Houston's 10 Best Bartenders at Music Venues
Life is sweet for Houston's bartenders when the music and crowds are great.
Photos by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Walk into any music venue in Houston and you’ll encounter many people who are visiting by choice. They’ve paid their cover, bought their drinks and are on hand to support the night’s musical acts. We commend and raise a toast to these people. And we’re able to do that thanks to the bartenders who are hard at work in these venues. Even though they’re on the clock, we felt certain that they too were there in part as music lovers with interesting takes on bands and the fans who follow them. We were absolutely correct.
Their jobs can be challenging, especially when people "forget how to adult" and check their good manners at the door, as some told us. But they all find joy in the work, too. Whether it’s getting the generous tips they deserve, hearing an amazing band from the periphery of an avalanche of drink orders or even just enjoying a late-night/early-morning doughnut, life is sweet for the bartenders we visited with recently.
10. CALIN MURPHY, NOTSUOH
We spoke with bartenders with years of experience and some who are relatively new to the profession. Notsuoh’s Calin Murphy falls in the latter category. Deep-voiced and long-locked, Murphy told us he’s been bartending about four months now at Main Street’s venerable boho bar, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2016. “It’s been really cool, actually. Before I started working here, I really wouldn’t get out to see shows all that often, unless it was something that I really, really enjoyed,” Murphy admits.
“I think that one thing that’s cool about this place especially is it offers a venue for the more unusual performances," he adds. "For example, there’s a band, Snailmate, they sort of have this really glitchy, extreme high-fidelity sound. It really took me off guard. That’s one of the really cool things about working here; you get shows where you’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard anything like this before.’”
Chris LaForge (R) and his brother, Mike, post-show at Eastdown
9. CHRIS LaFORGE, EASTDOWN WAREHOUSE
Before he came to Eastdown Warehouse, at the behest of the space’s manager, Adam Rodriguez, Chris LaForge had never worked for a bar. He had worked in many of them, of course, as the guitar hero of Houston’s long-running punk band 30footFall. Rodriguez correctly identified that someone with so much experience in and around bars would offer relevant suggestions.
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“He asked me to kind of check the place out and tell him what I thought about it,” LaForge says.
So far he’s added subtle changes, like video monitors to showcase the bar’s drinks and to scroll ads for approaching shows. But he’s also added the important intangible of being a musician, someone who knows what visiting musicians desire in a venue, and he books for Eastdown, too.
“Word is kind of spreading around," LaForge says. "This place is starting to build a foundation. It’s been around for over two years now, and the owner finally got Greg [Waligorski, Eastdown’s stage/production manager] and me, and we’re the first who were like, ‘Let’s do this; we need this.’”
Growing crowds suggest the formula is working. LaForge said he’s been in plenty of successful bars and he sees similarities between them and Eastdown more and more.
“I’ve basically been raised in the motherfuckers,” he laughs.
Donna and a thirsty Big Top patron
8. DONNA, SHOESHINE CHARLEY'S BIG TOP LOUNGE
When Pete Gordon opened Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge a dozen years ago, he knew who to call to oversee things behind the bar. Since day one, Donna has been there, cultivating the Big Top’s friendly, relaxed atmosphere. She’s so familiar, she’s not compelled to share her last name and we weren’t compelled to ask it.
“It’s a super little bar," she says. "Pete’s whole vision for the bar was to have a place where customers could come and it was quieter than next door. And then it just took a life of its own. It’s not just a place for people to come get away from Continental Club. It’s got its own crowd that comes in.”
For many years, they were coming in to see specific bands, some which are now Donna’s favorites.
“For several years here, every Thursday, I had Umbrella Man play here and they’re a good band,” she says. “There’s a band that’s coming March 26, Tomar and the FCs, and they’re great; they’re out of Austin. The Ugly Beats play over here and they’re really good, too.”
This particular night, Snit’s Dog & Pony Show is revving things up with the blues standard “Got You On My Mind.” It’s tough to talk over the music, so we pay for our drinks and enjoy the music, like any other Big Top regulars.
“We have a very eclectic crowd that comes through here, but they’re really nice people,” Donna says.
Kayla is ready for a big St. Patrick's Day week at The Gorgeous Gael.
7. KAYLA DODD, THE GORGEOUS GAEL
Kayla Dodd will celebrate her one-year anniversary with The Gorgeous Gael on Friday, which will also probably be the next day she gets any rest.
“Yeah, I’m hoping they give me a present or something," she jokes. "You can put that in the article if you want to."
Only seconds into visiting with her, we could see why Dodd is perfect for the Rice-area Irish bar. She’s gregarious and makes us feel comfortable — key bartender attributes for any bar, but especially one hoping to emulate an old-world pub for native Houstonians and European expats alike. Still, that’s not what got her the job, she said.
“I walked in for my interview and I had a four-leafed clover tattooed on my foot that I got in Dublin, and they were like, ‘Okay,'" she says. "I said, ‘Do you need to get a look at my résumé?” and they were like, ‘No. You’re Irish enough.’”
Dodd says her favorite visiting acts are singer/guitarist Jeff Canada (“He gets the crowd going and, as a bartender, I need you to get the crowd going, that’s what we like,”); DJ Charlie Brown (“He’s phenomenal, he reads the crowd and gives them back what they want,”); and, The Jig Is Up.
“They’re an actual Irish fiddle band,” she says. “They bring in large crowds because it’s really authentic. When people come into an Irish bar they’re like, ‘Give me a Guinness, give me a Jameson and give me Irish music.'”
Kearston helps carry on a family and Houston tradition.
6. KEARSTON McQUILLER, FITZGERALD'S
McQuiller has what some folks used to call a “fresh face,” which is just another way of saying she’s youthful and exuberant. Those qualities are perfect for Fitzgerald’s, which is being transfused once again with lifeblood from owner Sara Fitzgerald and energy from an enthusiastic new management team. McQuiller tends bar at House of Blues' Foundation Room, and jumped at the chance to join Fitz as a bartender last September. Hired by the recently ousted management group, she's stayed on because working at the venue is more than just a job to her — Fitzgerald is her aunt and McQuiller has history in the club.
“I’m glad to be here back with her and see her in charge and everything," she says. "I grew up here. My dad was a bartender here. My grandma worked the box office, so all of our family has been in here. Over the summers I’d come here, I had pigtails, I’d work in the back where they had the grill. I had my 14th birthday here. So, when she leased it to Pegstar, it was like something was taken away from you – you can’t go home anymore."
She's back home now. McQuiller says she favors shows with local acts for a good reason, one that suits a family that's extended its friendship to music-hungry Houstonians for decades.
"With local bands, you begin to see the same faces; you recognize them and get to make those connections," she notes. "At some jobs, you don’t really get that. Being able to be here now, it’s like a blessing.”
Lani's career in bars began with her bussing tables in her father's icehouse when she was just 12 years old.
5. LANI FLORES, LADYBIRD'S
The first thing we learned about Lani Flores is you don’t roll up on her saying, “Hi, we’re here to see Lani” without getting a dubious “Yeah, but who are you?”
Smart girl. Better to be safe with total strangers, even if you deal with them on a nightly basis. Even if you’ll ultimately win them over so completely they’ll return as regulars, as we now plan to. The next thing we learned about one of Ladybird’s best-loved bartenders is she is an avid Houston music fan, with definite favorites.
“I love The Mighty Orq, I think he’s amazing,” she says. “He fills the room and it’s just weird because everyone’s being noisy and rowdy and playing games and whatever, and they just stop because he’s just so dope.”
She calls honky-tonk DJ collective Vinyl Ranch “super fun.” She says Haley Barnes’s voice is “so angelic.” She considers songwriter Tom Lynch “like the male version of Sade.” Whether it’s Vodi, Poor Pilate, Kelly Doyle Trio, The Wandering Bufaleros – which features Ladybird’s owner Taylor Lee and one of Flores’s favorite musicians, Tank Lisenbe – or a host of others, she’s happily able to see and hear everything from behind the bar.
“I think everybody should work in the service industry at least once in their life," Flores says. "It gives you a little more respect for what we do. It’s hard work. It’s a real job, too,” she reminds, with real money to be made doing it. But money isn’t everything.
“I love music, and this whole bar is about music.”
Mike Criss's live-music venue is revitalizing the downtown music scene
Photo by Julie Soefer
4. MIKE CRISS, THE NIGHTINGALE ROOM
Don’t listen to the so-called conventional wisdom that says this is a terrible time to be in music, says Nightingale Room owner Mike Criss.
“I think it’s a beautiful time," he offers. "The record sales of course have dropped, but it forces artists to be independent and get their stuff out there. You have YouTube, you have Spotify, you have social networking, so you can do the work yourself. “
Criss has done the work; in fact, he’s an admitted workaholic. But he’s also an example of the self-made success he’s promoting. He arrived in Houston five years ago by way of Los Angeles to work in the city’s craft-cocktail industry. He felt the music scene needed some new energy to add to the list of usual suspects and opened Nightingale Room last year. When we chatted, he said he’d recently met some Austinites who’d heard of the club, no small feat for a new music venue way outside of Austin city limits.
Criss says he loves music, so Nightingale patrons might hear a mix of Beatles, Kendrick and Led Zeppelin. But what they’re going to hear more and more is live bands. Criss writes his own music and has had it recorded by professional musicians, so he has insight into what’s important to musicians. And one of the biggest things is having a place to play. That’s why, besides known acts who have played the space, like Robert Ellis, Los Skarnales and The Suffers, fans can catch up-and-comers on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. If they do well enough audience-wise, these emerging acts get slated for high-traffic nights.
“We did one night a week the whole first year, we did our Thursday nights, just to try to get the balance," Criss says. "The whole focus was to get five bands a week. On a day like this, it’s a band that’s maybe not so popular. They need a place to play because they won’t get booked anywhere else if they’ve never played anywhere before. We force them to get social media. It sort of injects that ‘You wanna do this for a living? This is what you need to do.’”
Continental Club favorite Mo with the bossman, John "Goodtime" Smith
3. MO McRAE, CONTINENTAL CLUB
Familiarity might breed contempt in some instances, but apparently not when it comes to our favorite bartenders. Mo McRae has been a staple for more than 13 years at the Continental Club, and is a perfect example of how beloved and familiar they become to us.
“I mean, I do go to the grocery store and people are like, ‘Hey! You’re my bartender at the Continental Club!’” she says. “It’s a fun atmosphere. I love working here, I love the owners and it’s neat that all this has kind of grown up around us.”
McRae says more than a dozen years of concerts have yielded some interesting results. She’s learned to read lips, a necessity when taking drink orders in a bar with loud, live music. She wears earplugs because she’s begun to lose hearing, primarily in her left ear, which is the one closest to the stage from her place behind the bar. And, of course, she’s seen some amazing acts.
‘My favorite that I can always recall the most easily is when Alabama Shakes played," says McRae. "They blew me away. We’ll occasionally get those bands, like The Suffers, and I think Leon Bridges is gonna be that way – they will never play here again. They’ll get booked here like too soon and they’ll play probably a couple of small places like us, and then they’re gone.”
Here, McRae moves her hand to mimic something zooming into the stratosphere. As for regularly booked acts, she says, ‘You know, they’re kinda like friends after a while. You see them once, twice a year or however often they come through, and it’s always a good time to see them.”
"It’s pretty awesome to be able to come to work and listen to music all the time,” she adds, even as she stresses spaces like Continental Club are more than just places to hear music. They're workplaces, and not just for the bartenders or club staff.
“After Katrina hit, we got all the New Orleans brass bands and the North Mississippi Allstars – all those bands that didn’t have any place to play," McRae recalls. "So we got all of them coming through. We were trying to help people make a living.”
Scott's a bar owner and musician, and his understanding of both makes Satellite a new favorite destination
2. SCOTT DOYLE, SATELLITE BAR
Every bartender on this list has favorite acts that play his or her bar. And, though they wouldn’t outright say so, there are probably some acts bartenders would rather not have to hear again. No such problem exists for Scott Doyle. He’s the genial fellow doling out excellent beers at Satellite Bar. Because he co-owns the place, he’s got a simple way around this problem.
“Typically, I like to book punk and indie and rock acts, because I have to be here,” he says. “I only try to book bands that I like if I’ve got to be here to listen to them.”
Doyle has been in the Houston music community for more than 20 years, as a musician with his group O’Doyle Rules, as co-founder of House of Creeps and now at Satellite, which has been gaining momentum since its December 2015 opening. Over the next month or so, there are going to be some stellar shows there, including Wednesday’s Burger Records SXSW Caravan show with Thelma and the Sleaze; Japan’s Mugen Hoso; Purple’s album release and more.
Right now, the bar is open only if there’s a show, and there are more and more of those all the time. Doyle said a band that’s played recently that he enjoyed was Frog Hair (“They’re singing out of old telephones. It’s badass; they’re a cool band.”) and one to look forward to is May 12’s A Giant Dog show (“Their singer is like a wild woman; they’re really good garage-rock.”). The summer will begin with a bang when Satellite hosts The Murder Junkies on its farewell tour.
1. [YOUR FAVORITE BARTENDER HERE]
Instead of the customary list of ten, help us round out this one by shouting out to your own favorite music-venue barkeep. We have the utmost respect for these professionals, and surely our readers do as well.
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