No one really hung back by the bar. Everybody was up at the front of the stage, where four scary-looking characters in leather and jeans and a banner bearing the name "L.A. Guns" -- printed inside a skeleton's head inside a police badge -- occupied the available spotlight. Back at the bar, about 40 yards from the stage, a tiny guy wearing a shiny gold sweater and with short curly midnight-black hair accidentally threw an elbow. "Excuse me," he said, before turning around to his plastic drink cups. He hoisted the precious cargo aloft, then ran toward the stage. In seconds, the guy popped up alongside the shady characters. The moment he strapped his bass around his shoulders, L.A. Guns began the first song of its hour-and-a-half-long set at VQ Live, a venue that hopes to have more success than the half-cocked band on stage.
VQ Live, located in the armpit of a strip mall on Scarsdale Boulevard alongside Hong Kong Food Market, Ngog Mai Jewelry and Hoàng Hoa Billiards, was probably the only place in town with a sound system substantial enough for a formidable yet largely forgotten band like L.A. Guns, and also the only place in town willing to host such an act, an '80s outfit whose crotch-rock appeal could practically be bottled and sold as an alternative to Drano.
Kitschy is probably the best way to describe the club and what it represents. Owned by Vision Quest Productions, an entertainment promotion and production company that is a subsidiary of Houston-based Entertainment Technologies & Programs Inc., VQ Live suffers from culture shock. For the past 17 years, ETPI has been producing less-than-marquee entertainment for USO tours, those events Bob Hope made famous in the '40s and that military personnel and brats overseas still look forward to as antidotes to homesickness. Thing is, flattops on military bases are not exactly picky. These captive crowds could be captivated by barking seals; you parade Loverboy, Cheap Trick or the Marshall Tucker Band in front of their malnourished ears, and suddenly these concertgoers are as rapt as New Jerseyans before Bruce Springsteen's scuffed Timberlands.
But in the real world, far away from fatigues and fatuous drill sergeants, Loverboy would have a hard time attracting a roomful of people to piss on them, let alone a club-ful of fans. The only real reason Houstonians would go see acts like these is for shits and giggles and infinite "remember when?" stories. A live venue that lives by nostalgia would seem destined to die by it; the spandex-and-eye-shadow crowd that followed Loverboy or Cheap Trick during their heydays now considers golf and martinis live entertainment, not some club with its roster of aging metal acts still screeching as if their balls just dropped.
So it seems only right that of all the clubs in Houston, L.A. Guns dragged its carcass to VQ Live, a venue smack-dab in the heart of a Vietnamese community and one with a kick-ass sound system yet a stunted estimation of quality -- which seemingly peaked around 1984.
Five years ago Vision Quest became a separate company under the ETPI umbrella. Last year that entity relocated from San Diego to Houston. The city, according to Vision Quest president Jeff Thornton, had all the right criteria: a state with no sales taxes, a nearby body of water, decent weather and a professional football team. (Until Bud Adams got in touch with his inner jerk.) The headquarters are in Clear Lake.
The space where VQ Live now sits was initially intended to be a VQ family entertainment center, replete with video games and other assorted distractions. Construction problems delayed, then killed, the project, according to Thornton. No one had any idea what would happen with the 6,000 square feet of homey interior until ETPI CEO Doug Butcher walked into Thornton's office, hugged him and essentially said, "Jeff, go for it." For months Thornton had been pushing for a live music venue. His $100,000 PA system had been sitting in a shed in San Diego for four years. To Thornton, Butcher's words were like fresh nuts to a barfly.
Last December, after about two months of preparation, VQ Live opened with a weekend of performances by Houston acts Zero Gravity, Face Plant, the Sheila Marshall Band and the now defunct Sonnier Brothers. The club's debut marked Vision Quest's first foray into continental U.S. entertainment. The groundbreaking, Thornton assures in an interview at the club, was not spurred on by the rash of recent military base closings overseas, even if, according to one corporate investor Web site, ETPI earned more than 64 percent of its total revenues in fiscal 1999 from "military entertainment." "It's had no impact," Thornton says. "If anything, it brought people from posts to bigger bases."
The club is band-friendly, and the sound is fantastic. VQ Live houses one of only a handful of major-league sound systems in the area, and the stage, at 16 feet by 32 feet, is roomier than a typical club's, even shouldering an eight-foot by eight-foot drum riser. "I built it with a touring national act in perspective," says Thornton, bright teeth shining, his blond hair in a ponytail. The only complaints, he says, have come from residential neighbors across the street, whose teacups have performed little spastic dances in their saucers from the reverberations.
Which isn't to say everybody else is pleased.
Chris Ray plays bass in the Benny Brasket Band, which performed at VQ Live in early May to about a dozen people, tops. He worries that the club will never realize its potential. "I think they haven't had much success getting people in there. [VQ Live] has great possibilities. They swear they have a sign comin'," Ray says, referring to the strip-mall marquee on Scarsdale that includes the name of every business in the mall -- except VQ Live's. "I've driven past the place three times. And I know this area well."
Attendance numbers for gigs by locals Dave Nevling and the Blues Cats and nationals Twiggy and Ambrosia, sources say, were negligible. "You can point the finger at me," says Thornton, a gregarious guy who knows the music biz, having been a promoter for more than a decade. Thornton has just hired an extra set of hands to flyer record stores, guitar shops, college campuses and parking lots. "I only got X amount of dollars," he says. "I've talked to sales reps. I say, 'What can I do?' They say you got to advertise. I say, 'What can I do?' They say advertise. You know what I mean?"
Thornton is a guy who follows his tastes. He says he pushed for the idea of a live music outlet as a way to push his musical predilections onto strangers, believing, like any connoisseur-turned-promoter, that they would naturally share his tastes. Now he has nearly complete control over who plays when. "I wanted a place I could book bands that I think can do well," he says. His attitude and instincts have been shaped by years of trying to sell bands to military bases and other venues. The process was usually hit-or-miss. Sometimes bases would ignore Thornton's wishes and pass on then-unproven but superior acts like the Black Crowes. Sometimes Thornton would miss promoting soon-to-be superstars like pre-"Achy Breaky Heart" Billy Ray Cyrus. Having his own venue allows Thornton absolute reign. Almost.
Richmond Strip mogul Dennis Lange has been helping land bands since day one, an arduous undertaking. "I'm glad Jeff opened it," says Lange, who books about 80 acts per week throughout town and is planning to expand his company, Dennis Lange Promotions, into Austin. "It's just another outlet for acts that don't normally play anywhere coming through. But it's hard to get a new place going in that locale. It's takin' quite a hit."
Lange and Thornton appear to be on the same wavelength: The majority of bands that have played VQ Live are -- though decent and in some cases, like L.A. Guns, excellent -- of the bad-hair-metal-arrested-development-white-male variety. Brian Howe, formerly of '70s rockers Bad Company, performs later this month. Zakk Wylde, ex-Ozzy Osbourne guitarist, plays in early July, and son of Satan King Diamond gigs in late August. Thornton is also personal friends with Howe, the relic who replaced Bad Co. icon Paul Rodgers and on whose behalf Thornton excitedly argues, "Same as the new guy in Journey." (Journey has a new guy?) "Everybody says he's not Steve Perry. Well" Thornton begins laughing, unable to believe the gall of some people. "Same as David Lee Roth. He leaves. They're still Van Halen." Then Thornton says declaratively: "Brian Howe. Is the voice. Of Bad Company."
"But I don't want to be a dinosaur club," he continues. "It isn't a classic-rock or heavy-metal club. I know we've gone in that direction, but I gotta get ahold of the steering wheel. We'll host whatever makes sense," including local, non-bad-hair-metal acts like Global Village and Benny Brasket.
But getting national alternative acts like the Flaming Lips, which played VQ Live a few weeks ago, is costly or, at least, doesn't make good business sense. "There's the rub," he says. "And so many of 'em are here today, gone tomorrow."
Vision Quest, according to Thornton, is planning to open VQ Live clubs in at least four other spots around Texas. He does not know exactly where yet but believes each club "will have the same footprint as this," he says. "It's like McDonald's. A McDonald's is a McDonald's no matter where you are."
If the first VQ Live is any indication of things to come, the venue isn't all Grade D beef. The club, with its red-on-black color scheme, is a clean, phosphorescently lit place. Either because it isn't old enough yet, or because the clientele is more interested in watching performances than partying, VQ Live is just about the most pristine club-cum-venue around; its walls and floors have yet to reveal the effects of repeated use. The neon Bud Light alligator behind the bar hangs in a perfect horizontal line. The black throw rug inscribed with "VQ Live" shows no signs of abuse or cigarette burns. The autographed guitars hanging from the walls are free of smudges. The bar stools, tables and pool tables are immaculate.
"People don't come here 'cause it's VQ Live," says Thornton, who admits he isn't sure what the club's overall identity would be. "They come here 'cause of the L.A. Guns."
But Thornton wants to change that; he wants to create a destination club, like a Hard Rock Cafe or a House of Blues, a place people frequent even when the marquee boasts an unrecognizable name. "When people don't know what to do, I want them to say, 'Hey, let's go to VQ Live. The music's always good there.' "
The new clubs, says Thornton, also plan to carry on in the Vision Quest tradition of providing for the entertainment-deprived. "We're not sure where yet," he says. "There are two beliefs: One says we open clubs in Austin, Dallas, College Station and San Antonio. But there's another side that says those places are already overfed. Why not go to where people are starved? Midland, El Paso. That's my belief, but there's got to be studies."
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On the surface, it's hard to say how starved people along Scarsdale are for live music. The only nearby clubs that host live entertainment are a couple of sports bars, places not necessarily known for their hospitality to original music. To hear any act of note, folks near Scarsdale would probably have to migrate as far north as downtown Houston.
"Every show, I'm getting to learn [the audience]," says Thornton. "Only a certain number of bands we can book here. Up-and-comers, or -- I don't want to use the word 'has-beens,' but -- bands that have had their day in the sun and that a lot of people want to see. I figure we live in a city of, what, four million? All I need to draw is 500 people."
Nearly that many turned out for the L.A. Guns show: a coterie of silicone blonds in open-toe heels and napkin-size skirts; a biker tough sporting a T-shirt that explained in bold lettering "IF YOU CAN READ THIS THE BITCH FELL OFF" on the back; a chunky fellow in a black stovepipe hat, with long curly hair and a black vest, whose cocky carriage resembled that of the real Slash; a big bald dude wearing a "Satan's Child" T-shirt. These were the folks that disappeared from the bar, which served drinks in only plastic cups -- no bottles -- and headed for the stage once Tracii Guns and most of his L.A. band appeared; Muddy, the bass player, was retrieving drinks at the bar, remember. "Whadda you got for me, Houston," cried lead singer Phil Lewis after a song. Everybody roared. It sounded like a cast of thousands, screaming for manna.
And where hungry mouths are begging for food, you know Jeff Thornton will be around with his loaves of stale bread.