Walking the streets of downtown on Monday night, I hear the classic sounds of Inner Loop, big-skyline living: the beep-beep of Metro's money pit, a homeless straggler asking for change.
But there are new sounds these days: the exhilarating sounds of violently strummed guitar chords, the crashing of cymbals and the thud of the bass. These fresh frequencies are coming from inside the walls of Clark's (314 Main) where the Woodlands twosome O! Pioneers is plowing aggressively through its set. Admittedly, there's nothing new about a two-piece band (see White Stripes, Immortal Lee County Killers, the Kills, Lightning Bolt, Death from Above 1979, Hella and Junior/Senior, to name a bare sliver of 'em), but one performing original content on the newly refurbished party-hearty blocks of what's being called New Main Street, where the DJ reigns supreme, is invigorating.
Chris Ryan and Eric Faucette are the men responsible for booking tonight's live acts. (The Kants round out the bill.) In August of last year, Rap-A-Lot studios, where the two manned the boards as engineers, closed up shop and the boys faced the unenviable task of hauling their hefty recording gear elsewhere. Over the course of their tenure at the famed studios, they'd come to work with a few industry hot shots. One such was Lee Williams, a guy responsible for producing some of the work that should make you proud to be a Houstonian: Slim Thug, Devin the Dude and, um, some group called Geto Boys. (He's stained a few Ludacris and Ashanti tracks with his production paws, too.)
Williams liked Faucette and Ryan and wanted to help them with their dilemma. He knew some people that knew some people, and soon the knob-twiddling twosome met Toby Wister, owner of Clark's. It just so happened that Wister was looking to open a studio inside his club during its off hours and, well, you don't have to be a card-carrying member of Mensa to figure out the rest.
Now that the studio is up and running smoothly with countless bookings -- Bring Back the Guns, the Jonx and Ghost Shark have all logged time -- Ryan and Faucette have donned the caps of show bookers and promoters as well, in an effort to bring original content back to Houston's downtown nightlife.
They're not alone. Aside from Clark's offering of original live acts on both Monday and Wednesday, the Mercury Room (1008 Prairie), a longtime haven for the jet set, is trying its hand in the rock game as well, staging original acts every Thursday. It's a different experience to sit in the high-end confines of a club Playboy called "one of the nation's ten best" and listen to the sounds of Pinche Gringos or Houston Press award-winners Silverleaf, but it's also what makes the night worth checking out.
Those who don't want to go out on school nights are covered, too. The Speakeasy at 110 Main, or about as No as Do can go, provides your fix Fridays and Saturdays. You can watch as Houston punk stalwarts the Hates "Oi!" it up one weekend and blush while rotund R&B crooner You(genious) dispenses lollipops to the ladies in the crowd the next. It's a refreshing twist in an all-too-predictable downtown club scene.
Speakeasy show booker Trey Cavazos says he and owner Kyle Mason wanted to create a different kind of place downtown, one that didn't chase the almighty dance dollar. "We always intended to shy away from the velvet-rope thing. The whole $15-cover-exclusive-VIP thing has been done to death down here. We're trying to create an atmosphere that everyone can enjoy. You can sit back, listen to some live music, play some pool."
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Business was slow at first but has now picked up. An end to construction on Commerce and an additional 40 metered parking spots less than a block away have helped, as has word of mouth about the club's unique mission.
Cavazos mentions that a band playing its own material is something else he and Mason see eye to eye on. "We already have a Richmond Strip," he says coyly, referring to that slowly dying Wretched Land of the Cover Band.
(Another haven for live original music is Red Cat Jazz Cafe, 924 Congress. It's been serving up original music and Cajun food seven nights a week for years. And the talent there is stellar.)
What's next for Houston's newly bricked blocks downtown is anyone's guess. It won't be Austin's Sixth Street anytime soon, but with new owners moving into the corpses of clubs that have died chasing the finicky foot-mobile club hopper, maybe a larger focus on rock is just around the corner. Our own Houston Press Music Awards Showcase has proved that live music can work in our downtown streets. Thank goodness a few clubs are discovering it on their own.