Boondocks (1417 Westheimer #2) is a dark bar without many shadows. It feels similar to an Austin Sixth Street establishment there are tables and a long bar downstairs with the jukebox, and the stage is upstairs, with booths lining the walls and small tables filling the space in between.
I'm sitting at the end of the bar, finishing a glass of whisky and pondering my first move when a guy and girl walk in and approach the bartender, who's talking to an off-duty coworker at the opposite end of the bar.
"You guys have music tonight?" asks the girl.
"Little Joe Washington, later," the bartender answers.
The bartender defers to his coworker.
"He's this old guy who has done a lot of drugs. He's been around since the '50s, pretty influenced by the old blues guys but also by Hendrix. So he'll do crazy shit, like play with his teeth. It's one of those things where when he's on, it's phenomenal. But, other nightsÉ"
As far as I'm concerned, Little Joe Washington is the loping embodiment of blues. It is not and never has been a matter of skill. A lot is made of the fact that his lyrics (and often his speech) border on being unintelligible.
Everything he says makes me think of being wronged by a woman and/or flat broke. If he hissed into the mike, I'd immediately be bogged in every near-miss and gut-punch I've experienced since age 14. Just being in the same room with the man is enough to make me want to start ordering doubles and burn through a pack of Dunhills.
The couple look at one another and smile.
"You should write music stuff for a magazine, or something," the woman says to the off-duty bartender.
"I'd never do that," he snorts. I scowl and order another drink.
"What time will he go on?" the guy asks.
"Uh, well. ProbablyÉjust sometime between 10:30 and whenever. It depends on when he shows up."
The couple decide to grab some food and come back later for the music.
"Little Joe came in last week and the girl who was working that night made him leave," the bartender says, folding a towel. "She thought he was just some homeless guy. They had to lure him back with drink tickets."
The bar has slowly filled and, now that it's approaching ten, Boondocks's newness becomes apparent. The place hasn't been open long enough to have been usurped by any one group, so it's no-holds-barred for now: college students, hipsters, middle-aged rockers, a couple of working-class cats who look fresh from an offshore drilling rig.
At 10:30 sharp, Little Joe darts into the full room with a bag on his shoulder. He was assaulted by some teenagers a few weeks ago and seems surprisingly spry, considering that he was pushing a walker down the sidewalk in front of the Continental Club when I last saw him. He works his way to the bar and is stopped by the couple sitting to my right.
"What're you selling tonight, Little Joe?" the young man asks.
Little Joe drops his bag on the bar, opens it and pulls out one of the largest T-shirts I've ever seen. The young man glances at the expression on my face and laughs.
"That's huge, Little Joe," he says, smiling broadly. "Who's gonna wear that?"
Little Joe mumbles something but doesn't really answer.
"You need to get women's sizes, so that the girls will buy them. The girls aren't gonna wear those."
"Don't tell me what they won't wear!" Little Joe spits, puffing at his cigarette and stuffing his wares back into the bag.
"Look what these girls are wearing," the man points at a couple of girls on the other side of the bar, "tight shirts. Don't you want your face on some boobs?"
Little Joe looks at the man blankly, then turns to me and puffs his smoke. I shrug.
"I'm just trying to help you, Little Joe," the man says to Washington's back. Little Joe has already moved to my left and is trying to get the bartender's attention.
"I had to get me away from that," he says to me. "Just tryin' to sell my fuckin'É I mean, sorryÉjust tryin' to sell my shirts."
"They're nice shirts," I say.
"Yeah," he says. "Somebody'll buy 'em. Even at $15. But I'd go to $12, tonight."
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I mention that he seems to have recovered from the attack.
"Man, they came up behind me and pushed me down, and I was on top of my bike!"
Little Joe orders a shot of gin and a soda on the side. He does the shot, mumbles something in my direction and heads upstairs. Within four minutes, he and the band are full throttle.
Right on time.