Houston nightlife has characteristic smells. Sure, there's that mingled fragrance of beer, cigarettes, body odor and perfume, but you get that anywhere, except in cities less sweaty than ours, or those namby-pamby metropolises with smoking bans in the bars.
No, I'm talking about aromas more unique and exotic, like the mesquite tang of brisket smoking in a pit, or that eastside miasma of the great polystyrene and benzene stewpots of Pasadena. I'm talking about this year's bumper crop of night-blooming jasmine and its invisible scented clouds. And I'm talking about the sweet smell of liberty, the optimistic aroma of an album release and the sour stench of failure. The first two of those fragrances were to be found at Max's in Westchase on July 11. Unfortunately, the last came billowing out of the Meridian the night before that.
Let's talk about the happy stuff first. Rap-A-Lot Records hosted a dual-purpose soiree out at Max's in Westchase. Hundreds of well-wishers turned out to welcome Z-Ro home after a stint of several months in the Harris County Jail, and also to celebrate the launch of Devin the Dude's new album, To Tha X-Treme. Happy as the vibe was, as midnight approached, the two rappers still hadn't shown. I had other stuff to cover, so I headed out through the weed-reeking parking lot -- where, I was told, the pimpin' was disturbed when shots were fired a few hours later, though no one was hit -- back to the Racketmobile and rode the jasmine clouds downtown.
Which was where things got weird. In this business, when you write about a show in advance, you kinda regard the thing as your baby, so I was attached to the Three Days in Summer event over at the Meridian. What was not to like about a three-night show featuring a cross-genre assortment of 30 of the city's best bands and DJs?
I already had some serious fatherly concerns. The headliners were initially supposed to be Cowboy Mouth and Bob Schneider, but those two proven crowd-pleasers earlier had been dropped from the bill without explanation from the event's promoters -- Richard Tomcala, Brett Foley and, to a lesser degree, M. Martin. Concern turned to outright alarm when I heard that the turnout the first night numbered in the mid-dozens. As I sped north on U.S. 59 in the Racketmobile, the sweet smell of jasmine gave way to faint whiffs of disaster. And as I pulled up to the Old Chinatown club, I could tell by the lack of parking hassles that this was some kind of horrible calamity from which no one would be saved.
That uneasy impression was confirmed once I arrived. There were a few people catching a metal band in the club's small back room, but the Meridian's cavernous main room was a virtual tumbleweed-strewn ghost town. Save for a few depressed-looking vendors, Opie Hendrix's Texas Tall Boys -- who had just finished playing -- and a few of their friends were the sole occupants of the room. And they were all atwitter about a Guy Schwartz-penned diatribe that had appeared in the inboxes of many Houston musicians that morning.
In the e-mail, Schwartz outlined Saturday night's cataclysm. In short, the promoters didn't have enough money on hand to pay the talent, and so they attempted to shut down the show early and avoid paying many of the bands scheduled to go on at the back end of the bill, which included LunateX, Andrei Morant and BMC. As you can imagine, much haggling ensued, and during a heated argument that pitted quite a few angry musicians on one side and Tomcala on the other, a third party announced that the musicians had stolen one of the sound company's turntables from the stage. The police were summoned, and in the ensuing panic and confusion, Tomcala and Martin left. A member of the Brio Kids spent an hour or so cuffed in the backseat of a cop car, accused of swiping the turntable. (At press time, the gear was still missing.)
After that, the soiree limped on for another two nights. The attendance never improved -- of the few dozen who came each night, about half were guest-listed. On the last night of the fest, Schwartz says, the bands pretty much knew they wouldn't be in front of very many folks or get paid, but they went ahead and played, even though they knew they'd be getting "Lozano'd."
"It was almost hilarious," he says. "We were standing around the bar. A band would finish playing and go back to the office to get their money. A few minutes later, they would come out and say something like 'I am now officially among the screwed!' and we would all clink shot glasses." (At press time, few bands had cash, though many had checks they were told to hold for a week.)
This was Tomcala's first show after ten years of staying away from the promotions game, and it was an inauspicious one, to say the least. The question is, how much of it was his fault? The lineup was strong, if heavy on lesser-known though worthy local acts. The heavily attended All-Star festivities were going down a few blocks west, just across 59. This paper chipped in more than one write-up. What happened?
"To say that we thought this show would go better is a considerable understatement," says Tomcala. "It was mind-boggling how few people showed up. We came with enough cash to cover reasonable losses, but this was ridiculous. I never mounted as strong a promotion push for any show in my career."
Martin, his co-promoter on the event, and a man whom Tomcala says should escape blameless from this disaster, disputes Tomcala on a couple of points. He says that Tomcala's view of "enough cash" is somewhat "open to debate" and that his partner's efforts to promote the show were not up to snuff.
"There was a lot of talk about street teams working Main where all the people were for the All-Star Game, but the necessary flyers never materialized," Martin says. "If he thinks this was his strongest promotions push ever, then he's smoked too much ganja and he's forgotten how good a promoter he used to be."
Still, nobody feels like Tomcala or Foley is getting rich at their expense. "Richard is a likable guy," says Schwartz. "You can't call him a crook -- he tries and tries, and sometimes he's a visionary. He was a couple of hundred patrons away from being a hero. He was just too overoptimistic."
A fatal mistake for a promoter, says Martin. "You can't confuse hope with expectation," he says. "And you can never tell anyone you will gladly pay them Tuesday for a hamburger today."
As for Tomcala, he accepts the greatest portion of the blame, though he directs some of it -- justifiably, if self-servingly -- at the fans here. "Once again Houston is determined to destroy itself by not supporting its music scene," he says.
Ordinarily, my nose would detect a more-than-faint aroma of bullshit in that accusation. But sadly, there's a whiff of truth there.
Au Revoir, Willie D
Founding Geto Boy, former radio talk show host and part-time boxer Willie D grew up in the Fifth Ward, and in that notorious northeast Houston neighborhood there's a little district called Frenchtown. It's just a coincidence, but by the time you read this, Willie will have pulled up stakes and moved to the biggest French town of them all: Paris.
"Just a change of scenery, man, just wanna do something different, different opportunities," said the man we'll have to start calling a Garçon Geto. The rapper -- whose full name is Willie Dennis -- is shopping from an assortment of six houses online, but until he settles in, he says, "I'll be living downtown."
Though the move may seem odd to some, the tradition of black American musicians rejuvenating their careers overseas is long. Black American culture moves at warp speed -- you can be a hero one year and a zero the next, and once you're perceived as yesterday's news, you're finished, no matter if your talent and drive are undiminished. Not so in Europe, where bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins found fanatical audiences long after they had been abandoned over here. Dennis now finds himself almost as much a relic as those guys, so he's hoping this will be a shot in the arm for his career.
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"From all indications, that's what I've been hearing; people like music critics, other people that make their livings in music say I'll be, you know, revered out there," he says. "Once I get down there I'll check out the landscape. There's some people over there that got a little wind that I was goin' down there, so I been talking to some distributors and DJs out there. Once I get over there I'll see what it's like -- just like in the U.S., you gotta measure people."
One thing Dennis does not have a measure of is the French language. "Oui means 'yes,' so I guess 'me' means 'no,' " he says with a laugh. "I know how to wave. Wavin's universal. And I know throwin' up that fuck-you sign is universal. Between those two I oughta be all right."
Meanwhile, another Geto Boys album -- featuring the original lineup of Dennis, Scarface and Bushwick Bill -- is supposed to be coming out soon. "You know, I don't know when that album's comin' out," Dennis says. "I just did the record, and I heard that it's comin' out next month, but I don't know. I know it's done. And it's hot."
Another thing he's certain of is that this move to Gay Paree will work out. "I should be all right, you know? I'm not too worried about bein' able to earn a livin'. I think I set up myself here pretty good where I can take care of myself abroad."