Going for a pee in this ramshackle house turns out to be an exercise. Careening off of walls and fellow attendees, I feel that I'm not so much walking as being tossed by the rollicking, nearly swashbuckling vibe of the room across the sagging frame of the structure. It reminds me of a blues joint in the sandy pinewoods of northern Florida or a Fifth Ward zydeco club or that floating juke joint in The Color Purple. But we're actually on Houston's Near North Side, at a birthday party where Keith Reynolds is playing the piano.
I never do figure out who lives in this place, but the exterior seems to have some remnants of previous tenants' follies. There's a half-built (or half-decaying) two-story doghouse and more than one hand-painted "God Bless America" sign on waterlogged plywood. As for the interior, it has been cared for with a brand-new coat of [spray] paint.
I ease back into the main room to the focus of the night: one dude, one piano. A bit lost in time, this house, this scene, could be anywhere. Which makes sense, 'cause this guy will come to your piano and make your house sway, too. A piano man for all your party occasions, Reynolds is a gun for hire -- on second thought, make that a Howitzer. A stranger to the health club and the hairbrush, he looms over the piano looking imposing, but a smile and a raised eyebrow let all know that we're in for a good time.
"He looks like Rowlf the Dog from the Muppets," says a voice from the crowd.
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"Yeah, a little bit," another agrees. "But with more fur...and menthols."
Reynolds damages the keys and sings. Like his hands, the sound is dexterous and meaty, full-on 88 radiation. Dr. John would approve. Neil Sedaka would squeal and run from the room. Prince would titter. As for Reynolds himself, he would be the first sent home from American Idol. "You sing great," Randy Jackson would say. "But you look uh...uh...uh...not good, dog." Reynolds would go on to win The Gong Show.
Folks in the room snap, clap and shout out titles from his 450-song repertoire, which includes Dionne Warwick, Britney Spears, KISS, Willie Nelson, Peaches, Duke Ellington, both Pat and Debby Boone, Sex Pistols, Bee Gees, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson and Destiny's Child. A trip to the tip jar followed by a grinning grunt from Keith assures your selection's place in the queue.
And he does it wonderfully, as if he had been performing at lounges in the Greater Reno/Sparks area for decades. But Keith is all H-Town: an underground legend from Almeda to North Shepherd, Richmond Avenue to West 34th Street. Songs from his band Slump include "Drugs," "Drugs and Women" and "Life Sure Does Suck It," each done in rather folksy perfect harmony with fellow Slumpist Cathy Power. The Christmas shows that he writes and stars in are reverent, pious and rigorously structured to depict the Scriptures accurately (except those parts where Santa is employing his own North Pole to play his depraved little reindeer games). If you see someone dressed in a bear suit selling original $5 artwork, that's likely Keith. He has participated in six productions of Infernal Bridegroom's Tamalalia. And a film by Keith was screened at the River Oaks Theatre last winter. This latest project flows nicely from his background. He is a talent, practiced but not polished, with wicked humor and barrelhouse boisterousness.
I find Keith for a smoke break, and though I have recently broken my cigarette hand and therefore cannot join him in emphysema enhancement, we chat: I do not care much who his influences are or where he got his start, so we go straight to the heavy stuff.
Houston Press: What's your favorite color?
Keith Reynolds: Orange.
HP: Who wrote the Brady Bunch theme?
Reynolds: Sherwood Schwartz.
HP: Do you go to Astros games?
Reynolds: Yep, sure. Rockets, too. I don't hate jocks, if that's what you're asking.
HP: What's your brand?
Reynolds: Kool menthol.
HP: Breakfast tacos?
Reynolds: Taco truck parked at Durham and 13th.
HP: You should try Roy Laredo on Washington. Okay, darnit, influences?
Reynolds: Peaches, Fats Waller, W.C. Fields. He is not a musician, but...and James Booker.
HP: Who dat?
Reynolds: Piano wizard, New Orleans.
HP: Cool. School?
Reynolds: Music degree, Bennington College in Vermont.
Reynolds: How much money do you have? No, girlfriend, Elizabeth Stuart, actress, hottie.
HP: Cable TV?
HP: Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
Reynolds: SpongeBob SquarePants. I saw the movie.
HP: Correct. Houston or Austin?
HP: Correct. Tell me something about the show.
Reynolds: Um, I play for at least four hours, at the least.
Reynolds: I do smoking or nonsmoking shows.
HP: You are a badass.
Keith Reynolds can be reached and hired at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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