Helios on a Monday night. The barmaid stands on top of a plastic garbage bin and chalks "Shiner Bock -- $2" on the blackboard at the end of the bar. The Trade is playing moody free jazz from the stage, and the room is filled with the peach aroma of the standup bass player's pipe tobacco. It's odd -- the guy looks too young to be smoking a pipe, and he sure as hell is too young to be picking that bass that well. I have a shot of tequila and a bottle of Red Stripe. I knock back the tequila and then sip the beer from the shot glass. My cigarettes melt away into the hands of various supplicants -- one old guy gives me a dollar for five as soon as I walk in. (He's trying to quit, he says, and he doesn't want to buy a pack.)
Then a young black guy in a taxi-driver hat and a POW-MIA T-shirt bums a smoke. He asks me what I do and I tell him, and he says he can get me an interview with Edgar Nova, the deranged Enrique Iglesias-lookalike American Idol contestant who wouldn't take no for an answer. "I can get you close to him," the guy at Helios told me, urgency in his voice. "Fox paid him to act like that." Meanwhile, trumpet, guitar, bass and drums play a jazz noir theme in the background. The guy tells me that he got in the American Idol line here in town, but forgot his ID and was sent packing. I look at him closely, and it's weird -- he looks a lot like a darker-skinned Edgar Nova.
Sitting next to the would-be Idol is Craig Kinsey, a lanky singer-guitarist in the bluegrass band the Medicine Show. He's reading a Walker Percy novel at the bar, setting it down from time to time to roll himself a Bugler. Kinsey was surprised to see that Medicine Show was nominated in the bluegrass category in the recent music awards, but was not surprised at all that they didn't win. "I went to see Lonestar Bluegrass, and after that I wanted to change my vote," he said. "Before I saw them I had voted for us. It's funny about that band. Chris Hirsch is an older guy and he plays new stuff, and we're all young guys and we play really old stuff."
It's Kinsey and company I've come to see -- his band, and their two allied bands, J.W. Americana and Two Star Symphony. Maybe it was the almost full moon, maybe it was the fact that Mars was as close as it had been in a few millennia and getting closer by the minute. Whatever it was, this was a show for the ages, all the better for it having happened on a Monday night.
The Trade's set wound down as the members of the three string-based bands filed in, each with odd stories to tell. J.W. saxman Arthur Moreno tells me about an art project he crafted out of a box and some Lee press-on nails. He told a female friend of his that he had made this object after breaking up with a girlfriend -- that he ripped his fingernails off and fixed them to the box. "She told me later that she was thinking of ways to get out of the house as fast as she could," he laughed. "Then I told her what it really was."
J.W. piano man Rodney Elliott -- a.k.a. J.W. Americana -- is wearing a cowboy hat the likes of which isn't seen on any head other than that of Little Joe Washington. It's grossly misshapen and crudely painted with red and black magic markers. He walks over to me. "So, I've just got to know, are you related?" he asks.
Here we go again -- it happens about once a month. I tell him yes, I am from that Lomax family. We talk for a good three or four minutes about it, but what I am saying doesn't seem to be registering much with him. Then he mentions that he first heard my famous relative on some Apple album that George Harrison produced. George Harrison? Turns out Elliott had wanted to know if I was related to obscure British rocker Jackie Lomax, not Alan and John Avery. Why he thought that a relative of an Age of Aquarius-era, Liverpool-bred mystic rocker would be the music editor of a paper in Houston is anybody's guess.
"That's so Rodney," laughed J.W. bassist-singer Doug Kosmo. When you meet Kosmo it's surprising how small and white he is. On record, he's capable of sounding like Howlin' Wolf, who was famously large and black. Kosmo's father was a NASA scientist who loved the country blues -- especially those of Mance Lipscomb. In fact, the elder Kosmo recorded Mance a few times, and his son now has the reel-to-reel tapes, which have never been released. The younger Kosmo also sports a tattoo of the Navasota "songster" on his arm, which became very apparent later when he ripped his shirt off onstage.
The Trade picked up their instruments and headed upstairs to continue their set. Medicine Show took the stage downstairs. Back in January, I caught these guys at Brasil, and they told me then that they felt more comfortable at Helios, and it was easy to see that this was true. Their voices and instruments -- guitar, banjo, mandolin and washtub bass -- were barely amplified, and the vibe was a lot like the rowdiest Asylum Street Spankers gig ever, one without a shred of the preachy overtones you can get from that Austin band. Before long, the audience was clapping their hands over their heads. As they ripped through a few bluegrass standards such as "Rocky Top," Bluegrass Breakdown," and "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms," the guys on the stage were stomping their feet so hard that great clouds of dust were billowing waist-high.
Soon the members of Two Star Symphony and J.W. Americana started joining in, and the show went through a few symphony-like "movements." There was a Jimmie Rodgers vibe for a while, and then a Kosmo-led Cab Calloway vamp session, which segued into a hip-hop groove complete with somebody beat-boxing into the mike as Kosmo hollered improvised verses about stuff like Ralph Macchio and spring break '86. Next came some Django Reinhardt-style hot club Gypsy jazz. Three or four tall and attractive women were dancing right in front of the stage. While all this was going on, musicians were all over the place. Kinsey -- who in his top hat looked more like a demented Abe Lincoln than ever -- waved a voodoo stick with plastic skulls tied to it. Saxman Moreno chipped in while standing on a chair at a table at the back of the small room. A harmonica player wailed from the bar. The now-shirtless Kosmo was running around the club yelling things like "My pubic hairs are shy!"
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Then the Gypsy jazz gave way to ragtime, and later to laid-back Chet Atkins-Floyd Cramer-style piano-guitar duets. Most of the musicians were crowded at the bar, knocking back those $2 Bocks with tequila and Alabama slammers. At some point most of the musicians took the stage and starting playing again. Most of us -- fans and pickers alike -- had yelled ourselves hoarse. The musicians all left the stage at once but continued playing as they walked around, chasing the barflies before them. Everybody in the club walked in a huge circle, the musicians at the rear. When they got back on the stage, they continued playing as if nothing had happened. Just before closing time there was a drunken sing-along of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene," which, as it happens, was co-written by those Lomaxes I am related to.
How strange it was that across town at that very minute thousands of people were lined up to become the next American Idol. There were no Idols here, save for Edgar Nova's friend at the bar. What was here was music the way it was before it became a ticket to something else -- money, fame, power. This was music for the sheer hell of it, and it was just about as much fun as you can have.
And, as it happens, you will have two chances to catch the mayhem this week. On August 23, J.W. Americana will play with Sugar Shack, 30footFALL, Deconstruction Crew and Austin's Strap-Onz at KPFT's Back to School party in the backyard of the station. (The show will be hosted by Rad Rich and his Rock-n-Roll Revue cohorts.) The next night, J.W. will be at Rudyard's 25th Anniversary Gala, capping off a weekend of events at the now-officially venerable Montrose club. The Meat Purveyors/Pong show kicks off the weekend's festivities on August 22, and Buddhacrush plays Saturday. There will be a raffle and free food during Sunday's broadcast of The Simpsons, and one lucky guest will ride off on a Fat Tire bicycle.