stimuli — sight, sound, etc.," says Andrew MacMuiris, an outreach agent with the site's research team. "It's usually pleasurable and is characterized by a tingling sensation on the scalp, down the spine and even in other areas of the body, such as the limbs. This is also accompanied by feelings of euphoria and relaxation."

The organization created a Facebook community three years ago that has grown to nearly 5,500 members from around the globe. MacMuiris lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and says his diverse musical triggers include Leonard Cohen, instrumental guitar and even the whistling of the family's gardener.

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