On a Saturday night late last March, a throng of musicians and their various hangers-on convened on the notoriously grimy patio behind The Oven (403 Westheimer). This was "Punkfest," an evening of unhinged musical entertainment featuring Houston's hardest, heaviest and most obscure punk rock bands. This was also The Oven's last waltz.
As word circulated that The Oven would be closing its doors, a full house gathered. With one guy pissing in the corner of the patio, a small group of punks gathered around a stained picnic table to reminisce about the place where they felt most at home. "We're gonna miss it," said Guy Snarl, lead singer for the Guillotines. "It's like a punk landmark."
"It kind of sucks," complained Speed 90 rhythm guitarist Gilboracho. "I used to like to come here and eat meatball hoagies and watch a punk rock show and chill out with all the guys." In true punk fashion, though, not everyone was waxing sentimental. "To be honest with you," admitted Guillotines drummer Freddy Fracture, "I just never really liked playing here. So I don't really care."
The following Sunday, the club was padlocked. Chairs were stacked. Sound equipment was removed. Any inkling that a punk club had been there was being eradicated. The Oven was officially gone.
"It really sucks hard," says Lisa Davis, musician and local punk band promoter. A woman of the punk people, Davis has spent the last year booking bands like the Hazards, the Ballistics and her own Lluvia Dreams in clubs like The Oven, the Engine Room (1515 Pease) and Fitzgerald's (2706 White Oak). Davis claims that while the closing of The Oven doesn't necessarily signal the death of punk in Houston, it may do so in Montrose. "I miss the Westheimer Street Festival -- everything that was on Westheimer," she says. "You could just walk down Westheimer and hear a band, you know? But right now, things are spread out. You got the Engine Room downtown, and Fitzgerald's is on White Oak. Everything's all spread out, you know?"
What exactly blew out The Oven's pilot light remains a minor mystery, especially considering that owner Carlos Cagna, whose whereabouts are unknown, could not be reached for comment. (Hey, Carlos, call me!) But Davis believes that the club's legendary unruliness attracted unwanted notice from officialdom. "[Carlos] said TABC came and closed them down," says Davis. "He's had a lot of problems with TABC recently, with thinking that he's selling drinks to minors and stuff." Finally, Cagna sold out to folks who have turned the once hellacious Oven into a quaint restaurant called The Appetite Repair Shop.
While Fitz's and the Engine Room still offer punks places to perch, many are now starting to head back out to The Axiom (2524 McKinney). The club was considered a punk mecca way back in the day (see "Age-Old Axiom," by John Nova Lomax, March 14), and when the spot reopened last February as an alt-theater performance space, Infernal Bridegroom Productions decided to bring back live music on its off-nights and after plays. "Because The Axiom has a strong history of punk rock, we decided to have bands here as well," says IBP managing director Lisa Haymes.
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Infernal Bridegroom has enlisted the services of a couple of bartenders from Montrose survivor Rudyard's (2010 Waugh) to take care of the bookings and the bar. And although Haymes says the lineup of bands performing at the theater/club is eclectic, she certainly wouldn't mind if the punks began frequenting The Axiom again. Davis appreciates the invitation. "I don't know if it could be what it once was, you know," she says. "But it will definitely be another cool place to see the punk bands now."
But before you punks out there start trying to rock the Axiom Casbah, make sure you tip a little Everclear on the ground and throw a big middle finger to the sky in remembrance of The Oven and all its years of affirmed anarchy. "I'm actually pretty sad about it, you know?" says Davis. "'Cause it's been there for a long time, and it probably could've been a great club. To me, it would've been, like, the next CBGB's."
Why, look who The Nightfly found all dolled up, sampling fine pastries and spinning grooves at Ruggles Grille 5115 (5115 Westheimer, inside Saks Fifth Avenue) on Saturday nights: underground DJs Joe B. and Soul Free. Best known as two of the DJs who drop old-school grooves at the monthly "Starlight VIP" gatherings, the pair also gets spiffed up in their classiest threads to work the decks at the fancy restaurant. And they can't get enough of it. "It's great," assures Soul Free, who still has her Friday-night residency at another snazzy spot, the Ling and Javier restaurant inside Hotel Derek (2525 West Loop South). "It's amazing how this job can have you performing at lots of different places," she says. And it can have you looking not too shabby while you're doing it.