Big Wheel Keep on Turning: Arena Theatre's Strange Staying Power
Rocks Off recently ran a blog recalling some of the numerous music venues which have come and gone in our fair (albeit fickle) city. We listed more than two dozen and readers offered many, many more. By the time we wiped away our collective tears, it was clear how much we miss and love our departed former music spots.
One venue that thankfully was not on that list is the Arena Theatre. The longtime Houston showcase is alive and kicking, still tucked safely between neighboring office buildings on the Southwest Freeway.
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It could easily have been just another remnant of Houston's musical past. In 2004, the space -- known for its intimate, in-the-round layout -- stopped booking shows. The circular stage was dark for several years, but new ownership swooped in and revamped the theater, with an updated sound system, video screens and fresh carpet. It also retained a lot of its old charm, with concession stands inside the auditorium and aisle markers that recalled its earliest days as a venue.
Best of all, the music returned (and also an occasional mixed-martial-arts event or standup comedy tour) and has kept the rotating stage moving ever since.
If the little Arena with the big round heart could do it, why couldn't other shuttered venues return? If their original edifices remain upright and not demolished to the ages, could they not rise like badass, ca-cawing rock and roll phoenixes from their ashes on Washington Avenue or Westheimer?
In honor of all that once was briefly endangered, but returned with new life, here's a list of my five favorite nights at Houston's Arena Theatre, hoping they'll inspire other former nightspots to see that everything old can be new again.
The Temptations, Four Tops June 8, 1984 Motown was hip again in the early 1980s. The Big Chill dusted off some Hitsville, USA classics like "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and a whole new generation learned the songs. When The Temps and Tops "battled" on the 1983 Motown 25 TV special, it set in motion a joint tour that came to Houston in the summer of '84.
Even without David Ruffin or Eddie Kendricks, The Temptations looked great. They moved in unison, never missing a step, the living and breathing blueprint for boy bands to come. They sounded fantastic, too, singing some personal favorites like "I Wish It Would Rain" and "Get Ready."
The Arena seats just under 3,000 people. The furthest seat from the stage is only 60 feet away. Listening to the entire room sing along to "My Girl" was entrancing.
The Four Tops were still a unit of original members at that time. Seeing Levi Stubbs and company throw down on songs like "I Can't Help Myself" is still a highlight of my concert-going lifetime. The best single moment of the entire show was watching him work up to that one moment where the entire song goes silent for a full second, and resumes with his soul-wrenching plea -- "Bernadette!"
James Brown March 14, 1986 In 1986, James Brown was one of the inaugural class members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He didn't need a comeback tour -- he was already the legendary Godfather of Soul.
Nonetheless, he rode into Houston that spring high on his sudden hit, "Living in America," from the Rocky IV soundtrack. Was he proud of his return to pop prominence? I'm pretty sure he opened and closed the show with the song.
In between, though, the Arena's mini-dome shook with the repeated stops and count-offs Soul Brother No. 1 was known to command of his airtight band. Fortunately for us, that night his band included sax legend Maceo Parker. They played the good stuff - "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," "Get Up Offa That Thing."
Occasionally, Rocks Off will reach out to Bruce Kessler's amazing rockinhouston.com photo archive for art from these old school shows. Go there to find two dozen sweet pictures of the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business recalling his glory days for us that night in 1986.
Ray Charles October 4, ???? I admit, I don't recall the year this show took place; I'm sorry, I'm not Rain Man. But I do remember being a little disappointed in this one because Brother Ray slighted the soul music of his Atlantic beginnings this night for more sedate stuff, which suited many of the gathered just fine.
With a full tuxedo-clad orchestra onstage, the Arena's setting made it seem like we were at The Sands in Vegas. Songs like Charles' rendition of "America the Beautiful" and "Georgia on My Mind" dominated the night.
I'd already seen Charles live once before this show and I preferred that outing better, since it was in the tight-knitness of Rockefeller's, where I could see the sweat form on his brow as he bore down on the electric piano during "What'd I Say."
At the Arena, his between-song patter sounded better than most of what was being sung on the radio at the time, so why quibble with song selection? In the end, it was one of two nights I spent breathing the same rare air as The Genius of Soul.
Joe Cocker June 15, 2009 Cocker has my vote for greatest cover musician of all time. His vocal delivery enhanced pretty much everything it wrapped itself around. I don't know you, but I already know you prefer his version of "With a Little Help From My Friends" to the original, especially if you grew up watching Kevin Arnold chase Winnie Cooper.
This was one of the first shows I saw at the new-and-improved Arena and I was excited to see those familiar in-house bars still there, serving up cocktails and fresh popcorn.
By the time I finally got to see Cocker live, it was mere weeks from the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. He was understandably less convulsive than he'd been in his youth, but there were still a few tics left, some palsied stances to remind us he feels the music move through him like electricity.
His voice croaked beautifully like he probably always hoped it would when he became an elder bluesman. My wife went to hear the ballads -- "You Are So Beautiful," "Up Where We Belong" -- and she wasn't disappointed. And neither was I when "Hitchcock Railway" and "Feelin' Alright" came to life.
Blondie/Devo September 19, 2012 My wife was sitting next to me, tugging at my shirttail and telling me to sit down and stop taking camera pics of Deborah Harry every time she rotated into view. But, there she was, just feet away from me. I reminded her there was a time when Harry was one of the music world's most photographed women. She wouldn't mind a few more. She might even be a little flattered.
I'd seen the Devo show before -- same songs they played at Warehouse Live a year earlier -- but it didn't matter. I loved it. Hearing "Girl U Want," "Whip It," and "Uncontrollable Urge," again was like a great encore. Only this time, I had one of Arena's seats to plop into if I needed a rest.
Blondie opened with my favorite Blondie song ever, "Dreaming," and kept the hits coming. If you're still reading, you know which ones, no need to list 'em. Also, just for fun, she mashed-up "Rapture" with The Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn." I gotta say, I'd have preferred being 17 and standing ten feet away from her in CBGB; but, all things considered, the Arena wasn't a bad alternative.
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