Here to Stay
While his drummer and bassist vamp solos halfway through his band's first set, guitarist John McVey walks to his amp, takes a long swig of Lone Star, fishes a cigarette from his pocket, lights it, takes a grateful puff, removes his sunglasses and wipes the sweat off his face with a bandanna. It's going to be a long night.
This is McVey's every-other-Tuesday gig at Brittmoore Ice House — "A Real Texas Joint" — in far West Houston. A small crowd of mechanics, truck drivers and small businessmen sip Miller Lite or Lone Star longnecks. It's not the kind of place where you're likely to be offered a microbrew.
Men outnumber women five to one. The main fashion decision seems to be golf shirt or biker T-shirt. On the TV over the bar, Ted Nugent is talking excitedly about a ten-point buck he just killed with a bow and arrow.
McVey ends the song and an enthusiastic drunk at the bar hollers out "Mexican Blackbird." McVey obliges, to howling cheers when he ends the ZZ Top song.
Like many of Houston's blues players, McVey is finding himself busier than ever these days.
"After I quit touring, I tried Austin and played all the blues places over there — Antone's, the Continental, you name it," the cowboy-hatted guitarist explains. "But I kept getting better pay traveling over here to play, so I moved to Houston about five years ago. Guarantees are better here, and I think the audience is more appreciative.
"Anyway, I'm here to stay."
But McVey is also quick to point out that one of the biggest assets for Houston's blues scene is the Houston Blues Society and current president Boyd Bluestein.
The Society is really active," says McVey. "And they've been especially vigorous since Boyd took office. They push hard promoting jams and gigs. And they do a lot of stuff to make it a genuine community for players and fans."
McVey goes on to point out that Houston seems to have a low musical self-esteem versus Austin.
That's completely uncalled for," says McVey, who was a journeyman sideman for 20 years before going on his own. "What really impressed me when I moved over here was how many strong players there are in the Houston blues scene. Believe me, I've lived it, and the Live Music Capital of the World has nothing on Houston when it comes to blues."
Lifelong Houston resident and longtime local bluesman Rick Lee has a bone to pick with the Grammy people, who are considering eliminating the awards' blues category.
"It's like anything with historical value is being cast aside," says the guitar-slinger, who moonlights as an attorney by day. "The whole attitude at the Grammys seems to be follow the big money rather than cherish and promote something that's of true cultural significance."
Although the Grammys may be thinking of deleting the blues, Lee points out that the oft-neglected genre is alive and well in Houston. He reels off a list of long-running blues jams — Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, the Big Easy, The Hideaway on Dunvale — that are seeing bigger crowds than ever.
And these are not old-school Third and Fifth Ward events, but happening in affluent neighborhoods Upper Kirby, the Galleria area and the Heights. Like McVey, Lee is also quick to credit the Blues Society and Bluestein for the current healthy situation.
"The jams are drawing some serious crowds, and good crowds just cause more of the top musicians to come out and participate" Lee says. "Part of that momentum is coming from the regular Blues Society e-blasts about blues events, which helps overcome that short-term thinking we all seem to operate on nowadays.
"The Blues Society is definitely pushing hard to drum up support for artists and to make the blues more visible to the general public, and those are all positives for our scene."
Boyd Bluestein is a medical sales rep by day, and he notes that his stewardship of the Blues Society is truly a labor of love.
"I honestly just do it because I respect the music and the tradition, and I love the people," says Bluestein, whose current term expires in June. "We've got an excellent board of directors, and the other officers contribute significant amounts of time and energy, not just promoting our events but showing up and paying the cover charge and truly supporting the artists and the music.
"And when you look at our mission statement, that's what it's all about," he adds. "We have a very motivated group of officers right now."
The Society officially hosts a jam the last Thursday of every month at Big Easy Social Club, and Bluestein says the crowds have grown significantly on average the past year. Last month's jam brought out many of the city's best players and resulted in some exciting onstage combinations. "Yes, April was certainly special," Bluestein acknowledges. "Nights like that when so many top players come out, we sometimes can't get everyone up."
Bluestein says he tries to get across that "it's a jam, not an open-mike night." "We want to encourage everyone, but sometimes you have to make some decisions," he explains. "The better the players, the better the crowds."
The monthly jams have boosted membership numbers.
"We've got great music going on at the jam and everybody's dancing and having fun, so that's the time to convince people to join the Society and support something they are obviously passionate about," says Bluestein. "We sell Society T-shirts at the jams, too, and that money goes toward osur projects and helping out some of the older guys when they need assistance."
"Houston has an amazing blues history," says Bluestein, "and it's something the people in the Society believe is worth nurturing and keeping alive. It's very much a part of who we are as Houstonians. So few of the first-generation players are left now: Little Joe, Earl Gilliam, Texas Johnny Brown, Jackie Gray, Grady Gaines and Eugene Moody, who is hosting our May jam.
"We want to honor and cherish them, but at the same time, we want to ensure there is a next generation of great Houston artists coming along."
John McVey & the Stumble play Tuesday, May 31, at Brittmoore Ice House, 1535 Brittmoore, 713-932-7797. Rick Lee & the Nite Owls play every Tuesday at The Hideaway on Dunvale, 3122 Dunvale, 713-977-3515.
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