With due respect to the Hates, Really Red, Spunk, and all the bands that have come before and since, for a certain generation of fans, 30footFALL is where Houston punk begins and ends. Thanks to years of nonstop touring, a string of uptempo albums and high-profile compilation contributions, perhaps no one has done more to spread snotty Houston attitude from coast to coast.
Even those who missed out on the band's late-'90s heyday have heard tell of countless sweaty Christmas shows at Fitzgerald's, where 30footFALL has been holding court every December since the Clinton administration. This weekend, the band returns to its traditional holiday roost in the Heights to celebrate 20 years together. It's a major milestone that few groups reach, particularly in the weird and woolly world of Houston punk.
Naturally, founding a local institution was the last thing on their minds when Rubio Cisneros, Tony Avitia and Butch Klotz met while attending Sam Houston High School back in the day.
"I didn't really think we'd make it to five years, much less 20," says Cisneros, who would soon move from drums to bass. "When we first started out, we worked our butts off; we advertised a lot. We flyered everywhere we could and we put stickers all over everything. Any pay phone in Houston had a sticker on it, any drive-through window. We started building up a little following."
In less than two years, that little following grew to thousands, making the group one of the city's top draws. As the momentum swelled, 30footFALL shuffled its lineup a bit. Avitia left the group to concentrate on I-45, and guitarist Chris Laforge stepped in, lending a new edge to the band's sound. Their 1995 debut, Divided We Stand (Fuzzgun Records), would be a breakthrough for the group, leading to sold-out shows and choice touring opportunities.
"'Divided We Stand' was the first song we wrote as a band together with Chris, and that ended up being one of the songs," says Klotz, the group's fearless front man. "That was really exciting, because things kind of really took off at that time. We were writing a lot and practicing a lot, and started to really care about what was happening."
Outsiders began to take notice, especially the touring acts that 30footFALL was outdrawing in their hometown. A mid-'90s gig with Strung Out led to another break when that band's bassist, Jim Cherry (who has since passed away), placed a call to Fearless Records.
"We played with Strung Out here in town, and he liked us," Cisneros says simply. "He called Bob Becker, who was the owner of Fearless Records, and pretty much forced Bob to sign us. Hearing other national acts tell us how good we were or what they thought about us, I think that was when we knew we really had something."
By 1997, 30footFALL found themselves at the top of a lively, tight-knit Houston rock scene highlighted by the band's unforgettable annual throwdowns at Fitz on Christmas Day. As much a local tradition as the Houston Ballet's Nutcracker Market, the Christmas shows have kept throngs of rowdy fans coming back year after year even as the demands of grownup life have slowed the band's activities considerably over the past decade.
"Originally, Spunk did Christmas at least two years in a row, and it was always a fun show," Klotz says. "I guess we'd been doing the band for about a year when we heard Spunk was not doing a Christmas show, and we said, 'Let's do it.' It turned out to be pretty good; now, it's ridiculous.
"For some reason, the Christmas show brings people out that haven't been out in a long time, or they'll bring their kids," he continued. "It's a good atmosphere. It's not your typical Friday-night show."
Can Houston look forward to another 20 years of 30footFALL Christmas shows? Tough to say. The band is inactive for much of the year these days, with Klotz living and working as a nurse in far-flung Charlottesville, Virginia. As long as the hometown fans keep showing up year after year, though, it's tough to imagine 30footFALL ever disappearing completely — especially for the band members themselves.
"Chris Laforge just sent me a new song via e-mail, and a couple days later, I had lyrics to it and we were both pretty excited about it," Klotz says. "So, you know, who knows what's happening! I'd like to have another album, and now that you don't really need a record label or a lot of money to record an album that you like, it feels likely that we could have one.
"I've got a few songs in my back pocket; Chris has some more," he says. "This one that we just wrote, we were really excited about it. If we can do some more, maybe we will."
30FootFALL's 20th anniversary show, with special guests Bickley, the Smiffs and Skeleton Dick, is Saturday, July 20, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, fitzlivemusic.com. Doors open at 8 p.m.
Only in Houston
Takes All Kinds
Behind a Houston tradition, the open-mike night.
Jesse Sendejas Jr.
It's 9 p.m. on a Tuesday and Andrew Hoskins is tuning his resonator guitar in AvantGarden's courtyard. His buddy, Sean Fink, is running through songs with him on the guitar resting in his own lap. They're talking music, work, kids and beer, and they're waiting.
"So, I've played so many open-mike nights that it's a bit difficult to remember my first one. I believe it was in Las Vegas at my local library when I was in high school," Hoskins recalls. "I probably played some worship song and maybe some emo song I wrote that I don't remember."
Normally Hoskins plays acoustic folk-punk-bluegrass and gets regular gigs in town with his solo act, Radio Flyer, as well as his bands, Spilling the Beans and Stay at Home Mom. Tonight, though, he's one of two dozen local musicians waiting to take the stage at AvantGarden's open-mike night.
"The great thing about such a forum is that everyone comes to see honest expression," he says. "They know that some presenters may go over better than others, but as long as you go out there and share, then you've made a contribution."
For the uninitiated, an open-mike event is an evening set aside by coffeehouses, bars and like-minded venues that gives musicians a forum to play — unbooked and unpaid — for a live audience. The rule is usually first-come, first-served. Sign your name on a list and hope the place doesn't shut down before you get to perform. The venues set the parameters, but it's usually something like three songs or ten to 15 minutes, whichever comes first.
Meet Mike Perkins. Another night, he's busily manning AvantGarden's PA for a classically trained guitarist named Roby Deaton, who was using the open mike to practice for a competition in Canada. Later, Perkins would work a crackling spotlight so it shone just right against a rap act calling itself Love Lifted. His most important job was keeping the evening taut, attending to that list of artists all waiting to perform.
"We're happy to have anybody," says Perkins. "If they have a new song, or something they want to try to play, a new song or a different style, we certainly encourage that."
He too is a singer-songwriter and figures he's played more than 1,000 times at AvantGarden alone over the past 15 years. He has guided the evening's events four years now and says the venue's biggest open-mike success story is probably Robert Ellis. Recently, Perkins adds, talent scouts from the TV reality contest America's Got Talent stopped by to soak in Avant's musical atmosphere.
"People need a place to play," he says. "If you're a singer-songwriter and you're trying to start out, you've got to have an audience to play for. There's got to be an outlet for that, and I try to encourage singer-songwriters to express themselves.
"If there weren't places like this, they wouldn't have a place to do it."
Houston's Top 5 hipster bars and clubs...whatever 'hipster' means.
5. The Petrol Station
985 Wakefield, 713-957-2875, facebook.com/PetrolStation
Featuring craft beers only in a no-frills setting, Petrol Station, cozy as ever, is a favorite of beer enthusiasts. The selection of brews on tap is eccentric and constantly in a state of flux, minus a few staples, and, coupled with a solid kitchen, this former fill-up station is a local favorite for those in the know.
4. Moon Tower Inn
3004 Canal, 832-266-0105, facebook.com/bigweeniestyle
Pretzel buns, sausages and beer...Need I say more? Just outside downtown (though far from the Midtown area) in Second Ward, Moon Tower draws a clientele hungry, thirsty and in good spirits. They'd better be, or else they get charged extra for being jerks. Seriously. Its open-air setup is filled with patio seating, though there is a bit of covering for those looking for shelter from the sun.
3. MKT Bar (Vinyl Night)
1001 Austin, 832-360-2222, mktbar.com
Every Wednesday, this downtown restaurant/gastropub hybrid becomes scenester central as local-music luminaries put on their DJ pants and spin their favorite vinyl records. Sponsored by Heights Vinyl, this is just one of many "theme nights" MKT Bar throws for its customers. As if the drinks and Lebanese pizzas weren't enough reason to visit.
2. Double Trouble Caffeine & Cocktails
3622-D Main, 713-874-0096
As its name suggests, this full bar and coffee shop is a double threat. Espressos are served in polished wooden cups alongside craft cocktails and beers in a swanky yet mildly upscale environment. The Wi-Fi is complimentary, making Double Trouble a great spot to enjoy a cup of joe during the day.
And when the sun sets, patrons can close their laptops, ask for a full menu and enjoy an adult beverage. The brews aren't the only local option, either; the beans, of the Greenway Coffee variety, are too.
1. Bingo in the Heights
1435 Beall, 713-869-5767, lodge88.org
SPJST Lodge 88 isn't a bar per se, but once a week it's inundated by young people, bottles of liquor and pizzas. The venue's popularity has grown exponentially over the past few years, so much so that people show up hours early to secure a spot.
So why not take a walk in your granny's shoes and head into the Heights for some fun? Bingo has become the place to be for young people every Thursday, when tattooed, bearded men bump elbows with AARP members, earning it our top spot.
Ask Willie D
Watch Your Food
An ex-restaurant worker has some advice of her own.
Dear Willie D:
I would like to advise your readers of something. I used to be a waitress at a nice restaurant in Houston, and I actually witnessed the owner of the restaurant spit in someone's food. I've also seen an employee blow snot into soup and pick up dropped food off the floor and put it onto customers' plates. I heard about this type of stuff going on, but not until I saw it with my own eyes did I understand the scope of the problem.
People have no idea how nasty and unhealthy restaurants can be. Because I do know, I stopped eating out altogether. Cops are huge targets. Needy and picky customers can expect a little extra dressing in their dressing.
Likewise, lousy tippers and rude customers almost always get the special-sauce treatment, if you know what I mean. But sometimes a customer can be the nicest, most polite person on earth and still have the misfortune of being targeted or eating food prepared by a cook with open sores on his hand or a prep with a cold who coughed over his meal.
Some people who work at restaurants are just mean-spirited jackasses who will lick your food or spit on it strictly for entertainment purposes. If you're going to eat at a restaurant, I suggest dining at one that has an open kitchen. Even if you can't see your food being prepared, others likely will and you'll stand less of a chance of having your food contaminated because employees know they're being watched. I also think wearing gloves should be mandated, cameras should be required in all restaurant kitchens and monitors placed where customers can see what's going on.
It won't stop the disgusting acts that occur in restaurants, but it will reduce them.
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Thanks for the tip. You just further provoked me to eat home-cooked meals. I accept all the deterrent measures you listed and will raise you one. Tampering with someone's food is already against the law. How about passing legislation to give a minimum $1,000 reward to whistleblowers and hand out drug-dealer-style sentences?
If that happened, when restaurant employees encountered a bad customer or they just felt like being foul, imagine how many cooks and waiters would learn to suck it up rather than spit it out.
Ask Willie D appears Thursday mornings on Rocks Off.