The phrase "Hey, there's this cool little lounge you need to go check out" is not often followed by "it's located right off of the freeway."
You could definitely hear it after "Hey, there's this great country bar you need to go check out," because Firehouse Saloon (5930 Southwest Fwy.), for example, is exactly that. You'll occasionally hear it after, "Hey, there's this one strip club with a girl named Stallion who works there you need to go check out."
But not lounges. Not right off a freeway. Never. Which is why Azul Lounge (9880 Buffalo Speedway), visible from the spot where the West Loop first gets the idea to become the South Loop, appears so dreadful.
9880 Buffalo Speedway; 713-667-1512
In fact, besides its off-ramp proximity, Azul's location doesn't have much else going for it, either.
Less than two years old, Azul lives in a strip center off South Main. Next door is a pseudo-restaurant whose owners thought for a brief time that it'd be a good idea if they called it Mop's Grill. Behind it is a Walgreens, and a goddamn mattress outlet is two doors down.
Ew. All that combined is like gross to the fifth power. Luckily, Azul's surroundings become inconsequential once you actually go inside.
On a recent Thursday evening, people are thoroughly packed inside this tiny corridor, generally appearing to have a grand ol' time. By barely 9:30 p.m., the crowd — mostly young and professional and black, though not exclusively — has blossomed.
By 10:15, the DJ warns those parked in a nearby parking lot that they're about to be towed. By 10:45, the place is all the way full, and stays that way until the end of the night.
In part, no doubt, Azul has become popular because it's put together in a pleasant enough fashion. Those typical strip-center windows are masked over, the seating is simple and nice but not showy, and the house lights are turned all the way down, with muted blue and red bulbs the only illumination.
But tonight, just like every Thursday night for the past six months, the live performers have drawn the bulk of the crowd. Currently, Azul features a rotating lineup of some of Houston's premier neo-soul talent.
Headlining this evening is SYDTHEMAN, whose exceptional croon is matched only by the humor in his songs. One track is a contemporary doo-wop record with the memorable hook "Why don't you move your big-ass head out of my way?"
Halfway through his set, he pulls up Marium Echo, quite possibly the finest vocalist in the state. And after that, he tugs on Tekai Hicks, who has toured with, among others, Beyoncé, Jill Scott and Michael Bublé.
"I love the idea of having a place to see live music in this area," says Annette Holmes, a 24-year-old accountant for a real-estate firm. "I honestly only come here for the live music. The crowd has been great every time, and the men here don't really bother you. They're off with their boys congregating, not really focusing on us ladies."
"I came to see Marium Echo," says salon manager Tiffany Fondal, 23. "I love this place, love that we can see good live music, and I really love that it's free."
How does Azul rate compared to Carrington's (9585 S. Main) and Maxwell's (9255 S. Main), the only other two venues in the area that manage to draw consistent crowds?
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"I lived just a minute or two away from here for three years and never went to either of the other bars," Fondal says. "This is my third time at Azul, and I no longer even live in this area."
In other words, Azul's location has helped make it successful thus far, and has helped it grow its own unique identity. Just a cool little lounge you need to check out...located right off the freeway.
A little more information on Marium Echo, whose ten-minute performance resonated as thoroughly as any live show we've seen this year: This Friday, you can see her perform a 45-minute set at Taft Street Coffee (2115 Taft), with her bassist and drummer as part of Taft's regular Heart and Soul event. Kevin Anderson hosts. She is still a relative unknown outside of the esoteric neo-soul scene, though it's hard to imagine her staying that way for long. Follow her on Twitter at @MariumEcho.