Ah, December, a most bittersweet time of year for the Houston music scene. In most cities, it's a slack time for gigs, both local and national. Not so in Houston. Sure, the big touring acts don't come around, but as for the locals, it's another story. This is the month when many of the richly talented musicians who left town come back home. While they're mainly here to visit relatives, many of them find the time to squeeze in a gig or two.
Here's a short, incomplete rundown. Tom Carter/Charalambides and Greg Ashley/the Mirrors have already passed through town.
Singer Butch Klotz is coming home from the East Coast, and 30footFall is playing its annual reunion gig Christmas Day at Fitz's. Drummer Claudio Depujadas is coming in from Philly to back the temporarily reunited Suspects on December 21 at the Continental. Carolyn Wonderland (paired with Guy Forsyth) comes home to Dan Electro's on New Year's Eve.
Houston local music
The Mucky Duck's calendar this month is positively peppered with prodigal pickers and players. Early '90s pop-rock royals Trish and Darin played there Tuesday (December 18), and upcoming shows include partially or totally relocated former scene stalwarts such as Sisters Morales (December 28) and Clandestine (December 27).
Yet another homecoming show will be at Rudyard's on December 21. This one features Arthur Yoria opening for an as-yet unnamed band comprised of nationally renowned side players including top-shelf local drummer Paul Valdez, bassist John Michael Schoepf of Jack Ingram's band, Kelly Willis/Bruce Robison band member Eleanor Whitmore on violin/miscellaneous strings and vocals, single-monikered Willis/Robison keyboardist Sweney, and guitarist Chris Masterson.
Three-fifths of that band — Valdez, Whitmore and Masterson — are sitting with me in a corner booth at Under the Volcano, along with local recording engineer Steve Christiansen. Christiansen, Masterson and Whitmore (the last two are partners offstage as well as on) are headed to the studio to do some mixing after a quick drink and bite to eat, but they've found the time to talk about their memories of Houston and plans for the future.
Those of you with long memories will recall Masterson as a teenage blues shredder — he started playing out in 1989, when he was all of 13 years old — and as one of the leaders of the blues jams at the Big Easy in the late 1990s. (He says he founded that gathering as a teenager.)
Back then, Masterson's resemblance to the pre-stardom, pre-hippie Johnny Winter was uncanny. If Winter had been dead, you would have thought Masterson was his reincarnation. Each of them is a slightly built guy with milk-white skin, and Masterson also sported the same white pompadour and thick black spectacles that Winter had circa 1965. (Like Winter, Masterson is an albino and legally blind.) And both could absolutely wreck shop on a six-string.
Since his proto-Johnny Winter days, Masterson has undergone a near-complete transformation. He has dyed his hair jet-black and doesn't much play the blues anymore, at least not as such. The vibe he sports on the demos on his MySpace and in his debut solo EP, The Late Great Chris Masterson, finds him serving up twangy roots-pop in the vein of latter-day Steve Earle, the Replacements and Big Star.
Masterson headed to Austin about seven years ago, and with stints backing Bare Jr., Wayne Hancock and Hank III, it has been onward and upward ever since. From 2003 until earlier this year, he toured as Jack Ingram's lead guitarist, riding along as Ingram attempted the transition from Texas music top gun to Nashville superstar.
"I was doing what a lot of people dream of doing," he says. "I was getting a fairly good salary, riding around in a tour bus, and..."
"Playing for the people," chimes in Whitmore.
"Yeah," agrees Masterson. "But at some point, it started feeling like the path of least resistance."
In February, Masterson had enough and took a pay cut to jump ship to Son Volt. "I'm not trying to belittle anything Jack's doing," says Masterson. "But he was a psychology major in college and he knows what he's doing, and we used to talk about this on the bus all the time. He wants to be a superstar, and I want to be a critic's darling. Neither approach is right or wrong, but they are entirely different. But make no mistake about it — he doesn't want to be me, and I don't want to be him. I added a lot of uncertainty to my life, but it was for the sake of music."
Masterson and Whitmore — a scarlet-haired singer and classically trained string-instrument master who was raised in Denton as the daughter of a folk-singing dad and opera-singing mom — also found time to work on their solo careers and a duo project.
The Late Great Chris Masterson, his EP, sparked a rivalry between the two. "Eleanor was getting kinda jealous of all the songs I was writing," he says, to a frown from Eleanor. Masterson carries on oblivious.
"So I went out for the first Son Volt tour, and then when I came home she had five or so new songs written. I think she tried to see and raise me."
"We've done some duo shows, but we've decided not to use a band name," Masterson goes on. "We're side people as it is, so if we picked a band name and then one of us was unavailable to do a show, then we'd have a whole 'nother organization to dig ourselves out of. We really don't need any other parenthetical qualifiers. We kinda need to get our own names."
"Actually," he adds. "We kinda thought of calling the band the Parenthetical Qualifiers."
Masterson says that the anonymous band does already have its pithy critical description, courtesy of an attendee at their day party show at this past South By Southwest.
"It was fun — Steve Earle came and watched," he remembers. "But anyway, somebody said, 'Oh I get it, they are the hipster Buddy and Julie Miller.' I've been called far worse than that. They can make music together or apart. I respect Buddy a lot — he's a great writer, producer and he gets to go play guitar all over the place."
And so has Masterson. In addition to the Rudyard's show, the "Parenthetical Qualifiers" will be playing in Denton and Austin, and then shortly after that, he and Whitmore plan to move again, this time to New York.
"As side people, this is one of the only times we can do our own shows," he says. "The holidays are one of the only times we can get off. Son Volt's done for the year — we'll be dark until around South By, when the music business starts back up. So we're doing these shows and then we're moving to New York."
"This is our going-away party," adds Whitmore.
Masterson says he is thankful to Houston for the blues education — "blues infusion" might be more accurate — he was able to get here as a kid.
"I still pull from the blues really heavily," he said. "That's the thing about growing up here when I did — you got to see Albert Collins every Christmas at Rockefeller's" — this stream-of-prodigals-returning-at-Christmas thing has been going on a long time — "and I got to hang out with Joe Hughes. Me and my dad would go over to Big Walter's apartment and hang out with him and he would cook us biscuits. Even now if I'm looking at a seemingly Britpop kinda song, it's not too uncommon for me to hit some kinda angular guitar licks that harken back to T-Bone [Walker] or Goree Carter."
Masterson felt stifled by the strictures of the blues scene, the demands of the blues purists. "I showed up at Gary Primich's memorial service in Austin a while back, and because I've written a few pop songs, some of the blues people are like, 'He doesn't really play blues anymore.' Bands like that kind of drove me away from blues. I'm just a disciple of music, you know?"
Masterson says that he still gets MySpace pleas from people begging him to come back to the blues. He doesn't see that he ever left. "It's all blues," he says. "Take the Hank Williams box set and the Robert Johnson box set and put 'em side by side and look for the similarities instead of the differences. You've got a Fedora, a small-bodied Gibson, a cigarette and some songs."
I asked him what he thought of Houston today, whether he thought the music scene was better or worse than the one he left behind in the 1990s, and he said he didn't know and put the question to Valdez.
"Probably worse," Valdez replies. "I noticed this year that things had finally gotten better for me, and then I sat and thought about it and realized that I spent about 60 percent of this year on the road."
Masterson and Whitmore say Austin was a decent move for them, even if the city has a vastly inflated sense of its own worth.
"Austin kind of reminds me of Denton in the sense that Denton has this great jazz school at the University of North Texas, and then no jazz clubs," says Whitmore. "In Austin, they call themselves the Live Music Capital of the World, and there's not that much music on Sixth Street."
"The thing about Austin is that it can be a velvet-lined coffin," Masterson says. "The quality of life is great. I do enjoy living there and supporting mom-and-pop businesses. I like the ethic there."
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"But the slacker thing...," puts in Valdez.
"The slacker thing is so prevalent," Masterson continues. "It's like, 'Yeah, we'll get some breakfast tacos, smoke a jammer and go down to the Springs and we might play some music today.' We're going to New York because we want to feel the pressure again."
But in the meantime, Masterson, along with many others, is coming back home to remind us of what kind of music town this could be, if only every month were December.