A Family Affair
It's early on a Saturday night, and the young woman in the spotlight at Fitzgerald's is only part of the way through her 45-minute set. To catch her performance, the crowd has had to be prompt, and they're psyched. As the small figure rips into a pounding cut, shoving her guitar toward the crowd with her pelvis, a male voice breaks through the din to implore, "Tear it up, baby!"
Liviya Compean -- the name is the same for the band and its lead performer -- complies. Youngish, with almond eyes and a friendly smile that are framed by smooth, blond-tinged hair, Compean looks young enough for her parents to be wondering where she is right about now. But in this case, at least one of her parents knows: Her father's on-stage with her, providing a little flute accompaniment, while her younger brother Josh pounds away on drums.
Compean has an extraordinary stage presence, marked by little throws of the eyes to certain audience members and the accentuation of certain phrases. "C'mon lover, give me pleasure," she croons over tropical jazz riffs. Her father's flute trills down, down, while Compean's voice stays steady and sweet. It has everything a major performance needs, save for that one song that everyone's already heard on the radio.
The crowd of 60 or so worshipfully moshing at Compean's feet apparently doesn't need that hit single to know that they're hearing something special, though. And for that matter, neither does proud papa Jesse Compean, 49, who, when looking at his daughter, sees capabilities that suggest to him the power of genetics. "My dad played with Woody Herman and a lot of those big bands," Jesse says. "He was self-taught, so talented he could listen to an orchestra and be writing out the score, and I think my daughter and my son have acquired that from him."
Indeed, in the 1950s the Compeans were a kind of musical dynasty in Houston. Jesse Compean's father, also named Jesse, played in backing bands for the likes of Liberace and Dizzy Gillespie. When the Ames Brothers came to town, they took a penthouse at the Rice Hotel and looked to Jesse Sr. as their conductor. Jesse Sr.'s brother, Jose Compean ("the kind of musician that -- name a song, he could play it for you, any key," recalls Jesse Jr.), was with the Houston Symphony and was a pioneer of Mexican orchestral music.
Liviya's dad accompanied his musician father to parties and met the stars before going on himself to major in music at Henderson County Junior College. But unlike his father and his children, Jesse Jr. says, "I've had to work hard, be steady and practice." That his daughter has never taken a music lesson "just blows my mind," he adds.
Liviya Compean began exhibiting her musical talent early, and by high school she was playing around on drums, using what she recalls as a "hot pink Pearl drum set." She was briefly in the Kingwood Marching Band, for which she played the "saxophone, piano, flute, everything." But when she graduated from Kingwood in 1992, she picked up a guitar, and she hasn't put it down since.
Liviya's style isn't exactly traditional. When father Jesse first heard her play some original pieces in 1993 at age 18, his response was to wonder why she hadn't stuck with the drums. But then he started hearing horn parts for himself in the music, ways to incorporate a bit of his own jazz style into Liviya's alternative style. He suggested that they play the pieces together, and the two began to exchange ideas, some of which were at first hard for her father to grasp. "She threw a lot of theory out the window," Jesse says. The relationship that Liviya and Jesse share is more person-to-person than child-to-parent, so the transition to duo went quickly. It took "maybe two times" playing together to know that the combination worked, Liviya says. People seemed to love the mixture.
But first Liviya had to get some idea of what it was like to be out on her own. Following high school, she moved to Austin, where she wrote, did Chicago House's open mikes and the occasional gig at Antone's. She hung out with other musicians who provided opportunities for her, including inviting her to play the Antone's 20th Anniversary gig in 1994. Nonetheless, Liviya moved back to Houston in late 1995 "kinda down about the whole music thing; nothing had really happened." In Austin, her style had been labeled "folk," due mainly to her instruments -- voice and acoustic guitar. But Liviya's is a clear, strong, driving voice, and the sound it creates when paired with even an acoustic guitar is harder-edged than the word "folk" implies. Liviya knew what she wanted, but she wasn't quite sure how to get it. "I started not knowing I have this talent," she says. "Then, all of a sudden, this is what I want to do. I mean, this is my life."
A few weeks after Liviya's return home, her father took a tape of a show at Kingwood College to Houston producer Robbie Parrish. Despite the poor quality of the demo tape -- discussions of barbecue in the foreground as Liviya played in the background -- she was recording to DAT days later. The product, a 12-song album, was never released, but word of it helped Liviya's profile in the Houston music world.
Until last year, Liviya and her father were "just going around with my electric guitar and his horns." They played the Edge Unplugged one night a week, Munchies on Wednesdays and Dick's Last Stand on Thursdays. They opened for Horseshoe, Milkweed and the Jinkies at the Urban Art Bar. They even were offered a chance to open for a Presidents of the United States of America show at the Urban Art Bar, but that fell through due to overcrowding and an unexpected appearance by the fire marshal. The Presidents were moved to Fitzgerald's and no one got to open; the bands just drank beers out of the same cooler all night. As Liviya remembers, "It was still way cool."
These days, electric guitar and full band backup have brought Liviya a long way from the folk sound she was thought to have in Austin. The sharper style she's always fostered has come into its own, and her solid voice carries well over the extra noise. The band in its current state was put together late last year. Brother Josh backs her on drums, with Tinna Powell on percussion as well, Dominic Williams on bass and, of course, dad on horns.
Williams is the newest band member, having joined suddenly just a few months ago. The former member of Skillit was tending bar during one of Liviya's sets at Instant Karma and decided he wanted to hear them with a bass next time, his bass. Liviya was open to the idea, even though Williams had until that point played guitar, but he went out and bought a bass and learned to play it. "We're hard-working," says Liviya of her band. "I believe that if you want something done, you've got to get up and get it."
Because they're always fighting different schedules -- as soon as Josh gets home from school, Williams leaves for his bartender's job -- the band rarely has time to rehearse. Despite this, Liviya is currently working on a single with Jim Bennett at Man Not God studios (scheduled for release June 15). Bennett is volunteering his time and equipment in exchange for a mention on the single. If the release is well-received, plans are to release a full-length CD before Christmas. In the meantime, two Liviya tracks are available on Edgolution, a 1996 memorial to the late Houston venues The Edge and The Edge Unplugged, where Liviya and her father played regularly.
After hearing her perform a few months ago, local music entrepreneur Roger Igo approached Liviya to offer his help on the business end -- a much-appreciated suggestion, as it happened. "Roger," Liviya says, "is the most incredible thing that has happened to me." These days she's running her band practically single-handedly, putting up fliers, working out budgets and doing everything in-between. Igo functions as a coach. "It's hard for the starving artist these days, but it's looking like Liviya won't be doing much of that," says Igo.
For inspiration, Liviya listens to the likes of Melissa Etheridge, Tori Amos and PJ Harvey. "I like artists that are stable, that sustain," she says. "I believe in people who write good music. They have these great songs; they have it in them to make the audience feel something. And I've looked to those people because every time I play, I feel so much. People playing on-stage for an audience need to move them." And Liviya does: If a successful night is when one person approaches with thanks, then nearly every night she plays lately is a successful one. Forty years since her grandfather's success, the newest musical Compean is adapting her family's dynasty for the nineties.
Liviya Compean performs at 10 p.m. Saturday, May 31, at Instant Karma, 1617 Richmond Avenue. Cover is $5. For info, call 528-3545.
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