This week we are celebrating the 35 years of history that surrounds one of Houston's longest-running music venues. Wednesday it was a look at the excellent and vibrant local goth scene that set up shop in the club in the '90s and early '00s. Today we discuss another facet of Numbers that has always helped ensure its survival, its unique size and accessibility to bands.
I'm not sure what Numbers' official capacity is, but it's at least 1,000 people. Considering the large, roomy dance floor, it's rare for a concert to feel overly cramped and claustrophobic, leading to more relaxed audiences. More than that, the Numbers stage is enormous and fully capable of supporting large set-pieces without sacrificing movement for the performers. Basically, you get a stadium-lite feel in a more intimate surrounding that has made the venue the perfect fir for up-and-coming acts as well as special appearances by established artists outside a major venue.
If you were to pick a seminal Numbers show, something that has been handed down as the gig to have seen, it was definitely the Revolting Cocks in 1988, with Mentors supporting. Thanks to a video shot by late Numbers owner Robert "Robot" Burtenshaw of RevCo playing their infamous, 'Beers, Steers, and Queers," even those who didn't attend have probably seen the resulting riot of insanity and sound displayed over the Numbers dance floor a hundred times. Sharp-eyed viewers can spot many longtime clubgoers dancing onstage with the band as it becomes flooded with fans.
"El Duce (Vocals for Mentors) offered to let me punch him in the stomach if I bought him a beer the night the Mentors opened for Revolting Cocks," said Fred Berner Jr. via email. "How could I turn that offer down? I also almost got knocked out when someone stage dived onto my head during RevCo's set."
Another notable show that still has people talking about it 15 years later is Gary Numan, who in 1997 toured Houston just as he threw away hopes of ever being a pop mainstay and turned to a darker sound with records like Exile. The new, stripped-down and sinister Numan was a figure that inspired many Houston musicians to new levels of their own art. Meanwhile, Switchblade Symphony was also on the bill, creating one of those perfect storms of gothic greatness on the Numbers stage.
Longtime Numbers DJ Nik Night calls the show transformative, and credits his own interest in dark music specifically to Numan's performance. Ken Gerhard of Flowers and Machines and Bamboo Crises also shivers at the intensity of Numan's set to this day.
"Seeing Numan Live is something you just have to experience to understand why it's such an incredible show," says Provision's Breye 7x, also recalling the concert. "He is mesmerizing, and a complete showman. But at the same time he seems to connect with every member of the audience, and is so humble and thankful to his fans."
That intensity and closeness has endured is the sort of one-of-a-kind experience possible when a band books Numbers.
Not that every set has always gone perfectly well, mind you. In fact, for every story of a triumphant concert at Numbers, you can find an equal number of missteps and mistakes. The same "Not big, not small" level of space sometimes draws problems in the form of folks not quite ready for such a spot, or on their way down fast.
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Around the same time that Numan was carving himself a place in Numbers history, John Lydon was making a different kind. The former Sex Pistol and PiL member was promoting his single solo record, Psycho's Path, and the tour was not going well. Lydon had just fired his drummer, Robert Williams, in a split that actually ended up being settled by Judge Judy.
Lydon secured other percussion options, and asked Numbers for use of the club to rehearse the day before, which was apparently denied. The set was eventually played with a lone spotlight lighting the show to a crowd of around 30 people. Legendary Houston radio DJ David Sadof recalls being so disappointed he left early.
Type O Negative famously vowed to never play Numbers again after sound problems caused a power outage that kept the band from taking the stage until well after midnight. The poor quality of Numbers' sound system was a continuous complaint from local and national acts alike until it was upgraded considerably in 2011, attracting a host of new acts.
Then there are the famously awful Numbers toilets, which consistently make "worst places to use the bathroom" lists here in the city. Usually the horror is confined to the proper room, but during Nine Inch Nails' second appearance in the city the toilets actually overflowed to the point that unspeakable water began to cover the main floor.
But putting all its flaws aside, Numbers has always been a home for artists in transition. Green Day played there on the way up, the Replacements played there on the way down, and folks as diverse as Peter Murphy and David Allen Coe have played there while enjoying comfortable late-career adoration. It remains a special place.
Though, as we shall see tomorrow, one that also has a dark side.
Numbers celebrate its 35th anniversary Saturday, September 28. See numbersnightclub.com for details.
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