One of the best shows I attended this year featured Genesis Blu, the ambitious, rising hip-hop star whose affinity for the city is so great there’s no room for I, J or K in her alphabet, because it’s all about the H. Some of the city’s most-acclaimed acts, like the alluring chanteuses Say Girl Say and veteran bluesman The Mighty Orq played the event. Hip-hop legend and local statesman Bun B closed the show, which also featured a spirited and cathartic set by Houston punk gods 30footFall. It was easily one of Houston’s best music days of 2017 and it happened at a brewery.
This week, my friend and fellow Houston Press contributor David Garrick penned an opinion piece which suggested the practice of booking live music events in local breweries is detrimental to our music community. I respectfully disagree. I’m not going to take this difference of opinion to Siskel-versus-Ebert levels of eye-bulging, fist-balling vitriol. I hold David’s commitment to Houston music and his knowledge about the industry in high regard. But, I will say, in this instance, he’s as wrong as pairing a crisp Saison with a tin of sardines.
The most succinct and strongest argument for shows being booked into these brewhouses is that they give more musicians more opportunities to present their music to more prospective fans. If you are a musician, the word “more” should matter a lot to you, especially if you’ve ever been on the lean end of the business.
This model of bringing an act to a brewery stage, where it has a built-in but possibly inattentive audience, may seem offensive to someone like David, whom I kiddingly referred to as “Houston music’s Bob Costas” when we chatted online after his piece ran. He’s a purist, who wants to see magic happen from bands in our traditional venues. I get it. I suppose I’m more pragmatic about how hard bands have to work just to get one new Facebook “like” or another Bandcamp follower. I think, if they do their job once given the opportunity, a brewery gig is a good chance for those acts to cultivate new listeners.
I’ll give you an example. Even though I’m a native Houstonian who grew up during the Bud and Sissy era, I’m not a big country music fan. I’ll rarely willingly go to a venue and pay to see a country act onstage. One Friday evening earlier this year, I was at 8th Wonder celebrating the weekend with a cold, tasty Dome Faux’m when The Broken Spokes hit the stage. They were a revelation. With all-pro bassist Nick Gaitan sitting in, they delivered a polished set and skillfully lured me into their brand. And, the setting definitely added to the allure. The music was brilliant but it was enhanced by the fact that it was a Friday night in Texas, I was sitting at a patio-styled picnic table surrounded by affable Houstonians, I had a gal by my side that's hotter than a $2 pistol and I suddenly appreciated the goodness of an honest-to-gosh honky-tonk band masterfully performing its music.
If that happened to me – one person on one given night - how many more music fans has it happened for at brewery shows all over town? You can’t convince me there aren’t lots of beer-chasing millennials who magically got turned onto blues music solely because Karbach and the Houston Blues Society team up for the Love Street Blues Series. The next time you hear a youngish person humming an Elmore James tune, go out and buy a six-pack of Hopadillo and toast the beauty of beer paired with music.
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One knock against shows at these locales is the band is “background music.” The antidote to that problem is for bands to move to the foreground. Play a set that makes the gathered pay attention to what you’re doing. Be so good that you won’t be ignored. Be better than the technical difficulties you might face if your sound engineer at a brewery isn’t that adept (though, I’ll submit, I’ve heard some well-mixed sets at breweries and some poorly-engineered sets at certain local traditional music venues). Accepting the challenge of turning heads from foamy heads of beer to your business onstage is the sort of thing that’s bound to improve your brand.
If we concede that playing these shows is good for acts’ exposure and pocketbooks; and, that listeners may stumble into new music they enjoy; and, that breweries are gaining something from the bookings, then who’s losing out here? The only faction left out might be the traditional music venue. The argument is a music room can’t sell $5 or $10 tickets to a local show if it has to compete with a “free” brewery show (“free” in quotes, since everyone drinking is paying for the beer and the bands are being paid guarantees, in most cases). Today, there are still more traditional music venues and more bands than there are Houston breweries. The same bands that play No Label or Brash or Sigma are playing sets elsewhere. Many times, brewery shows kick off early, at 6 or 7 p.m. A true music fanatic could actually take in these shows and head to one at a music-dedicated venue later in the evening. The concern seems disproportionate to the reality. If I’m wrong about this, I’m sure a venue operator will chime in and we can all learn more about the issue from that perspective.
Finally, there’s this: as music fans, we should advocate for more music, more places, more of the time. My friend David shuddered to think that bands might next be playing to captive audiences at car dealerships and fast-food joints. That does sound horrible and also does not sound like the next logical progression from a brewery show. But, even if a band chose to blast its tunes on a Fiat showroom, who are we to begrudge them that right? To be honest, I’d probably be much calmer signing a 50-month, seven-percent APR loan if the Tontons were there and Asli Omar was cooing gently next to my shiny, new ride.